Our Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 Preview is part of a one-a-day series covering the entire NHL. Click here for the rest of the teams in the leadup to another action-packed NHL season!
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The Edmonton Oilers enjoyed a surprise rise to second in the Pacific Division in 2019-20. A weak division with underperformances by San Jose and Calgary provided an opening and the Oilers took advantage. That’s not to say the Oilers didn’t play well enough or deserve to finish where they did, since the team had a strong performance through the year. Edmonton posted a positive goal differential (which is a new and unusual concept for this team) and a record setting special teams performance on the back of Leon Draisaitl, who ran away with the Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Trophy, and the Ted Lindsay Award. Additionally, the rekindling of the Battle of Alberta took it to new heights with the feud between Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk. The levels of tension between the teams reached levels it had not seen in years during the January game that saw a goalie fight between Mike Smith and Cam Talbot.
Moving into 2020-21 for this team, however, leaves a great many storylines and questions to answer. The biggest and longest lasting is the team’s depth, especially on forward. For years they have basically been a 2 or 3 person team for offensive threat. It never seemed to matter which collection of players created the Oilers’ supporting cast, none of them ever managed to develop chemistry and contribute consistently offensively. 2019-20 featured more of the same in this regard, as aside from Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (110, 97, 61 points respectively), the next highest scorers were Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom with 34 points. James Neal was the only other forward to hit 30 points on the season. Secondary scoring needs to improve for this team to be able to take the next step forward.
A second big plotline for the team is the loss of Oscar Klefbom on defense. According to Ken Holland, the expectation is that Klefbom will sit out the entire season. Oscar has dealt with recurring injury issues his entire career, especially in his shoulders, so him missing even more time with shoulder injuries is worrisome not just for next season but the state of his career. He is currently relied on as their number one defender and plays the most in every situation (highest TOI/GP as well as the most PP TOI/GP and SH TOI/GP). A lot of the load of playtime will have to be shifted to Darnell Nurse, in the hopes that his defensive decision making will finally allow him to emerge as a top pairing defender.
The focus of the Oilers’ offseason had to shift to accommodate the new hole on defense. Edmonton already had very minimal cap space, so finding a way to replace what Klefbom provided was going to be difficult. Ken Holland signed Tyson Barrie to replace the offense and give the Oilers a legit offensive defenseman for the first time in a long time, and with the emergence of Ethan Bear last season and hopeful progression from Darnell Nurse, the ice time and situational use should be addressed as well.
For the first time in a long while, the Oilers have a strong prospect pool that will start filtering upwards over the next couple of seasons. Especially on defense, where beyond Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones who are already on the NHL roster, at the very least Philip Broberg, Evan Bouchard, Dmitri Samorukov, Philip Kemp, William Lagesson all project to be solid NHL players. This plethora of defensive prospects gives the team some bargaining chips to help fill out the roster in the coming years if the Oilers can finally find themselves on the verge of entering a Stanley Cup window.
Edmonton Oilers Roster Overview
The Oilers are interesting up front as they have 2 first lines and 2 fourth lines, there is no in between. Oilers fans everywhere hope that the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto line that dominated the NHL in the last couple months of the season can stay together. These three seemed to be a perfect combination that brought out the best in each other while having amazing chemistry from the get-go.
Then, whichever line Connor McDavid ends up on is the other first line. He spends a lot of time with Zack Kassian as the two of them typically have performed well together. James Neal, in his first year with the Oilers, had on-again off-again chemistry with McDavid and will probably spend a decent chunk of time there. A couple of other additions, Dominik Kahun, Kyle Turris, Jesse Puljujarvi v2, should also get some time on a McDavid line to see what they can do offensively.
As per usual, the bottom-6 will be a lineup blender of whoever isn’t performing with McDavid and a frequent rotation of players healthy scratched. Josh Archibald endeared himself to fans in his first season with the team, myself included, and will be returning. He is quite the sparkplug player and is incredibly versatile so he will be a mainstay in this bottom-6. Tyler Ennis, Jujhar Khaira, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Alex Chiasson, and Patrick Russell will join the top-6 castoffs to form the rotating case comprising the two fourth lines I was mentioning earlier.
Again, the team needs more production from these players. In 2019-20, only Chiasson and Archibald cracked 20 points (Chiasson with 24, Archibald with 21). The performance of the entire team rests on two players, and that is not a recipe for long-term success.
The loss of Oscar Klefbom propels Darnell Nurse into being the Oilers’ top defender. He already plays in most situations and has the second highest ATOI/GP at 23:27 per game so this is a natural next step for him. It is worrisome, however, since Nurse’s defensive prowess is still underdeveloped and he is prone to major lapses that lead to high danger chances against and goals against on a regular basis. Ethan Bear’s meteoric rise through the ranks in 2019-20 gives a bit of competition here as Bear’s hockey IQ, positioning, and hand-eye-coordination could help cover what Nurse lacks.
For most of the last decade, the Oilers have lacked a true offensive presence on their back end. The addition of Tyson Barrie will finally address that and give the team’s high powered offense another mode of attack. Barrie will not help much at all on defense and will need to be paired with a defensive defender, but he will take over a lot of powerplay time. Because the league’s top powerplay really needed to get even better, right?
Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, and Caleb Jones return to fill out the bottom two pairs and they will be joined by a prospect, most likely Evan Bouchard. He is viewed as a more offensive defender but his brief stint in the NHL a couple seasons ago showed he has the poise and decision making ability to not be a defensive liability, a valuable trait in a young defender.
Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith split the crease almost equally in 2019-20, with Smith having 40 more minutes played through the regular season. Koskinen was far better, however, and with this tandem returning for the 2020-21 season, Mikko will hopefully get the nod as the starter. Koskinen was figured out fairly quickly in his first year with the Oilers (high glove, anyone?). But to his credit, the work he put in through the 2019 offseason seemed to help as Mikko became a fairly reliable goalie for a team with massive defensive woes and, at times, a lack of offensive support.
Although I’m sure that Ken Holland would have liked to be able to go after a better option at backup (and apparently did go after Jacob Markstrom), due to cap struggles and the need to fill Oscar Klefbom’s skates, those plans had to change and Mike Smith was brought back as a cheap option for backup. He was incredibly inconsistent through 2019-20, and at another year older, should be put in a more reduced role as Koskinen’s backup in 2020-21.
Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 Prediction
3rd – 5th North Division
This team has shown they can compete, but until the bottom two-thirds of the roster begin to produce more in line with their place on the depth chart, the Oilers will be stuck in good but not great territory. The North Division is highly competitive in this middle section and the team could finish 5th or 6th just as easily as 2nd or 3rd. Every game will be important and the lessons learned from the slow start against Chicago in the play-in round better have been taken to heart or else this could be a disappointing year for the Oilers.
That concludes our Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 Preview. Check to see if your team has been covered yet in our 2020-21 Season Preview Series.
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