Our Edmonton Oilers 2021-22 Preview is a part of our 2021-22 NHL Team Preview Series. Starting September 9th, we have covered one team per day in the leadup to the 2021-22 season. After a crazy busy offseason with a ton of player movement we need something to help summarize what happened and give an outlook of the impact on each team. Make sure to check back each day for the next team in the list!
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This was a pivotal offseason for the Edmonton Oilers. A time where the team was close to turning a corner. Rising in the standings each year, slowly filling holes in the lineup as key players hit their primes, and finally beginning to see an actual prospect pipeline forming and working their way into the NHL.
But then the 2021 offseason happened. Things started on a high note as #KeepNugeForever became fulfilled when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins signed an eight-year deal. After that was a lengthy downward spiral that led us to this post.
First, the team acquired Duncan Keith for Caleb Jones and a 3rd round draft pick. Duncan Keith at full price, I might add. Somehow Ken Holland got swindled into giving up the extra asset for the honour of taking on a cap dump. Duncan Keith at this point in his career is basically a liability in every situation. The concept of an experienced veteran with a winning pedigree is a great addition to a blueline with a lot of younger players developing and working their way into the NHL soon but they’ve suddenly lost a few of those who would have benefitted the most and it now makes less sense.
Sure, Caleb Jones was likely to be taken in the expansion draft (though the end result of who Seattle ended up with brings this into question as well). But this trade looks awful from the Oilers’ side. And based on some of the other trades made this offseason in similar cap dump situations (Ladd, Gostisbehere, Stralman, Fleury), yes Ken we would have liked you to get him and a couple draft picks for free.
Then they lost Adam Larsson when he signed with Seattle. Their top RD, one of the best shutdown defenders in the league last season. Solid, physical, and blocks a ton of shots. This skillset is something the team has zero replacement for (and did not come close to doing so the rest of the offseason). We don’t know what exactly transpired behind the scenes leading to Larsson’s desire to sign elsewhere as until that point it seemed positive that he would re-sign with Edmonton.
Moving into free agency, the main target for Edmonton was Zach Hyman. They luckily did not come to an agreement with Toronto to send more draft picks out for signing rights to give him the eighth year. But he has still ended up receiving a seven-year, $5.5M contract. The addition of Zach Hyman makes sense, the type of player that should provide a great dynamic to McDavid’s wing. This is a lot of term and money for a player with a 41 point career high and already has had knee injuries. To me, this signing just screams Milan Lucic 2.0.
With Adam Larsson having signed elsewhere, Ken Holland didn’t like what he saw and looked outside the organization for right side defenders. We have ended up with Tyson Barrie for three years at $4.5M per season who does not replace any of what Larsson brings. Then, Cody Ceci was signed for four seasons at $3.25 per year. Ceci also does not really replace any of what Larsson did. Though he did have a respectable season defensively for Pittsburgh in 2020-21 and has slowly gotten better at it in the last couple seasons.
Now, Ken Holland has created a problem where he still doesn’t like what he sees on the right-side because now there’s too many. So he trades fan favourite, home developed defender Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele. We knew this was going to happen, the team had a surplus of defensive prospects and was going to eventually use them as trade chips but the context on which this trade was made is where the grievances lie.
Then, we can look in net. There were quite a few goalies available this offseason. Grubauer, Ullmark, Andersen, Mrazek, Raanta, Reimer, Halak, Bernier, Elliott, and whoever else might be available via trade nearing the end of the offseason. But instead the solution was to give 39 year old Mike Smith a two-year contract at $2.2M per season and keep Mikko Koskinen. I can understand not being able to trade Koskinen due to the way cap dump style trades have been going for the most part.
And finally, a recap of what happened during the NHL Draft. Edmonton had the 20th overall pick and there were two highly regarded goalie prospects available, Sebastian Cossa and Jesper Wallstedt. In my opinion, Edmonton could use an elite goalie prospect (remember the last paragraph where I reviewed their offseason decision to keep the Smith-Koskinen tandem?). As we work through the round, Detroit trades up to draft Cossa and Wallstedt is still available, dropping down to 20th. Slam dunk pick, right? Well, Ken Holland decided to pass instead of dunking. He traded down to 22nd and drafted Xavier Bourgault instead. Now maybe there’s something that us fans didn’t get to see behind the scenes in the combine or interview stages, I acknowledge that. From the outside fan perspective, it is just another scratch on a festering wound of an offseason.
Edmonton Oilers Roster Additions
Edmonton Oilers Roster Subtractions
Edmonton Oilers Roster Overview
Could this be the season Connor McDavid has legitimate wingers permanently and not just a collection of whoever had a good shift earlier in the period/Draisaitl because the team can’t produce offense in many other ways? The projected roster says yes. Zach Hyman immediately slots in on McDavid’s wing to provide a well-rounded presence to compliment McDavid’s flashy, speedy style. Hyman is an energetic player, adds a physical touch to his time on ice, and is a fairly solid player offensively, though a career high of 41 points makes me wonder how much he is truly capable of. He was on pace for a point total in the low 60’s last season.
Jesse Puljujarvi returned to the NHL last season and impressed many Oilers fans, myself included. He’d like to improve on the 25 points in 55 games but Jesse’s overall game was admirable. He was tenacious on the forecheck and backcheck, played smart, and found himself engaged and in the right areas. There is a lot of promise for this line to become a stable fixture for the Oilers.
