Why the Oilers should pursue a top-six winger with finishing talent

Photo credit:© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
In the second round of the 2023 playoffs against the Golden Knights, the Edmonton Oilers were out-scored 15 to 9 at 5v5. Edmonton’s special teams were fantastic as usual, but Vegas’ even-strength advantage wound up being the deciding factor.
Still, Edmonton had more shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances in that series at 5v5 per Natural Stat Trick. They held the edge in total and controlled zone entries, made fewer turnovers and icings, recovered more dump-ins, and improved both their defensive-zone breakout efficiency and puck retrieval success rate in comparison to the LA series. And yet, Vegas ultimately held the edge in 5v5 goal differential by a strong margin.
Of course, those things don’t matter as much in a short playoff series, but I firmly think there is a difference between being out-scored and out-played, and I don’t think the Oilers were massively out-played at 5v5 by Vegas.
Per Natural Stat Trick (5v5), Edmonton scored 9 goals on 135 scoring chances, while Vegas scored 15 goals on 106 chances. The Oilers struggled to finish their numerous chances, while the Golden Knights consistently capitalized and cashed in on the opportunities they generated. That evidently made a huge difference.
There are a couple of reasons why Edmonton lost that series, and if you ask me, you can nail them down to three major factors. Firstly, the Jack Eichel line sank Edmonton, with Jay Woodcroft struggling to properly line-match against Eichel. Secondly, goaltending was quite obviously an issue, with Stuart Skinner holding a 0.863 save percentage at 5v5, allowing nearly six goals less than expected in 6 games.
However, I believe Edmonton’s finishing was just as significant of a problem. Many believe that offense isn’t an area of improvement at all for this team, but the Oilers scored at a rate of 2.01 5v5 goals per 60 against Vegas in the second round. That level of production would’ve ranked second last among all NHL teams in this year’s regular-season, only ahead of Chicago.
A major reason for Edmonton’s lack of 5v5 scoring was due to their $5M wingers in Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins combining for just one 5v5 goal, which came from Nugent-Hopkins when the team was already up 3-0 in the second period of Game 4. Their non-existent secondary scoring from their top-six wingers killed them.
Vegas was deadly off the rush in Game 1, and they certainly deserved that win. I think Vegas deserved Game 5 as well; although Edmonton held a 2-1 lead for quite a while, two penalties from Broberg and Janmark in the second period led to a 5-on-3, and then 3 goals against in 89 seconds. From there, Vegas shut the game down and limited Edmonton’s offence.
However, in my mind, I believe Games 3 and 6 were winnable games for the Oilers. If Edmonton capitalized on the quality chances they generated in the first period of Game 3, or on the many glorious chances they obtained throughout Game 6, this is an entirely different series. I know the “what ifs” are pretty much pointless right now, but I think this is something worth mentioning.
Some will argue that Edmonton’s top-six wingers weren’t entirely healthy, so it shouldn’t be a priority to address this area because a healthy Oilers squad would’ve been much better. I can partially agree with that, and next time around, I fully expect the Oilers to exceed their 2.01 5v5 goals per 60 rate. However, finishing wasn’t only an issue in the Vegas series.
From 16-17 through 20-21, Connor McDavid averaged 1.91 5v5 assists per hour. In these last two years, that’s dropped to 1.44. In fact, in spite of hitting 150 points this season, he averaged just 1.24 5v5 assists per 60. This is the lowest rate in his career by far, even lower than his rookie season by a good 23%. McDavid ranked 86th in the league in 5v5 assist rate this season and finished with less total 5v5 primary assists than Casey Mittelstadt and Vincent Trocheck.
Personally, I don’t believe this is McDavid’s fault, as he ranks first in the league at generating even-strength scoring chances in the past couple of years by a significant margin. Per Corey Sznajder, he led the NHL in 5v5 shot and chance assists per 60 this season by a solid margin. However, his non-Draisaitl linemates have had quite a bit of trouble capitalizing on his passes.
I think McDavid is being held back at 5v5 a bit. This season, he held a 54 percent goal differential, but his expected goal differential was 59 percent. If his linemates could even finish at a league-average rate, McDavid would be on-ice for roughly 17-18 more 5v5 goals in the past two seasons, which easily results in at least 14-15 more assists. Again, that’s simply if they just finished at an average level; imagine how high his numbers could be if his linemates consistently finished above expected. To somewhat of a lesser extent, I believe Draisaitl has also experienced this issue, and he would also benefit from a volume shooter.
The bottom six took a huge step this season, as the Oilers possessed a 54% goal differential with McDavid and Draisaitl off-ice in the regular season and playoffs combined. Meanwhile, Edmonton is actually at a slightly lower 52% goal differential with one of McDavid or Draisaitl on-ice. A major reason for Edmonton’s top-six holding an inferior goal share is due to the Nurse-Ceci pair, as I outlined here, but the other primary factor is a clear lack of finishing on the opportunities that McDavid and Draisaitl create.
Now that they’ve finally received depth scoring, the next step for the Oilers should be to maximize the 5v5 output from the top-six.

How good are Edmonton’s current top-six wingers?

