This blog is Part 1 of a two-parter.
In yesterday’s blog, I discussed my belief that Oilers management are not done tinkering this off-season with the roster, and there are still moves that can be made before the season to improve the team. Thank you Hockeybuzz for posting that blog as a “regular” blog. I’ll keep writing these so we can see if my blogs can all be “regular” on this website.
Before I get into the point of this blog, a little feedback to those who commented on my last blog. Thank you for doing so:
1. Drake Cagguila looked rather comfortable and good with Connor McDavid when it was tried during the 2016/2017 season. The Oilers don’t have any clear NHL-ready first or second line right wingers this season, so management is going to audition players in the role. Cagguila probably has the inside because of how he and McDavid looked together last season. I realize this isn’t a sexy suggestion, but there’s no proof that Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan Strome or Zack Kassian are better options. We know Cagguila is a fast skater and that’s important when it comes to finding McDavid a buddy.
2. Some of you are thinking, “the Oilers will play McDavid and Draisaitl together again this season”. Likely not. Oh, they’ll be on the same power-play unit; that is assured. But the Oilers during the regular season didn’t have enough offense coming from the second-thru-fourth lines. Splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl makes sense in terms of trying to generate more scoring. Draisaitl looked great as a center in the playoffs.
3. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t believe Jesse Puljujarvi is ready to play Top 6 minutes in the NHL, nor do I believe there’s value to rushing him into the role. The Oilers rushed Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, and it could be debated doing so was wrong. Just because someone is picked high in the draft it doesn’t mean they are immediately a great player. You draft the player with the most long-term potential, and Puljujarvi has loads of it. He’s also still adjusting to life in North America and learning the language.
4. If the point of playing Draisaitl on the second line is to spread the offense around, please consider either Ryan Strome or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing on the same line with him this season. If it’s Nuge, Draisaitl will play right wing. If it’s Strome, Draisaitl will play center. Strome is probably a better player offensively than Cagguila, but if Caggulia fits with McDavid, why mess that up?
The point of this blog, and as I mentioned, it’s a two-parter, is to discuss options the Oilers have this summer to improve the team. Before I move on, I will clarify what I mean by “improve the team”. The goal of the 2017/2018 season is probably not winning the Stanley Cup. Of course, everyone wants to win and the Oilers had a taste of the playoffs last season and are probably hungry for more. But what’s going on in Edmonton is the start of a potential dynasty, and that will take time to develop.
When you think about this team, consider the ages of the core players. As of today, McDavid is 20, Draisaitl is 21, future star forwards Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are 19 and 18 respectively. The core of the defense long-term – Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are both age 24, Matt Benning is 23, Darnell Nurse is 22, and the Oilers have four prospects that have a future in the NHL – Ethan Bear, Ziyat Paigin, Ryan Mantha and Caleb Jones. All four are 22 or younger. I haven’t brought up Andrej Sekera or Kris Russell in this. Neither are ancient (31 and 30) and both have four seasons left on the contracts. Both also have No Movement Clauses on their contracts, so they will be here.
When we discuss the long-term success of the Oilers, we need to keep in mind the salary cap and its implications on the roster. Once Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million contract comes into play, the Oilers will need to rely on younger players and annual roster changes to stay competitive. These aren’t the days of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr. That roster would have been too expensive to fit under a salary cap in the modern era of NHL hockey. More likely, that group of six in the modern day would be more a group of five or four. All the other parts on the team need to be available for movement if and when required. The Chicago Blackhawks team management model is a decent example of how the Oilers will need to be managed over the next 15 seasons.
The one thing Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Bear, Paigin, Mantha and Jones have in common is that they aren’t ready for a core role on the Oilers team. They need time in the AHL, or in Yamamoto’s case, more time in the WHL. There’s no reason to think Puljujarvi can’t become the next Jari Kurri or Bear can become a very Ryan Ellis-type of defenseman. Some if not most will become important parts of the Oilers a few seasons from now. Paigin is perhaps the player most ready, but when I say that I suggest he’d be a bottom-pairing NHL defenseman, and the Oilers don’t seem to have trouble finding those. Bear and Jones have more middle-pairing potential, but it will take three or more seasons for that to be realized.
Because the Oilers will always be reliant on youth as long as McDavid’s contracts exist here, it’s important the Oilers keep and use their draft picks instead of trading them. Keep in mind a decent Oilers team will draft low, so we should expect less from those prospects. How they got Yamamoto this summer from the 22 spot is a mystery, but we’ll take it. It’s funny; the Oilers traded Jordan Eberle and they drafted the next Jordan Eberle. A better-skating version of Eberle, at that.