Hopefully building on this stability on line one will let the Oilers put Ryan-Nugent Hopkins-Leon Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto together again on the second line. These three were unreal in the latter part of the 2019-20 season. However, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto both struggled in 2020-21 and the line was not nearly as effective. I haven’t lost hope on these three playing together quite yet as they are a great complimentary trio. Nugent-Hopkins is a smart, skilled player who is becoming fairly responsible defensively. Yamamoto is a spark plug, energy player who grinds his way into the gritty areas and finds a lot of success down low and around the net. And obviously Leon Draisaitl is an amazing offensive force and the catalyst for the line with his great shot and amazing passing abilities.
The team will have a new-look third line for 2021-22. Newcomers Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan should start the season on the third line, with Zack Kassian ideally taking the other wing spot. Now, I say start the season. I do not anticipate Derek Ryan staying on the third line long term and fully expect that by the middle of the season Ryan McLeod takes over this line full time.
Derek Ryan, in my view, has been bought in to mentor McLeod up to develop into a high-end third line centre, with McLeod’s offensive touch and Derek Ryan’s defensive responsibility. McLeod isn’t quite ready yet, as he only had a 14 game audition last season. Foegele might be an answer to the Oilers lack of depth scoring, if he can continue to put up about 0.4 points per game like he has in Carolina recently. Zack Kassian had an awful season last year that was marred by injuries and will need to bounce back and find the game that made him a fan favourite his first few seasons in Edmonton.
As covered above, Ryan McLeod should be starting as the fourth line centre with Josh Archibald or Zack Kassian on one of his wings. Archibald has been a surprisingly effective player, able to put up a bit of offense but mostly he is great at playing high event hockey and hitting everything in sight. Though he should be banished from the NHL team for the time being as he still refuses to receive his COVID vaccinations. Devin Shore and Kyle Turris are sitting on the roster right now but I’m not sure if they are the team’s intended players here.
Tyler Benson is down in the AHL and even though he seems to be unable to meet whatever expectations and conditions the organization places on giving him an actual chance in the NHL, he would be a very good option in the bottom 6 of the NHL team. There are concerns about his skating ability that may hold him back, however.
Cooper Marody is another homegrown player with a chance to make the NHL lineup. Marody, on a line with Benson and McLeod, have been some of the best players in the entire AHL over the past couple of seasons. How amazing would it be for Oilers fans to see a full forward line developed internally that didn’t consist of 2 first overall picks?
On paper, the Oilers now have one of the worst defensive lineups in the league. Occupying the top pairing will be Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie. These two spent most of 2020-21 together at even strength and were a surprisingly effective pairing. I say surprising because Nurse isn’t yet known for his defensive prowess and Tyson Barrie barely defends. But to his credit, Nurse took a giant leap forward in 20-21 and became a solid #1 defender with a 36 point season, playing 25 minutes per game, and his defensive play became significantly more reliable. Barrie is mostly here to quarterback the powerplay, after leading the league in points by a defender with 48.
Next, we have Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci. I’m not sure what the gameplan is here as Keith is mostly just a liability on the ice and is Ceci already expected to be good enough to run an entire second pairing on his own? Maybe if Keith’s ATOI drops by 6 or 7 minutes per game and he is no longer needed as a #1 defender he will be better but this pairing should be blaring alarm bells (and the goal horn behind their goalie, honestly).
Now that Ken Holland has cleared the way for Evan Bouchard, he will finally get a regular chance in the lineup and more ice time per game. Last season, Bouchard played 14 games with an ATOI just shy of 15 minutes. Bouchard will start the season down on the third pairing but expect him to move up the lineup here and there, or permanently if he plays well. Joining him will be a rotating cast of Kris Russell and Slater Koekkoek. Russell might be the better option as he is more of a stay-at-home, defensive presence to let Bouchard play his game that is more about driving offense.
Mike Smith is the presumed starter heading into the season. Sure, he had an amazing 2020-21 season. A 21-6 record, a 2.31 GAA, a .923 SV%, and a 13.9 GSAA. Just incredible numbers, his best season in nearly 10 years. But he is 39 and the performance last season was an anomaly based on his stats from other seasons. I don’t expect him to be nearly as good in 2021-22. But, the team clearly still views him as a capable goalie and since Mikko Koskinen is still the assumed backup, Smith is probably playing 40+ games this season.
Koskinen had a rough go of it last season and the Oilers need him to be better in case he has to play more games and act as a 1B. Hopefully with more games and consistent playing time Mikko will find a groove and have a solid year.
Alex Stalock, the team’s third stringer last season, will miss the entire season due to a heart condition stemming from a bout with COVID-19. Unless the Oilers acquire another goalie, Stuart Skinner, who has been the starter for the Bakersfield Condors for a bit, has moved up the depth chart into the third stringer role.
One last goalie that has made his debut over in North America this training camp is Ilya Konovalov. It is unlikely he is an impact player this season due to youth and lack of experience but he has been solid in the KHL for the last 3 seasons and could be a bit of a longshot/wildcard to jump up in the depth chart here.
Edmonton Oilers 2021-22 Prediction
2nd-3rd Pacific Division
Edmonton is lucky that the Pacific Division is so weak because it’s going to help them pad their standings position a little bit. Their closest competitor is Calgary (is it too early to predict a Battle of Alberta in round 1?) with Seattle and Vancouver having the potential to push but they are longshots. The additions up front give this team what might be the best forward group/depth they’ve had in years. And although the defensive additions are questionable, there is still hope that players will be fitting into specific or reduced roles that will help them succeed.
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