Hyman’s 5v5 goal-scoring isn’t as good as you may think. He actually led the league in inner slot chances, but had just 15 5v5 goals on 28 expected goals. Hyman is an example of a player that scores goals at a solid volume, but relative to the quantity and quality of chances they obtain, they’re a subpar finisher. Obviously, Hyman is still a valuable player in many facets, but he’s not the sniper for McDavid.
Nugent-Hopkins has seen his 5v5 scoring fluctuate in the past couple of seasons. In 2021-22, Nugent-Hopkins had just 11 goals and scored 0.44 5v5 goals per 60. I believe he was a bit unlucky, but his fortune took a 360-turn this season. His 5v5 goal rate doubled to 0.88, alongside a career-high shooting percentage. At this point, it’s established that RNH is a PP wizard, but in terms of 5v5 play, he has been a bit inconsistent.
Evander Kane has scored 1.18 5v5 goals per 60 in the past two seasons, good for 26th in the league, and even higher than Draisaitl. However, he’s had injury issues with both wrists this past season. It’s also worth mentioning Kane has never played a full season in his career, aside from the shortened 20-21 season. Playing beside a healthy Kane for an entire year would be exceedingly beneficial for McDavid’s 5v5 assist rate, but his health is a major question mark.
As for Kailer Yamamoto, I think it’s time to move on. At 5v5 in the past three seasons, he’s played 734 minutes with McDavid, and 1524 minutes with Draisaitl, and yet he ranks at a lowly 1.44 5v5 points per 60. Among all NHL forwards with at least 1000 5v5 minutes in that span, that rate of production ranks 292nd in the league, tied with Jack McBain and a retired Ryan Getzlaf. Yamamoto doesn’t have any quality defensive or possession results either. Simply put, he is not a top-six winger in any facet, and Edmonton should find a way to move his $3.1M contract.
It’s confirmed that Kane and Hyman played through injuries, and considering RNH’s huge drop-off in playoff production, my suspicion is that he wasn’t 100% either. Next playoffs, if all three are healthy, Edmonton’s 5v5 playoff scoring should substantially increase, but that doesn’t take away from the fact their RW depth is still quite mediocre. Even when healthy, Hyman and RNH aren’t consistent 5v5 finishers either.
To fully make the most out of McDavid and Draisaitl’s elite play-making, the Oilers should be pursuing a winger that has a proven history of consistently finishing and capitalizing on their chances, preferably a right-shot RW.

Potential finishers to target

The next question is: who should the Oilers target? Here’s a list of several pending UFAs and potential trade targets that could be realistic options for Edmonton. 
GAx/60 stands for Goals Scored Above Expected per 60 minutes, a metric often used to evaluate finishing talent
Connor Brown is an interesting name. Possessing above-average scoring and finishing skills, Brown was frequently mentioned as a potential trade target for Edmonton last off-season (he’s also McDavid’s former linemate with the Erie Otters). However, Brown played just four games for Washington this season, missing the rest of the year due to an ACL tear. That injury is the biggest concern regarding Brown, but it’s likely that he’ll be cheap. At the very least, I would wager that he’s a considerable upgrade on Yamamoto production-wise, and he fits Edmonton’s stylistic needs as a right-shot RW.
Unfortunately, Max Pacioretty has dealt with even worse injury issues. After being traded to Carolina, Pacioretty tore his Achilles tendon during off-season training and had surgery in August. He returned in January, but tore his Achilles a second time, and he missed the remainder of the season.
However, the primary appeal with Pacioretty is his spectacular 5v5 scoring rates when he is healthy; in the past three seasons, he ranks 4th in the entire league in 5v5 goals per 60, only behind Pastrnak, Vrana, and Matthews (side note: I would’ve really liked Vrana in Edmonton, but I highly doubt he’s immediately traded again). If he’s cheap, Pacioretty could be a low-risk, very high-reward target, and I’d strongly consider him.
I like Nino Niederreiter. He ranks 31st in the league in 5v5 goals per 60 over the past three seasons, ahead of various players such as Draisaitl, Eichel, Meier, Stamkos, and so on. He’s had a pretty consistent track record of finishing. In an article I wrote on Monday, I suggested Dylan Demelo as a potential replacement for Cody Ceci, so I’d be very interested in a potential deal with Winnipeg surrounding both Niederreiter and Demelo.
Alex Killorn is a strong goal-scorer and finisher. I think he could fit Edmonton’s needs, but I’m not entirely certain if he would sign in Edmonton. Coming off a seven-year contract at an AAV of $4.5M, alongside two cup rings in Tampa, Killorn could also be expensive. Still, he’s one of the best UFA options out there.
Although he was primarily deployed in Seattle’s bottom six, pending UFA Daniel Sprong finished 3rd in the league in 5v5 points per hour this season. It wouldn’t be a bad option to give him a shot on McDavid or Draisaitl’s wings, and he’d likely be cheap. Ivan Barbashev and Conor Sheary are some other cheap, low-risk UFA options. Many years back, Sheary produced well alongside Crosby, so he has some experience playing alongside star players.
Tyler Toffoli is a right-shot winger with scoring talent, the type of player that would fit well in Edmonton. Of course, it’s quite unlikely that Calgary trades Toffoli to Edmonton, but I think he’s an option worth mentioning.
Those are most of the realistic trade / UFA options for the Oilers with strong finishing results. If the Oilers want to take a swing on bigger names, Nikolaj Ehlers or Travis Konecny could be great targets, although that could prevent Edmonton from addressing their other needs due to their limited cap space.
In terms of internal options, Dylan Holloway, Raphael Lavoie, or even Xavier Bourgault breaking out in the NHL in 2023-24 would be fantastic news for Edmonton. For a team in a tight cap situation, having one or two productive players at a <$1M cap hit would be quite beneficial.
In summary, 5v5 finishing in the top-six is a significant area of improvement for the Oilers. Edmonton’s right-wing depth is also quite shallow, so acquiring or signing a top-six winger with scoring talent, preferably at RW, should be on Ken Holland’s to-do list this off-season. There are several options available for the Oilers, and it will be interesting to see if/how they address this need.
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