The MLB All-Fun Team

Spring is in the air, and the start of the 2021 Major League Baseball Season is not far behind.

As with any preseason, this year’s Spring Training is full of storylines. New faces in strange places, teams entering rebuilds, others going all in. We could break down the new-look Blue Jays or the imminent dogfight in the NL West, but those topics have been beaten to death.

Spring Training also means it’s rankings season. Media folks all over baseball are unveiling their top tens, twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Baseball is, after all, a game centered around individuality. I could follow a similar path, but I’m going to change it up. Instead of giving my opinion on who the best players are, I’m going to construct a team – one player at each position on the diamond – that reflects what I as a baseball fan love to watch (Bonus points if they regularly piss off your A-Rods and Mad Dog-type people).

So here it is, my 2021 Major League Baseball All-Fun Team

Starting Pitcher: Shohei Ohtani

Honourable Mention(s): Jacob deGrom, Tyler Glasnow

This is probably the most obvious pick on the list. How can you not root for the first two-way player the game has seen in nearly a century? It’s not like he’s mediocre on both sides of the ball either. We’re talking about a guy that had a 127 ERA+ in his first year in the big leagues, and was in the 96th percentile for Hard Hit Ball % (Baseball Savant). In the last week, Ohtani has crushed a baseball over the batter’s eye and hit 100 mph with the fastball. Injuries have held him back in his young career, but if he ever puts it all together, he is what scouts refer to has a “dynamic talent.”

Relief Pitcher: Josh Hader

Honourable Mention(s): Liam Hendriks

Josh has stuff. He pairs a 94.5 mph fastball with a slider that breaks 7.5 inches on average. He is elite when it comes to missing barrels, and leads all relievers over the pas two seasons with 16.07 K/9. I’m going to say that again. Josh Hader strikes out more than a batter and a half per inning. What makes Hader super-duper fun is that if by some miracle an opponent does make contact, it’s leaving the yard. Over the past two seasons, Hader has surrendered 1.71 home runs per nine innings, which is 23rd among all qualified relievers and way more than you would expect for a guy with 50 saves in that span. Normally, I’m not a big fan of three true outcome baseball, but Hader simply fascinates me.

Catcher: J.T. Realmuto

Honourable Mention(s): Jeff Mathis, Yadier Molina

You could very easily make an argument that J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in professional baseball. But what’s not to admire here? J.T. is a plus-hitter on top of being elite defensively at the hardest (and most important) position in the game. In 2020, Realmuto was the second-best framing catcher in the league (+3 runs), had the quickest throwing time to second base (1.89 seconds), led the league in caught stealing and was second among catchers with a .825 OPS. The dude can frame, block, throw and mash. What’s not to love?

First Base: Freddie Freeman

Honourable Mention(s): Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo

If a Canadian wins NL MVP, you better believe he’s going on the list. In 2020, Freeman ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in almost every major offensive category tracked by Baseball Savant. He hit the ball hard, and hit it often. So it’s really no surprise that Freddie wrapped up the season with a 187 wRC+. This means that when you total up the value of all of Freddie’s plate appearances in 2020 and adjust for the ballpark and era in which he played, he was 87% better than the average MLB player throughout history. This number was second in baseball, trailing another member of the list that we will get to shortly.

Second Base: Cavan Biggio

Honourable Mention(s): DJ LeMahieu, Cesar Hernandez

I know, this is a boring pick. You might not even think Cavan Biggio is that fun. But this is my list, and Cav makes it for two reasons:

  1. I wasn’t not going to put a Jay on this list
  2. Cavan is my kind of ballplayer.

What’s my kind of ballplayer? Cerebral. I love guys that think the game well. Let’s start in the field. Analytically, Biggio is not a good defender. In fact, he’s below replacement. But what he lacks there can be made up for in the fact that he is a super-utility man. In his 166 game MLB career, Biggio has played at least nine innings at every spot on the diamond except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. No one knows where he’ll play this year, just that he’ll play. At the plate, Biggio is as smart as they come. Need a bunt double? He’s your guy. Hit for the cycle? Been there, done that. Biggio posted a .375 OBP despite only batting .250. His 15.5% walk rate led all second basemen.

Third Baseman: Matt Chapman

Honourable Mention(s): Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson

“But Nolan Arenado!” I hear you yell at your monitor/phone/whathaveyou. Hear me out: Matt Chapman is the best defensive player in all of baseball. Not just at third base, but among players at all positions. Matt Chapman has played two full major league seasons. In those two seasons he has led baseball in Defensive Runs Saved twice and Ultimate Zone Rating once. Think about it: a third baseman (who gets a +2.5 positional adjustment) is beating Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor (who get a +7.5 boost). And when you watch some highlights, it makes sense. Matt Chapman is to third base what Tom Hanks is to acting.

Shortstop: Fernando Tatis, Jr.