Oilers GM and President of Hockey Operations Peter Chiarelli needs to project and predict the development and growth of his team, especially the young players. If he does it correctly, he can figure out who can be dealt, when they can be dealt, what they can be dealt for, and how to win cups along the way.
Why make deals at all? Ask yourself if you believe this team is good enough to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. You become the champion you need to beat the champion.
McDavid + Draisaitl is equal to Crosby + Malkin. That’s a positive.
Cam Talbot and Matt Murray are roughly equal in quality as well. So far so good.
Would you rather Letang, Schultz, Maatta and Hunwick, or Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera and Russell? This is difficult to evaluate. The Oilers group of four I listed has no one who can move the puck in comparison to Kris Letang or Justin Schultz. That’s a problem, but it might not be solvable. The Oilers aren’t going to move Klefbom or Larsson, and Sekera and Russell have NMCs. If the Oilers want to become better than the Penguins, it needs to be at forward and not on defense.
A little honest observation about the current Oilers forward roster: There’s a huge quality drop-off after McDavid and Draisaitl. Maybe in time Puljujarvi and Yamamoto become a deadly offensive 1-2 punch on the right side. Hey, they are the best prospects the Oilers have, so it could happen. Puljujarvi is 19. Yamamoto is 18. Keep that in mind. Expecting anything from them over the next two seasons (at least) is a mistake.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is, without question, a quality player, but I think we all realize by now he’s not offensively dominant. What he is right now for the Oilers is an expensive third line center, and that’s a problem when it comes to the Oilers long-term cap situation. I’m not trying to single him out, though. Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic both represent cap management challenges, and if Strome or Cagguila have a big season, they too could price themselves off the roster.
Oilers management cannot keep everyone. And because the current forward group probably, as a group, won’t score enough to win a championship, making a move or two in order to improve the offense before this season begins is logical.
I will suggest there are three quality assets the Oilers can move. Nugent-Hopkins is the first, for reasons I’ve already explained. Nuge seemed to sag heavily after McDavid was drafted. It seemed psychological. Pre-McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins was the presumptive first-line center on the team. Now, he’s not as important and he knows it. I’m willing to bet that some NHL GMs would be willing to bet on Nugent-Hopkins rebounding if he was the most important center somewhere else. A number of NHL teams are needing a center right now. I’ll say eight. Some of those eight teams have the cap space needed to make a trade happen.
I will also suggest a tough decision will need to be made on Maroon. I love the guy. I’d rather the Oilers trade Lucic. But the problems are, Lucic has a NMC and Maroon scored 27 goals last season. He’s in the last year of his contract. If the Oilers can sign him now to an extension at $4 million or less per season, you keep him. More than that? He needs to go.
The third player I will suggest who can be moved in Darnell Nurse. Yes, I can hear Oilers fans losing their minds right now. Everyone loves the Nurse. I love him too. Paigin and Jones make it possible to consider moving Nurse. Keep in mind the Oilers have their Top 4 defensemen set for the next four seasons. Nurse is a waste playing on the third pairing. I’m not so much concerned about his immediate contract cap hit. He’ll likely get a bridge deal next summer for a few million per season. Completely survivable. But we’re talking about how to improve the Oilers forward group right now, and that means something of value might need to be sacrificed. Could trading Nurse bring back a younger yet proven NHL scorer who can play on the top two lines?
A year ago, everyone thought the Oilers lost the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson trade. As it turns out, we really didn’t. Quality young defensemen are worth more than scoring forwards. Nurse would have more value than Nugent-Hopkins or Maroon on the trade market.
Consider a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, who have plenty of forwards who can score, but the roster is a defenseman short. How much would the Flyers give up to add Darnell Nurse to their future? Probably a great deal. Could acquiring Sean Couturier or Wayne Simmonds be possible if you are Edmonton? Consider the Flyers just drafted second overall, and they acquired a center. What does that mean for the future of the team? They probably crave youth, and we know they need defense. Simmonds is age 28 and has only two seasons left on his contract. If Nugent-Hopkins was moved in a different deal, Couturier would be a more-than-good third line center replacement. Both men would fit well into the current Oilers roster.
I am not sure this is a possible trade. I am just giving you an idea of what could happen if Chiarelli gets creative. Unlike previous Oilers seasons, he has moveable capital to work with.
Part 2 of this blog will look around the NHL to search for clues as to who might be available and at what price.