The Edmonton Oilers haven't made the playoffs in eight seasons, and it appeared that they might be ready to take a step forward in 2013-2014, but they fell flat once again.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at an Oilers team that ought to be feeling a sense of urgency, as they have top-end talent approaching their prime years and need to get on the winning track quickly.
Lots has been made of the Oilers stocking up on talent through the draft and it's that talent that brings about expectations. If Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hadn't shown promise, then maybe the Oilers would be just a team adrift.
This isn't to suggest that the Oilers' are on the cusp of being great, because we've been down this road too many times to place those expectation, but if GM Craig MacTavish can bring in some pieces that will help improve the team's defensive play, then there is at least some reason for optimism.
Expectations were in place last season, but goaltending put the Oilers in an early hole. That's been addressed with the additions of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth.
They still have a talented group of young forwards, some of whom have more potential to realize, but if they could round out the group with solid two-way players, they could be on the right track.
The blueline, however, is a prime area of concern, and it's not easily rectified. "We need a few pieces that can really move this thing along," MacTavish told the Edmonton Sun, "And in my mind I'd like to add a very high end defenceman."
Maybe the Oilers could be willing to offer their first-round pick, No. 3 overall, if it would get them the number one defenceman they sorely need, but that may not be enough. Teams that have top-tier defencemen don't trade them, so for the Oilers to make that kind of deal -- to convince a team to move one -- they might have to go bigger and bolder.
After missing the playoffs every year since 2006, maybe it's time for the Oilers to go bigger and bolder.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Craig MacTavish/Dallas Eakins
Free Agent Forwards
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
There was an issue with his possession numbers, and he recorded points on a ridiculous percentage (53 points on 54 goals) of 5-on-5 goals for, but Taylor Hall is a superstar that isn't regarded as such because the Oilers have yet to win. Over the past two seasons, as a 21 and 22-year-old, Hall has averaged 1.08 points per game.
Since 2000, the list of forwards to record a higher points-per-game at that age includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Nicklas Backstrom. Hall's point production is better than Patrick Kane, Joe Thornton and John Tavares at the same age, so he's in top-tier company and if his team manages to control the puck more consistently, the numbers can still get better.
After a breakout year in 2011-2012 and a regression year in 2013, Jordan Eberle settled in with a nicely productive 65-point season. Over the past three seasons, Eberle has 178 points, which ranks 17th in the league (Hall is 14th), so there's plenty of room for him to play a top-line role. At the same time, presuming that Hall is untouchable, Eberle could be the most attractive trade chip the Oilers have if they are looking at a deal for a number one defenceman.
After coming over in an off-season trade with St. Louis, David Perron finished with a career-high 28 goals and 57 points. He's been healthy, missing only four games in the past two seasons, and provides another legitimate scoring threat.
He hasn't burst through in a big way, yet, but 21-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins put up a career-high 56 points, as he was asked to handle fewer defensive zone starts compared to 2012-2013. Nugent-Hopkins hasn't been as flashy as Hall or Eberle, but plays a sound two-way game and that's not something that should be overlooked on a team that needs to be more reliable.
Sam Gagner had a breakout season in 2012-2013, scoring 38 points in 48 games (a career-best 0.79 points per game), but then had his jaw broken before the start of last season and, strangely enough, struggled to get on track after that. After a relatively unlucky year, though, Gagner is a decent candidate for a bounceback season in 2014-2015.
Veteran checking centre Boyd Gordon was brought in to relieve some defensive pressure, and no one started a lower percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone, so he does the heavy defensive lifting that, theoretically, should free up others to handle the offensive responsibilities.
The first two seasons of Nail Yakupov's career have brought ups and downs, and his perceived value is probably at a low point due to a season of unfavourable percentages. PDO, which measures 5-on-5 shooting and save percentages when a player is on the ice (and is considered a gauge for who has been lucky or unlucky), has Yakupov ranked mostly among fourth-line grinders, who legitimately shouldn't expect their on-ice shooting percentage to be above average.
There are no guarantees, of course, but 20-year-old Yakupov still has the high-end potential to be a big scorer, which makes it all the more difficult to do anything other than wait on his emergence.
