Our Edmonton Oilers 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
“This is the year”. That sentence has more or less been the motto of the Edmonton Oilers every offseason for the past decade. Only once, in 2016-17, was it even remotely true. Year after year, coach after coach, GM after GM, the organization has continued to ice mediocre teams as a result of poor leadership, organizational nepotism and complacency, terrible pro scouting, questionable amateur scouting, and frequent mismanagement of player development, the latest being with Jesse Puljujarvi.
The past 4 seasons have had heightened optimism, as the team is now led by Connor McDavid and the organization has finally begun to correct the practices around hiring for front office positions. They (allegedly) actually interview multiple people and hire qualified candidates from outside the organization. But, even then the roster has never really seen much positive change. Peter Chiarelli, through a variety of damaging biases and improper talent and style analyses, failed to build any sort of a team around his star players. Some of his failings are to be blamed on the 15+ years of bad drafting and development that preceded Chiarelli, however.
After nearly 4 seasons as GM, the one main positive that came out of Chiarelli’s time and team in the front office was the turnaround in drafting and player development. For the first time in a very long while, the Oilers have a respectable prospect pipeline that is not filled entirely by one or two first overall picks. Though the forward pool is a tad weak, especially on the wings, their defensive prospects are among the best in the league and they have plenty of goalies developing, at least one of whom should turn into a future starter.
After a lengthy search for a new GM that began when Bob Nicholson finally opened his eyes enough to realize “there’s something in the water” within the organization in terms of complacency, incompetence, poor culture, the old boys club, and so on, Ken Holland was brought in as general manager. Holland was recently promoted out of the GM role in Detroit, but was still looking for a challenge and a way to stay in the game as a general manager.
Soon after, Holland began his work by firing scouts, notably the head pro scout, watching and scouting prospects himself, and hiring Dave Tippett as the next head coach of the team. Though he is labelled as a defensive coach, a label Tippett finds amusing, considering how he actually operates, Dave will bring experience and a strong system developed specifically for the players he is coaching to buy into.
Since a proper rebuild takes time, and since there is yet another new vision at the helm, we can expect another season or two of retooling as Holland develops and acquires the pieces he needs to create a better team and sustain it. The current roster is mostly a patchwork of free agents and trade acquisitions, something that needs to be fixed by developing prospects and bringing them up from within.
Therefore, we will not see true success in Edmonton until the AHL team, the Bakersfield Condors, finds success of their own with a core led by Oilers-developed prospects. The Condors made it to round 2 of last year’s Calder Cup playoffs, led by prospects such as Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Joseph Gambardella, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, and William Lagesson, among others.
Listing the depth chart at their natural positions, the Oilers have arguably the best centre depth in the league. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jujhar Khaira/Markus Granlund/Sam Gagner/Colby Cave. But, due to lack of winger depth and utilizing the players in the most effective ways possible, McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins most often all play on the top two lines. This brings to light one of the major issues with the Oilers’ depth. For the most part, the team’s abundance of depth players are playing well above their performance ceiling in the lineup and mostly pose very little offensive threat.
In the 2018-19 season, the Edmonton Oilers had an abysmal amount of scoring depth, even at centre. McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins were excellent, as the top three scorers on the team with 116, 105, and 69 points respectively. After that was a complete drop-off. The next player who regularly played centre was Jujhar Khaira with 18 points. Sam Gagner had 10 points (in 25 games), Kyle Brodziak had 9, and Colby Cave had 3. That is nowhere near enough offensive from the bottom six. The closest to decent numbers from a third line centre would be Gagner, and he had a small sample size in Edmonton last season. Part of this is due to the even worse winger depth since one player cannot do everything (McDavid being the exception) so as the team improves on the wings, the overall depth scoring will improve.
The team is hopeful that Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins can maintain momentum from setting various offensive career highs last season. They will be relying on Nugent-Hopkins to contribute 60 points from the second line while continuing to improve his two-way, defensive play to become the all around forward they will need as the team improves. The versatile Leon Draisaitl probably won’t hit 50 goals again, unless he can manage to sustain an insanely high shooting percentage of 21.6%, but we now know what he is capable of and can be expected to put up a 40 goal, 40 assist season with ease. The Oilers will need this production from their high-end players until the rest of the lineup has shown they can contribute.
The Oilers are honestly laughable on the wings. Their best winger (Draisaitl) is a centre, their top scoring actual winger last season was Alex Chiasson with 38 points. The combined point totals from players who regularly played on the wing/are listed as wingers (aside from Draisaitl) was 140. McDavid alone had 116 points. Those are terrible numbers.
To start the year, Ken Holland and Dave Tippett have made it clear that Draisaitl and McDavid will be playing together on the first line, leaving one winger spot open for the taking. This is often filled by a rotating cast of players, this season will be no different. At the end of last season, Zack Kassian was performing quite well on this line and is a frontrunner to begin there again. James Neal, acquired for the struggling Milan Lucic, will definitely get a shot on this line to be the scoring threat McDavid has needed on his right wing since the beginning of his career. The former perennial 20-goal scorer had his worst season ever with the Flames in 2018-19 and will be eager to bounce back in a role that is more suitable for the type of player that he is.
