What’s next for the Edmonton Oilers?

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
The first two days of free agency have passed, with numerous signings throughout the NHL.
For the Edmonton Oilers, they haven’t been the busiest team in the league, but they’ve made several moves this off-season.
The first (and only, so far) trade the Oilers made this summer was with the Detroit Red Wings, trading Kailer Yamamoto and Klim Kostin’s rights for future considerations. Detroit then bought out Yamamoto, while they signed Kostin for two years at a $2M AAV. As a UFA, Yamamoto recently signed a one-year contract with the Seattle Kraken.
In a perfect world, it would’ve been preferable to receive an asset back, but it’s a fine move as a pure cap dump. Yamamoto had little trade value, and his departure was inevitable, while Kostin’s camp simply asked for too much. After signing Zack Kassian to a four-year deal, it’s an encouraging sign that Ken Holland seemed to learn a lesson about not overpaying players after a shooting percentage heater. 
On July 1, Edmonton signed Connor Brown to a one-year deal. His contract will count as $775K against the cap in 2023-24, with a potential $3.25M in performance bonuses. If Brown plays 10 games with the Oilers, the full bonus will kick in. The team’s final cap hit, plus the potential bonuses earned, subtracted by the $83.5M cap ceiling, will be an overage that carries over and counts towards Edmonton’s cap in 2024-25.
For me, the bonus structure isn’t too appealing. My initial assumption was that the bonuses would be performance/production-based (i.e. Brown would get a bonus for hitting 20 goals, for example), but it’s entirely based on games played, and it’s nearly guaranteed that Brown will play 10 games with the Oilers barring unforeseen circumstances. While the cap will increase next off-season, the bonuses that carry over will take away from that.
That said, the Oilers essentially signed a top-six winger for the league-minimum, which is incredible value for this season. This move maximizes their ability to improve their roster this year. Other options were more expensive, and Brown is a perfectly good player in his own right.
Brown only played four games with the Washington Capitals last season due to an ACL injury, but he has a history of solid 5v5 production
Additionally, from 2020-21 through 2021-22, Brown averaged 11.3 scoring chance assists per 60 and 1.7 high-danger passes per 60 (per AllThreeZones). These rates would rank 3rd on the Oilers, only behind McDavid and Draisaitl; he’s a sneaky good play-maker, much better than given credit for. Brown is also a strong transitional forward and forechecker.
Overall, he’s a strong offensive winger, and I’m quite confident that he will be an upgrade on Yamamoto. For a more in-depth read on Brown, here’s an analysis of him that I wrote last week
Edmonton made a couple of other signings, but they’re primarily depth pieces or players for Bakersfield. They include Lane Pederson, Ben Gleason, Noel Hoefenmayer, and former Oiler Drake Caggiula. Both Pederson and Caggiula have rotated throughout the NHL and AHL in their past few seasons, and I expect them to either play on the top-line in Bakersfield or compete for the 13/14th forward spot for Edmonton. Barring significant injuries, Hoefenmayer and Gleason will spend the vast majority of their season in Bakersfield.
With all of that in mind, what’s next for Edmonton this off-season?

Edmonton reportedly still looking for a 4C

In his press conference on Saturday, Ken Holland mentioned that he would like for the Oilers to add another center. Edmonton dealt for center Nick Bjugstad from the Arizona Coyotes at the trade deadline, but Bjugstad re-signed with Arizona for two-years at $2.1M. Edmonton simply couldn’t afford him at this price.
The Oilers have 9 of their regular NHL forwards from last season, plus Connor Brown, and there’s a good chance Dylan Holloway and Raphael Lavoie will start the season on the NHL roster. They could use another depth forward for the bottom of the lineup. 
Personally, I don’t see any necessity for this depth forward to be a center. They have five players with plentiful experience at center at the NHL level (McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, McLeod, and Ryan). Although he spent significant time at RW this past season, I think Ryan is still capable as Edmonton’s 4C, and I’m a fan of Edmonton’s 11F/7D set-up, in which McDavid and Draisaitl double-shift as the fourth-line center.
Still, if Edmonton is adamant about signing a depth center, there are some UFA options available. Here’s a list of some potential options with decent 5v5 production rates and/or strong defensive results:
*Note: Heinen and Asplund don’t take much faceoffs, but are officially listed as centers
The Oilers seem to be leaning towards a RHC, but I would be satisfied with any of these players. There’s also an outside chance that Pederson receives an opportunity at 4C.

What about the defence?