Honourable Mention(s): Javier Baez, Bo Bichette

Duh. This guy is the undisputable face of baseball. He’s on the cover of MLB the Show. He’s the king of bat flips and breaking your precious, archaic unwritten rules. Fernando Tatis might just save baseball, that’s how freaking cool he is. Plus, he is a true 40-40 threat. According to Baseball Savant, Tatis hits the ball harder than anyone (95.9 mph, 1st in MLB) and runs faster than almost anyone (29.4 ft./sec, 10th in MLB). Super. Star.

Left Field: Juan Soto

Honourable Mention(s): Tim Locastro

Remember when I said Freddie Freeman had the second highest wRC+ in 2020? Juan Soto was the only qualified hitter ahead of him. In fact, he was roughly 14% better, with a 201 wRC+. That’s right, in 2020 Juan Soto was twice as valuable as an average major league hitter. If there is any player in baseball that has a chance to top what Mike Trout has done with the bat, it’s Soto. His Baseball Reference comparables feature the likes of Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey, Jr. And don’t even get me started with the Soto Shuffle. Juan Soto might just be my favourite non-Canadian, non-Blue Jays player in the game today.

Centre Field: Mike Trout

Honourable Mention(s): Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Mike Trout is one of the bet five baseball players to ever walk the earth. Depending on how the rest of his career progresses, he could finish on top. No player in the history of this game has been able to contribute like he has on both sides of the ball. Don’t believe me? Babe Ruth is the all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement at 182.5 over 22 major league seasons. Let’s say (for sake of argument) that Trout matches Ruth and plays 12 more seasons in the show. To catch Ruth’s WAR total, Trout would need to average 9 WAR per season, well within his career high of 10.5 (which he’s done twice). Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Not a chance.

Right Field: Mookie Betts

Honourable Mention(s): Max Kepler

If there is a player that can even come close to Mike Trout’s talent, it’s Mookie. He’ll never be equal to Trout, but he can get close. We all saw what he did in the World Series. The dude has tools. Elite hitter, best defensive right fielder in the game, deadly speed and incredible baseball IQ. I don’t know what else to say other than the Red Sox should be banned from baseball if they can’t keep a talent like this. That’s not even mentioning David Price.

Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz

Honourable Mention(s): J.D. Martinez

What can I say? Home Runs are fun. Nelson Cruz hits lots of home runs.

Since you’ve been so good and lasted this long, I’ll reward you by making a lineup for this team. Let me know what you think. Any players I missed? Go yell at me on Twitter: @BayduzaEthan

  1. Tatis, Jr. SS
  2. Soto LF
  3. Freeman 1B
  4. Trout CF
  5. Cruz DH
  6. Betts RF
  7. Realmuto C
  8. Chapman 3B
  9. Biggio 2B

Blue Jays: World Series Bound?

TORONTO, ON – AUGUST 30: George Springer #4 of the Houston Astros hits a 3 run home run in the fifth inning during a MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on August 30, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The Toronto Blue Jays are going to win the World Series.

Repeat after me: The Toronto Blue Jays are going to win the World Series. Bold words for a team that has made the playoffs exactly three times in the last 28 years? Definitely. Have I gone mad? You betcha. Nonetheless, the Toronto Blue Jays are going to win the World Series.

The signing of George Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract – beating out the New York Mets – indicates that the bluebirds are done playing. They are no longer messing around. They are here, and they are here to win.

I should clarify: I don’t mean the 2021 World Series – although that is a definite possibility – but by the time that George Springer’s contract expires, Blue Jays fans will have celebrated at least one World Series title.

I’ve definitely lost it.

How they stack up right now:

Forgive my use of fancies here, but they paint a clear picture of why the Jays are in such a good position (plus, baseball analytics are actually useful for predicting future success, unlike *cough* hockey *cough* some sports).

According to Fangraphs’ 2021 Projections, the Blue Jays have the fourth best team in all of baseball. Not bad for a 32-28 team last year. In the American League, they are second to only the New York Yankees. They have the fourth-best lineup in the majors, and the seventh-best pitching staff. As they stand right now, the Blue Jays seem like a lock for at least a wild card spot (according to the numbers).

Youthful exuberance

The big advantage the Blue Jays have is the fact that their young core has yet to play a full season together. They’re still getting acclimated to life in the Big Leagues. In six years, we will be talking about how Toronto has the best infield in baseball, and maybe the best outfield as well. In 2020, the oldest starting position player not named Travis Shaw was Randal Grichuk at 28. 28! Age is simply not going to be a factor for a while in Toronto.

The biggest obstacle for young players playing in big games is a lack of experience. In 2020, the Blue Jays got a gift from the baseball gods in the form of an expanded postseason. Yes, their playoff run lasted less than 48 hours, but the experience of playing meaningful baseball in September is priceless for this young team. They earned their spot in the Wild Card series. They had to beat the Yankees and scratch out a win against Tampa Bay. When they are in the middle of a pennant race this fall, it won’t be new to them. That disadvantage is gone.

Big fish

Last offseason, the Blue Jays spent $109 million on Free Agents – the 10th highest total in the Majors. So far this year, that number is at $166 million – more than any other club this year, and more than all but three teams spent last year.

Think about that: The Blue Jays have outspent the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Mets.

