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Things that Ken Holland should and shouldn’t do, as Free Agency Day approaches

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Photo credit:https://twitter.com/EdmontonOilers
NHL_Sid
4 months ago
The 2022 NHL Draft concluded on Friday, and we’re currently four days away from Free Agency.
It’s been an eventful few days for Edmonton, with the Zack Kassian trade on Thursday, while it was officially announced on Friday morning that defenceman Duncan Keith has decided to hang up the skates after 17 NHL seasons.
With Keith’s retirement and the Kassian trade, Edmonton has a total of $14.2M in cap space. With Oscar Klefbom and Mike Smith placed on LTIR, Edmonton would have $20.6M in total cap space.

Now, the lingering question is what GM Ken Holland will accomplish with this cap space. 
Without further ado, here are some of my personal thoughts on what Ken Holland should and shouldn’t do at this point of the off-season.
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Ken Holland should:

Trade Tyson Barrie regardless of Duncan Keith’s retirement

Per Daniel Nugent-Bowman, Keith’s retirement lowers the odds of a Tyson Barrie deal. Assuming this is true, this is a confusing thought process for Edmonton.
Firstly, I see no correlation between Keith and Barrie. The departure of a left-defenceman should have no impact on the future of a right-defenceman. Regardless of Keith’s status, Barrie’s role wouldn’t change on Edmonton’s roster.
Furthermore, with Evan Bouchard and Cody Ceci ahead of him on the depth chart, Barrie is projected to be a third-pairing defenceman with a $4.5M cap-hit, which is simply unideal.
For obvious reasons, Barrie is also redundant on the roster due to the presence of Evan Bouchard; both are offensively-inclined RDs with the ability to quarterback a power-play, but Bouchard is evidently younger and the superior player. That $4.5M in cap space could be utilized on other roster needs and a much cheaper and affordable 3RD.
Consequently, Keith’s decision should have no impact on the fact that Barrie is currently an expendable asset that Edmonton should be actively shopping.

Sign Brett Kulak at his asking price

Per Mark Spector, Brett Kulak’s minimum asking price is a four-year contract worth $2.5M. If this is true, the contract should have already been signed.
I wrote an in-depth analysis on Kulak several weeks back, and Kulak is a strong defensive defenceman, with the ability to effectively defend the rush. By a notable margin, he’s Edmonton’s best entry defender, ranking first in zone denials per hour and zone denial%, while allowing the fewest number of entry chances per hour on the defence core. Kulak excels at closing gaps, and breaking up odd-man rushes.
Many have questioned if Kulak is merely an option on the third-pairing, or if he could achieve success in a top-four role; I believe he does have the capabilities to do so.
Re-using this from my previous analysis of Kulak, PuckIQ splits quality of competition into three tiers; Elite, Middle and Gritensity. Kulak has posted a positive goal and dangerous shot differential against elite opposition in each of the prior four seasons, relative to the team.
In total, Montreal and Edmonton have out-scored elite opposition 51 – 41 with Kulak on-ice in a combined 1057 minutes in the past four seasons. This sample-size is certainly strong enough to deduce accurate conclusions. I believe Kulak has a high chance of thriving in a 2nd pairing role alongside Ceci or Bouchard.
Especially with Keith’s retirement, it should be an obvious decision to re-sign Kulak. $2.5M is a perfectly reasonable price for a defenceman that should be able to reliably rotate between 2LD and 3LD.

Prioritize goaltending, but additionally, pursue a strong finisher

In four games against the Avalanche, Edmonton allowed 22 goals. At 5v5 in the regular season, Edmonton ranked 19th in the league in goals allowed per 60.
Consequently, for Edmonton to achieve a cup-contending roster, limiting goals against should be the most significant priority. This begins with good goaltending.
Darcy Kuemper ranks 4th among all goalies in Goals Saved Above Expected in the past four seasons. In spite of below-average performance in the (limited sample) post-season, Kuemper is a strong goaltender, when he plays; Kuemper’s discouraging injury history is a concern, but he remains a fine target nevertheless. Jack Campbell is inconsistent, and an inferior goaltender to Kuemper, but he’s younger, likely cheaper, and less injury-prone. I still lean towards Kuemper, but both him and Campbell come with various risks. 
Edmonton could also acquire a cheaper veteran goalie, such as James Reimer. They could use him in a tandem with Stuart Skinner, instead of taking risks on pricey contracts for Kuemper / Campbell. This would be a much safer route.
Alongside goaltending, Edmonton should also utilize their cap space to acquire a strong finisher.
Outside of Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton scored 155 goals on 166.1 expected goals at 5v5; in other terms, the current roster lacks quality finishers aside from Draisaitl.
Edmonton ranked ninth in the league in 5v5 goals per hour this season, and seventh under Jay Woodcroft. This is still a high ranking, but for a team with McDavid and Draisaitl, the team should push for top two or three, and acquiring a finisher would be the best way to achieve this.