Alex Chiasson is coming off of a career season, putting up 22 goals. The worrisome aspect of the probability of him repeating that is how streaky he was. Most of those goals were at the beginning of the season, and he went long stretches in the latter half of the year between goals. The team signed him on a fairly cheap contract with the hopes that he will provide offensive depth once again.
Due to the lack of a clear divide in talent and abilities, the bottom-six winger positions will be very interchangeable on paper. Sam Gagner, Markus Granlund, Jujhar Khaira, Josh Archibald, Tomas Jurco, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson at times, will all have a shot at a spot here on the roster. Due to his speed and potential scoring ability, Joakim Nygard may have get a chance on McDavid’s line if some other options do not work out. Some of these players are also centres and will occupy that role at times. The most likely players to stay on the NHL roster are Gagner, Granlund, Khaira, Archibald, Kassian, and Nygard.
The divisive Jesse Puljujarvi is not being factored into the lineup at the moment. He has recently signed a one-year contract in Finland and unless he is traded, it does not appear likely he will return to the NHL for the time being.
Other notable prospects who could make an impact are Kailer Yamamoto, who definitely needs development time in the AHL to adjust his game for success at the pro level, Tyler Benson, the leading scorer of the Bakersfield Condors last season, Cooper Marody, Joseph Gambardella, and Josh Currie. All but Benson had short stints in the NHL last season where they showed promise of developing into effective NHL players.
Provided that Benson can stay healthy, he is going to be coming into camp determined and ready for some time in the NHL. Due to the lack of definitive depth and players locked into roster spots, look for him to make a strong push through training camp and the preseason, as his skillset as a gritty forward with high level offensive instincts is sorely desired in the team’s middle six forward group.
The Oilers have a few defensemen who can fill a #2-#4 role, but are still looking for a bonafide #1. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson were a serviceable top pairing during the 2016-17 season but both have regressed for a variety of reasons and have not returned to the form of that year. Although they are set to begin the year as the team’s top pairing, unless they both step up, their spots may be in jeopardy. Darnell Nurse took a major leap forward last season in all aspects of his game and could even begin pushing to move onto the first pairing and replace Klefbom if he keeps up where he left off last season. Early speculation already suggests that Nurse may actually start the year with Adam Larsson.
Kris Russell, though he takes a lot of flak from hockey fans, has been a valuable part of the team both on and off the ice. On the ice, he may not be the most flashy but he fills his role well as a steady, defensive presence and a pseudo-goalie when in the defensive zone. The team will be looking to him to either play alongside Nurse/Klefbom on the second pair, or join Matt Benning/a prospect on the third pairing.
Though he has been injured for almost all of the last two seasons, the loss of veteran presence Andrej Sekera’s leadership will be noticed in the locker room, especially as the team’s surplus of defensive prospects begin to jump to the NHL.
His loss, however, opens up a spot in the lineup for one of said prospects. This is currently a strength for the Oilers. Their defensive prospect pipeline is stocked full of promising players who will be jumping up to the NHL or dangled as trade bait for wingers. Just to list them off, the major names include Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, William Lagesson, Ethan Bear, Joel Persson, Caleb Jones, and Dmitri Samorukov are the major names in the organization right now. Bouchard, Lagesson, Persson, and Jones will be the strongest competitors for the open spots in the NHL next season. Although Bouchard should get one more year to develop and adjust to the pro game, he projects to be the legitimate top pairing defender and play creator the team needs. Jones had a fairly successful debut in the NHL last season, though he was prone to crucial defensive coverage lapses. He would be a solid fit if he were playing with Russell or Benning on the third pair.
Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith will be in a competition for a 1A/1B situation in Edmonton’s net. Koskinen showed incredible promise and had stretches where he looked like a legitimate number one goalie last season, but his positioning is questionable at times when the play is along the sides of the zone, he over commits to first chances and has difficulty making saves on second chances, and his glove hand is very weak. He reportedly spent the summer working hard on certain aspects of his game, so only time will tell if he can improve on those traits.
If Koskinen doesn’t improve, the experienced Mike Smith will take over. He has had success playing for Dave Tippett in the past, and his ability to control the play, emphasize communication on the ice, and handle the puck will give the Oilers some boosts to their game that they have not had in recent years. Since the Oilers are a team that focuses on quick attack rushes and counter attack plays, a goalie who is not afraid to jump out of the net to initiate a breakout will be a welcome addition to the back end.
Edmonton Oilers 2019-20 Prediction
4th – 6th Pacific Divison
With the strength of the competition in the Pacific Division and the lack of direct improvements to the roster this offseason, the Oilers are not set to show a drastic change to their point totals. This will be a transitional year for the team as they (once again) adjust to a new coach and have players playing in spots too far up the lineup. The focus will be on what the organization’s prospects can do in their development. Much like last season, barring injuries to key players, the Oilers should expect to compete for a wild card spot in the conference.