In their quest to add more grit to the fourth line, the Oilers traded for Matt Hendricks, taking on an inflated contract that pays $1.85-million per season for the next three years. Hendricks is undeniably tough, but wasn't effective last season and somehow played more than 14 minutes a game for the Oilers. That might fit the salary, but it doesn't match his production.
Big winger Jesse Joensuu was looking for a fresh start after failing to stick with the Islanders and he got a chance with the Oilers last season. While he produced very little, there were also extenuating circumstances in terms of zone starts and horrific percentages that could result in something better. But the 26-year-old, who has 20 points in 109 career games and didn't play after March 14, also may not be part of the plans going forward.
Luke Gazdic was handed a full-time role as the Oilers' enforcer and no one in the league played fewer minutes while also registering more penalty minutes than Gazdic's 127. He ranked third in the league with 15 fighting majors, so he can handle the rough stuff. It's the actual hockey playing that poses problems, as he had the worst possession stats in the league.
Smallish forward Mark Arcobello couldn't hold down a regular spot with the Oilers, though his possession numbers might have warranted it, and he crushed the AHL with 28 points in 15 games, earning a one-way deal for next season. Will that land him a regular spot in the lineup, or will it make Arcobello a well-paid minor-leaguer?
There has been lots of talk about the Oilers moving their first-round pick, third overall, and that's certainly in play if they could get a premier defenceman, but if the Oilers somehow decide to hold the pick and have their choice of one of Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett or Leon Draisaitl, well, that would be another quality asset around which to build.
Brought in as a free agent to stabilize the defence, Andrew Ference played his highest minutes per game (21:04) since 2008-2009 and he was asked to handle a tougher workload, with more defensive zone starts and facing higher-calibre competition. It's asking a lot for 35-year-old Ference to handle this workload going forward, but he is one steady influence.
Once the Oilers called up Martin Marincin, they had the making of a quality second defence pairing with Marincin and Jeff Petry. Marincin's relative possession numbers were very good, while facing quality opposition, so the lanky 22-year-old is a promising piece for next season.
Highly-touted coming out of the University of Wisconsin, Justin Schultz has put up 60 points in 122 career games, which puts him in pretty good company offensively. The trouble is, Schultz gets eaten up in terms of puck possesson. That's not entirely on him, but Schultz's game to this point doesn't warrant the kind of ice time that he's been getting. If he's going to keep playing 23 minutes a night, he simply has to be better; the other alternative being that the Oilers find others to take some of that ice time and limit Schultz's exposure.
Philip Larsen is a finesse blueliner, who has been hanging around the fringe of the lineup. He's mobile and a fine puck-mover, but he's not particularly physical and tends to get squeezed out of bottom pair minutes by bruisers. That's not to suggest that his game warrants more; it's just a reflection of what has happened as he battles for ice time.
Jeff Petry emerged as one of the Oilers' most reliable defencemen last season, particularly once paired with Marincin. Petry has good size, can skate and move the puck, and was one of 22 defenceman to combine for at least 300 hits plus blocked shots. Yes, that means the Oilers didn't have the puck so much, but they actually had it more with Petry and Marincin than any other time. For all the improvement needed on Edmonton's defence, they could do worse than pressing forward with Petry and Marincin playing in a shutdown role.
In addition to prospects Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, the Oilers also have to consider what kind of deals they might be able to make to secure a top pair defenceman.
There are long-in-the-tooth free agents (Andrei Markov, Dan Boyle, Stephane Robidas) that have played top pair minutes, or the likes of Matt Niskanen and Mark Fayne, who had strong seasons, but don't have the same pedigree. Or, maybe the Oilers can swing that blockbuster trade. There have long been rumours about Edmonton trading one of their top young forwards and/or the third pick in the draft to bring in someone who can handle the big minutes, the tough minutes, for the Oilers.
The Oilers went into the 2013-2014 season with expectations that Devan Dubnyk could give them at least average goaltending -- not unreasonable given his track record -- but when that plan went completely awry, Edmonton started seeking out solutions and made a couple of moves to acquire goaltenders that can be part of the future for the franchise.
