Edmonton is always tough to gauge. It seems like they’re (still) dealing with identity issues (after 14 years or so) as a club, and the reliance on McDavid & Draisaitl combined with a long-term injury to Oscar Klefbom leaves quite a bit of room for variation when predicting the outcome of their season.
They doubled down on the Smith-Koskinen duo in net despite a loaded goalie market and although they project to be above average on D with Klefbom healthy, Ken Holland has announced he’ll miss the season.
On the flip side, as the Islanders have shown, a team with a strong identity and tight system can not only overcome roster deficits but thrive while doing so, and injuries aside I do see a better team on paper than last year’s. They’re going into year two under Dave Tippett, so his influence will be in full effect.
New additions Dominik Kahun and Kyle Turris should serve to stabilize their Top 9. The Athanasiou trade fell flat (at no small cost), but if Turris proves to be a good fit they’ll have a reliable third line centre who allows Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to stay cemented in the Top 6 without having to worry about any ripple effect in the lineup.
The Jesse Puljujärvi signing was a pleasant surprise and I’m as curious as anyone to see how he looks in the NHL this time around. Clearly there’s still upside there, as he’s been one of the top players in Liiga for a year and a half.
Still just 22 years old, he’s going to come into camp with a legitimate path to a Top 9 spot; whether or not he takes it is the question. He got a raw deal in his first go-round in Edmonton, being the victim of poor management, a decade plus of lackluster drafting, and an unhealthy desire to get the franchise competitive again at the cost of their prospects’ long term development.
Hopefully it hasn’t left a lasting effect on his mental game. My expectation is that he wins a spot on the third line comfortably and earns enough trust to get some looks in the Top 6.
With Kahun, Puljujärvi, Zack Kassian, Tyler Ennis, James Neal, Alex Chiasson and Kailer Yamamoto, they appear to be betting on a glut of Middle 6 winger depth being enough to give them three productive & efficient lines.
Ordinarily, I’d treat this approach with more skepticism than I am. In McDavid, Draisaitl and to a lesser extent Nugent-Hopkins, they’ve got guys who can drastically elevate the play of their linemates. There’s nothing ordinary about any of them and there’s something downright otherworldly about two of them.
Pittsburgh won their 2009 Stanley Cup with a similar model, though the league was less driven by skill and speed at the time. They had added substantial upgrades on the wing by the time they won back to back in 2016 and 2017. Increasing the firepower of their supporting cast was key to their continued success post-2009 and it’s important to note they had very strong goaltending on all three cup-winning rosters as well.
ON THE BACK END
The Tyson Barrie signing was a real nice piece of work by Ken Holland. A 29 year old, high end offensive defenceman for 3.75m is amazing value, even after factoring in the flat cap and his coming off of a down year.
Fully healthy, this is a solid D corps with upside. That’s as far as I’m going to go in projecting this group from a fully healthy standpoint due to the Klefbom injury. In his absence, this unit will be tasked with punching well above its weight class.
I like Darnell Nurse’s odds of being up to the challenge and thriving with a bigger role. He’s a gamer. I think he’ll be seen by most as an elite top pairing guy by season’s end while thriving as a true minute munching, all-around defenceman who plays in all situations and on both special teams.
Adam Larsson isn’t likely to surprise. I think we’ve seen his limitations in taking on big minutes in past seasons and I don’t expect much to change there. He’s solid, but he’s never going to be at his most effective playing 21+ minutes a night.
Barrie is coming out of the furnace of Toronto and into the fire of Edmonton. You have to admire that he’s betting on himself with a one year deal at a discount, and here’s hoping he’s both hungry (he will be) and an excellent fit in the system.
That might be his only shot at coming out of this season in better shape than he did last. Media scrutiny will be about as intense as it was in Toronto and his ice time will likely be a bit higher than the 21:53 he logged per game, which is not ideal.
I give him good odds of finding the power play success that never seemed to arrive as advertised in Toronto, but I worry his flaws without the puck come under the microscope in a larger role.
Kris Russell is Kris Russell and he’s gonna do Kris Russell things, for better or worse, regardless of whether or not Klefbom is in the lineup. He’s gonna block shots, skate well, work hard despite questionable efficiency, and ultimately divide the hockey community. Sure as the tide.
Ethan Bear was damn impressive in his first full season, averaging 21:58 TOI a night while moving the puck with aplomb and excelling as a Top 4 defenceman in a turn few saw coming. More on him later.
Caleb Jones showed promise with 14:08 TOI a night in 43 games, though he his minutes were heavily sheltered. He’ll look to take a step forward. Slater Koekkoek was added to the mix as a depth defender, which was a nice piece of work by Holland.
The ability of Bear, Jones and Nurse to take a step forward in their development while under the weight of higher expectations is going to be crucial in determining whether or not this team has a shot at competing beyond the regular season.
BETWEEN THE POSTS
Ken Holland went out and doubled down on Mike Smith in a move nobody was hoping for. I didn’t love that, and I’m a bigger Koskinen supporter than most. The more I look at it, though, the more it makes sense.
They obviously saw Tyson Barrie as being more important than an upgrade in net, and given Klefbom’s injury, he is. It’s just tough to swallow the return of a 38 year old Mike Smith after the loaded goalie market we just witnessed.
Klefbom’s injury will open up 4.17m of cap space, so if Smith really isn’t cutting it the option will be there to replace him, though the remaining UFA goalies don’t offer a clear upgrade and they’ll be dealing from a position of weakness if they choose to go the trade route. I’d imagine that money goes toward shoring up on defence in the end.
Ultimately, I feel that if Koskinen can come close to last season’s .917(!) save percentage and Smith can be a passable backup, they’ll be in solid shape in net. Not great, but stable. The tough squeeze is that they’re going to have to lean on Mike Smith, regardless of whether or not he struggles, due to the condensed schedule.
The Oilers were phenomenal on special teams last year, finishing with the NHL’s best power play and second best penalty kill. That high level of play should more or less continue on a whole, and the addition of Barrie looks even better when you factor in Klefbom’s absence on the PP.
Barrie has the ability to fill that gap and then some, so long as the fit is there. The hole Klefbom leaves on the PK hurts, though. There’s no clear cut replacement in place, so I do expect the team to take a bit of a hit in that area.
UNDER THE RADAR
Ethan Bear. He’s been underestimated every step of the way, but he seems to have developed not just the on-ice ability to be a very good NHL player, but the mind state and drive to get there.
Don’t be surprised if he takes a big step forward and becomes a name you can no longer ignore. I’ll actually go as far as to say that if Bear and Nurse both have the breakouts I’m hinting at and everyone else pulls their weight, this D corps will be legitimately good.
Tyler Benson. Once considered to be a potential 1st overall pick in the 2016 draft (grain of salt, Matthews and Laine went 1-2 that year), his draft year was marred by injuries and he fell to the Oilers at 32nd overall.
He’s an all-around player with strong hockey sense who projects well as a versatile plug & play NHL forward in the near future, and I think he’s got a good shot at making the team out of camp. The biggest question is whether or not he’s got Top 6 upside down the road.
I’m slotting them in at third, not too far ahead of a wildcard spot. With McDavid and Draisaitl putting the team on their backs yet again I do see the potential to finish higher, especially if they add some help on D or get the aforementioned growth from their current unit.
If they had Klefbom healthy I’d have them in the conversation for finishing higher already, but without him they might be bailing water out of the boat all season long in order to stay afloat.
Beyond the regular season, I just don’t know how far this team goes.