Ken Holland shouldn’t:

Unnecessarily pursue physicality due to Zack Kassian’s departure

Considering the Zack Kassian trade, Holland may feel the urge to target big physical players. He shouldn’t feel any requirement to do so.
I feel that physicality and hits in hockey have the potential to be a significantly beneficial trait, or useless in regards to winning hockey games. Some players utilize body-checking to forecheck effectively, disrupt exits, force turnovers, deny zone entries, etc. Physicality can be an exceedingly valuable trait when applied correctly. However, my primary issue lies with players that are on-ice liabilities and essentially do nothing but hit.
Some physical players that have been mentioned on OilersNow include Nicolas Deslauriers, Nikita Zadorov, and Erik Gudbranson. On the bright side, Zadorov is a solid asset.
He’s strong defensively in the role he plays in, ranking first among Calgary defencemen in goals allowed per hour in 2021-22, and in the 92nd percentile in suppressing scoring chances the past two seasons. He utilizes his physicality to effectively deny the blue-line, as he’s a solid entry defender. I’m fine with him as a 3LD option, although he shouldn’t be a 2LD replacement for Keith.
However, I’m certainly not as fond of Deslauriers. 
Deslauriers posts a large number of hits, and dumps the puck at a high rate, but he’s an offensive liability that doesn’t score, forecheck, skate, or defend well at 5v5 or on the PK. Acquiring him won’t massively weigh down the team, but Edmonton should simply not target replacement-level assets for the sake of inconsequential physicality. His hits just don’t accomplish much with respect to winning hockey games.
OilersNow host Bob Stauffer has mentioned that Deslauriers could obtain a four-year contract worth $2M in free-agency, which would be an immense error.
Gudbranson is also a fairly ineffective two-way player at 5v5, and is abysmal at suppressing quality in-zone chances. I’m not a fan.
I’m entirely on board with pursuing effective physical assets, but not “gritty” players that merely hit and are on-ice liabilities otherwise. Edmonton’s top priority should simply be to target good players first.

Sign Evander Kane at $6-7M and/or long-term

As mentioned here, Evander Kane could receive a six-seven year contract at $6-7M. Hopefully, Edmonton doesn’t utilize the cap space that they just obtained to sign Kane at a similar price.
Kane has always been a strong goal-scorer, but his shooting percentage in the regular-season (14.5%) and playoffs (22.4%) were at career-highs. His totals were certainly inflated to an extent.
Signing Kane to an exceedingly lofty contract is the exact same type of decision-making and thought process that resulted in the Zack Kassian contract; over-paying for a heater alongside Connor McDavid. Kane also turns 31 in August, an age at which many forwards tend to decline.
As I wrote in a piece several months back, his value apart from scoring goals is additionally a concern. He’s poor defensively, inefficient in transition, and a fairly poor play-maker, as his high-danger passes and primary shot assists per hour rank in the bottom third of the league.
Kane is undoubtedly a talented and valuable goal-scorer, something that Edmonton needs, there’s no argument there.
However, paying him $6-7M would be a massive error, and Edmonton should utilize that money on cheaper and more well-rounded forwards. A long-term contract would also cause several casualties, as Evan Bouchard is poised to have an excellent offensive campaign, and they must prepare for his potential contract next off-season.