27-year-old Spruce Grove, Alberta native Ben Scrivens had a .917 save percentage in 51 career NHL games before joining the Oilers and he had a .916 save percetage in 21 games for Edmonton. He ended last season playing a career-high 40 games and posting a .922 save percentage, so he's earned his shot at the starting job, but he's also played 72 career games, and Dubnyk had played 139 games before going south last year, so who knows how it will turn out?
With that in mind, the Oilers have another option too. Viktor Fasth had a terrific first NHL season, in 2012-2013, posting a .921 save percentage in 25 games for Anaheim. Groin problems resulted in Fasth getting bypassed in Anaheim, but the 31-year-old is capable of at least handling a split in duties with Scrivens.
||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
||13-37-50, +1, 64 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||1-9-10, -8, 48 GP
||Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik (KHL)
||7-5-12, +1, 33 GP
||Ufa Salava Yulayev (KHL)
||3-5-8, +5, 36 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||4-17-21, -12, 57 GP
||35-28-63, +25, 70 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||8-14-2, +6, 39 GP
||35-50-85, +29, 70 GP
||2.14 GAA, .923 SV%, 35 GP
||16-27-43, +5, 49 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||18-34-52, +7, 46 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||23-32-55, +10, 66 GP
The seventh overall pick last summer, Darnell Nurse could reasonably challenge for a spot next season, but it's not an easy transition for a teenager and could be difficult to get a look on an Oilers defence that has to get better immediately, as in, they may not be inclined to see a teenager take some lumps in a spot that could go to a veteran that can handle the pace immediately. Whether he plays next year or not, Nurse is a strong prospect with the upside to, ideally, become a number one defenceman.
Oscar Klefbom was the 19th pick in 2011 and was okay in a 17-game trial (1 G, 2 A, 44.3 CF%) with the Oilers late in the season. He's 20-years-old, so more time in the AHL would be an entirely reasonable plan for next season.
A big centre with limited offensive upside, Bogdan Yakimov was a third-round pick last year (five picks ahead of Anton Slepyshev) and has decided that he will play in North America next season.
Anton Slepyshev isn't yet 20-years-old and has already played four seasons in the KHL. He has good size and while he hasn't managed to score much in the KHL, he's produced at international tournaments (including seven points in seven games at the World Juniors).
High-risk, high-reward blueliner Martin Gernat has lots of potential, if not a lot of weight, packed onto his 6-foot-5 frame. Given some time to get stronger, he could start handling more important minutes.
Drafted in the second round in 2012, Mitch Moroz is a big winger who crashed and banged his way to 35 goals in the WHL; the next test is to see if he can play the power forward game as a pro.
A second-round pick in 2010, Tyler Pitlick got into 10 games (1 G, 0 A, 41.5 CF%) with the Oilers last season, starting a disproportionate amount of his shifts in the defensive zone. With 55 points in 145 career AHL games, he's not likely to be more than a checker at the next level.
A seventh-round pick last summer, Greg Chase had a tremendous season as a playmaking two-way centre. With some time to develop, he could prove to be a late-round bargain.
Projecting goaltenders is difficult work, especially a 21-year-old whose experience is primarily in the ECHL, but Laurent Brossoit was appealing enough for the Oilers to acquire as part of the Ladislav Smid trade. A sixth-round pick of the Flames in 2011, Brossoit will need time to develop.
After leaving college hockey for the WHL, Jujhar Khaira had modest offensive production, so he likely needs some time before he's considered a serious prospect, but he has time to develop.
A second-round pick of the Oilers in 2009, Anton Lander has all of eight points in 94 career NHL games, which would make it easy enough to write him off as a forward prospect, but he just put up 52 points in 46 AHL games and that is the kind of production that could at least warrnt interest from another team.
The other piece coming to Edmonton in the Smid trade, Roman Horak also had a strong AHL campaign and has the speed to make it as a checking winger and penalty killer.
In addition to those prospects, defencemen Dillon Simpson and David Musil provide additional organizational depth.
Oilers advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
3rd - Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl
According to www.capgeek.com, the Oilers have approximately $42.5M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 13 players.
Check out my possible Oilers lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three forwards, No. 1 defenceman, depth defencemen.
What I said the Oilers needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Mark Arcobello, Jesse Joensuu, Andrew Ference, Anton Belov, Philip Larsen, Jason LaBarbera.
Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.