Oct 27, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) skates with the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
As of now, it seems likely that the Oilers will run it back with the same defensive core for next season. I’m not a fan of this decision, and it comes with some significant risks.
The major one is keeping Cody Ceci in the top four. A couple of weeks back, I wrote all about how the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing struggled throughout last season, and how they were a major reason for Edmonton’s downfall against Vegas. When a team allocates $12.5M to a defensive pairing that is consistently out-scored at 5v5 in both the regular season and playoffs, they’ll have a difficult time winning a Stanley Cup.
Now, there were reports that Ceci battled a core injury throughout the season. He played quite well following Woodcroft’s arrival in 2021-22, and considering that he battled injuries this past season, it seems fair to grant him another chance.
That said, his performance in the second half of 2021-22 may have simply been an unsustainable outlier, as his results throughout his career have never matched that level. Furthermore, Ceci is simply not a stylistic fit with Nurse.
Nurse’s greatest strengths are his ability to carry the puck out of the zone in transition and retrieve opposition dump-ins under pressure. What Nurse needs to excel is a defensive partner that can effectively pass the puck out and defend the rush. Unfortunately, even in 2021-22, Ceci was an average rush defender at best, and an unexceptional breakout passer throughout his NHL career. 
Even if Ceci is 100% healthy, I have my doubts if he’d be a solid fit for Nurse.
On OilersNow, Bob Stauffer suggested playing Philip Broberg at 2RD with Nurse, as the Oilers would like for Broberg to play more minutes. However, I have some qualms with this idea as well.
Broberg is naturally a LD. He seldom played on his off-side in North America, and he didn’t thrive at RD in Sweden. Playing consistently against top NHL competition on his off-side is a big ask for Broberg. Not to mention, in terms of stylistic fit, neither Nurse nor Broberg are strong breakout passers. Both players often like to carry the puck out of the DZ more, so I think it’s unlikely they fit well alongside each other.
For Nurse to play at his best, I believe he needs an established, quality RD. My assumption is that the Oilers will pursue defensive help at the 2024 Trade Deadline if Ceci or Broberg can’t effectively play at 2RD, rather than looking for an upgrade this summer.

The Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod contracts

In my opinion, Edmonton’s biggest priority this off-season should be Evan Bouchard.
In a perfect world, Bouchard is locked up long-term. Oilers fans have seen the consequences of bridge deals first-hand with Darnell Nurse. 
However, the most likely scenario for Bouchard is a one-year deal, which may not be a wise idea. After a full season on Edmonton’s top power-play unit with McDavid and Draisaitl, it could be quite difficult to afford him next season. While there would be a cap increase next summer, Brown’s potential bonuses would take away from it, and that cap bump could mean Bouchard’s ask is even higher.
In my opinion, a 2-3 year contract seems like the best option. At the very least, his deal should expire around the time of McDavid and Draisaitl’s contracts, as that’s their ideal cup window. It would also mean Bouchard takes less money as opposed to a long-term deal, meaning the Oilers have slightly more space to improve the rest of the roster.
It’s still risky, and Bouchard’s ask after that contract expires would likely be enormous, but it may be the best way to maximize their current cup window. Next year, the Oilers would need to find an RW replacement for Brown if none of their forward prospects are good enough to take that spot, and I doubt they find another one at the minimum salary. Signing Bouchard for one year makes it difficult to fit him next summer without downgrading the roster.
As for Ryan McLeod, he already took a small pay cut last season due to Edmonton’s tight cap-situation. He signed for $798K, just a bit over the league minimum. I’m doubtful he does this again.
McLeod had 23 points in 57 games this season, a 33-point pace over 82 games. In the playoffs, he had 0 goals and 5 assists in 12 games. I believe McLeod is much more valuable than his production suggests, and he was a crucial part of Edmonton’s improved bottom-six this past season, but today’s contracts are heavily dependent on production totals.
The Oilers must also sign RFA Raphael Lavoie. If they sign both Lavoie and a 4C at league minimum, it gives them roughly $5.6M to sign Bouchard and McLeod. If they sign McLeod to $2M or more, it would be difficult to fit Bouchard on a multi-year deal.
EvolvingHockey projects McLeod at $1.3M for 1 year. Anything around the ~$1.5M range would be ideal for Edmonton, and it seems like fair value considering his production in a high-scoring league.

An overview of the roster

Holland mentioned that he’d ideally like to carry a roster with 13 forwards, 7 defencemen, and 2 goalies. Here’s a look at Edmonton’s potential roster for opening night in October:
They have roughly $7.16M in cap space to sign Bouchard, McLeod, Lavoie, and a 4C. Personally, I’m not opposed to the idea of running a 21-man roster to ensure Bouchard gets signed for multiple years, but realistically, it seems likely that Edmonton will move ahead with 22 players.
If the Oilers make a move at the deadline, they’ll need to clear cap-space. I’m unsure if Jack Campbell’s contract is moveable. If Cody Ceci doesn’t meet Edmonton’s expectations as a strong 2RD, it’s likely that he’s the player on the move. If Philip Broberg can prove that he can handle a full-time NHL role on a contender, Brett Kulak may also be a trade candidate. The same is true with Warren Foegele if Dylan Holloway proves himself as an impactful middle-six forward, although the Oilers do seem reluctant to trade Foegele.
All-in-all, Edmonton’s off-season thus far has been fine, but Ken Holland still has work to do. There are still a few question marks on this roster, and by the end of the 2024 Trade Deadline, they should be answered.
The big question remains; can this Oilers team take that next step forward in 2023-24?
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