Trade Jesse Puljujarvi

Puljujarvi isn’t perfect, but he brings more value to the Oilers than counting stats indicate.
After all, he led the entire team in expected goal and shot differential at 5v5. With Puljujarvi on ice, Edmonton outshot the opposition by a ratio of 619 – 471, while the expected goals placed at 55.1 – 37.8
Of course, many of his critics have argued against the value of expected goals, claiming that Puljujarvi’s supposed value only comes from “projections and expected stats.” However, this is a false claim, as Puljujarvi also led the team in actual goal differential. 
With Puljujarvi on-ice, the actual goals were 51 – 28 in favour of Edmonton, resulting in an outstanding actual goal share of 65%. Contrary to popular belief, his goal differential was actually superior in the second half of the season, in which he posted a 73% goal share.
Still, there’s the argument that Puljujarvi is merely a beneficiary of playing alongside Connor McDavid, but this isn’t the case either. Puljujarvi is Edmonton’s only player to post a positive actual and expected goal differential when playing away from McDavid, as noted here by Jonathan Willis of The Athletic.
Furthermore, essentially all of Puljujarvi’s linemates produce at superior rates with him, as opposed to without him.
McDavid scored at a rate of 2.9 points per hour with Puljujarvi, and a rate of 2.4 points without him. Draisaitl scored at a rate of 3.0 points per hour with Puljujarvi, and 2.3 points per hour without him. Nugent-Hopkins scored at a rate of 3.4 points per hour with Puljujarvi, and just 1.3 points per hour without him (all stats at 5v5). All of them significantly improve defensively with Puljujarvi as well.
In fairness, most of Puljujarvi’s critics state that Puljujarvi is an awful finisher, and quite poor with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone; they would certainly be correct here. As seen by the player card above, Puljujarvi’s offensive zone play-making ranks in the 30th percentile; put differently, 70% of the league’s forwards are superior play-makers in the OZ.
Puljujarvi doesn’t make a high volume of quality passes in the offensive zone, largely due to the fact that his puck skills are poor. The creativity and skill are simply absent. Relative to the chances he obtains, he’s also an abysmal finisher. These are highly unpreferable traits for a player who consistently rides shotgun with Connor McDavid.
However, he still achieves elite on-ice results due to his excellent play without the puck. Puljujarvi ranked eighth in the league last season in forecheck pressures per hour, as he excels at disrupting zone exits and forcing turnovers. Puljujarvi also ranks high among Edmonton’s roster in successful zone exits, puck recoveries, and defensive-zone retrievals. In the post-season, he ranked first among all Edmonton forwards in defensive-zone breakups.
All of these factors lead to exceptional defensive results. Puljujarvi was on-ice for 28 goals against in 930 5v5 minutes, equating to a goals-allowed per hour of 1.8. This is the best GA/60 an Oilers forward has held over a sample of 800 TOI since 2007 (!). Put differently, no other Oilers forward is on-ice for a lower rate of goals against.

If Edmonton desires to improve overall defensive play and limit goals against, trading Puljujarvi is completely contradictory to that objective.
Furthermore, Puljujarvi still drives offensive scoring chances and goals in subtle ways. His forechecking and zone exits lead to sustained offensive zone possession, and he’s a strong net-front presence, ranking 2nd among Oilers forwards in net-front chances (rebounds + deflections + tip-Ins). With his 6’4 height, he’s additionally an effective screen, and creates tons of space for McDavid. A perfect video example is linked here.
The league-average second-liner produces roughly ~42 points over 82 games. Puljujarvi was on pace for 45 in 2021-22. This means that Puljujarvi is a 24-year-old asset with second-line production, elite performance away from the puck, and his linemates all improve with him on-ice. 
No one is arguing that his puck skills are acceptable, because they aren’t. He has evident deficiencies, and he must improve upon them. He has to capitalize at a higher rate on his chances. 
However, he remains a valuable player that Edmonton could regret trading, and these deficiencies are definitely improvable. Puljujarvi has the versatility to play up and down the lineup, and is an excellent top-six complimentary forward for Edmonton’s stars. The objective of hockey is to win games by out-scoring the opposition, and that’s exactly what Puljujarvi helps his team achieve, even if he doesn’t always look flashy while accomplishing it. 
His cap-hit is likely going to lie around the $3M range, a fairly reasonable and affordable price. Combine this with the fact that he’s merely 24, his reported trade return is unimpressive, and the fact that Edmonton has no other NHL right-wing under contract aside from Yamamoto, and there just isn’t much sensible reason to trade him.
I strongly hope he remains on Edmonton’s roster in September, but his departure nearly seems inevitable at this stage. If this truly is the end of Puljujarvi’s tenure in Edmonton, I wish him the best of luck wherever he goes.
 
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