Gone are the days of not even offering David Price a contract. Gone are the days of losing Encarnacion, Donaldson and Bautista. The Blue Jays ownership have shown that they are willing to take advantage of the current financial climate and invest now. And if you think the Jays are done spending this year, you clearly have not been paying attention.

We thought the Jays locked up Michael Brantley, but now that he is staying in Houston, Toronto is going to use that money to upgrade another position. It might be another outfielder, but I believe it will either be a Number Two starter (maybe Trevor Bauer, but I think Canadian James Paxton is a perfect choice) or a utility infielder that can play second and third base (I’m big on Tommy La Stella).

Here are just some of the top-tier Free Agents the Blue Jays have been linked to recently:

  • James Paxton (Jon Heyman)
  • Brad Hand (Robert Murray)
  • Andrelton Simmons (Jon Heyman)
  • Trevor Bauer (Ken Rosenthal)
  • Jake Odorizzi (JP Morosi)

Oh, and multiple writers have reported that the Jays are working on a Kris Bryant deal with the Cubs.

I think it’s safe to say that the Blue Jays have entered their championship window, and it’s going to be open for a long time.

Predicting Point Totals for the 2021 Oilers

Simple premise: How many points will each Edmonton Oilers skater end up with this season?

This isn’t some fancy mathematical model or scientific conclusion. It’s probably not even a realistic expectation. It’s just my gut feeling based on the past production of each player. I’m going to work my way up from lowest to highest scorers.

Also, I am going to assume that each player plays 56 games. I know that three games into the season that’s already impossible, but bear with me. Also also, I’m just going to go through who I believe to be the best 18 skaters Edmonton has. The guys that I think will play on a regular basis. Alright, enough qualifiers. Here we go:

18. Adam Larsson: 2 goals, 9 assists (11 points)

82 Game Pace: 3 goals, 13 Assists (16 points)

Adam Larsson missed a good chunk of last season due to injury, which is why he only managed 6 points. Larsson is an excellent passer in my eyes, but will be relied upon as the team’s best shutdown defenseman. Expect all 11 points to come 5-on-5.

17. Slater Koekkoek: 3 goals, 8 assists (11 points)

82 Game Pace: 4 goals, 12 Assists (16 points)

Koekkoek won’t get anywhere near the amount of ice time Larsson does, but it looks like he could be paired up with Tyson Barrie most of the season on the third pair. Dave Tippett probably wants to shelter Barrie as much as possible from high-leverage defensive situations while also pairing him with a guy like Slater who can cover for him. Both guys move the puck really well, and should have no problem getting it to the big boys.

16. Gaetan Haas: 8 goals, 7 assists (15 points)

82 Game Pace: 12 goals, 10 Assists (22 points)

In 58 games as a rookie, Haas managed five goals and five assists. Now that he’s secured a role on this team as their fourth-line centre, I imagine he will only get more and more comfortable as the season rolls on and he plays more games. He’s got the tools to be a driver on the Oilers’ fourth line, so I expect an increase in his production.

15. Caleb Jones: 7 goals, 9 assists (16 points)

82 Game Pace: 10 goals, 13 assists (23 points)

I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Caleb Jones in the first couple games of the season. In the first game vs. Vancouver, he had two shot attempts from the slot and another from the low point. He’s not afraid to work low, and I believe that is a fine complement to his defensive game. He should have no problem adding to his nine points in 43 games last year.

14. Zack Kassian: 8 goals, 11 assists (19 points)

82 Game Pace: 12 goals, 16 assists (28 points)

I believe that this is the year we see Zack Kassian decline – from an offensive perspective. It’s not due to age (this is his age-30 season), but rather the options the Oilers have on the wings. In the past, it didn’t matter if Kassian stuggled – he was McDavid’s winger by deafult. Now the Oilers have added Ennis, Kahun, Yamamoto, Puljujarvi and Neal, among others. Kassian will have a short leash and if someone else gets hot, expect them to replace Kassian to play with Connor and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

13. Jesse Puljujarvi: 8 goals, 12 assists (20 points)

82 Game Pace: 12 goals, 18 assists (30 points)

This is easily the hardest Oiler to predict for two reasons: First, we haven’t seen the kid play for two years; second, no player on this roster as as big of a range in terms of where they could slot in. I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised if Puljujarvi ends the season on McDavid’s wing and as the net-front guy on the top Powerplay unit, but we are not really expecting that from him either. I think a 30-point pace is a fairly conservative estimate for the fourth-highest scorer in Liiga a year ago. We shall see.

12. Josh Archibald: 11 goals, 9 assists (20 points)

82 Game Pace: 16 goals, 13 assists (29 points)

The only reason I have Archibald so high is because Dave Tippett will, at some point this season, play Archibald on the top line with Connor McDavid. He loved the pairing last season, so don’t be shocked when he goes back to it. I’d expect Gaetan Haas numbers, aside from a week where Archie puts up five points in two games. But let’s not forget that Josh Archibald finished 6th on the team in scoring last season despite only playing 62 games.

11. Ethan Bear: 4 goals, 17 assists (21 points)

82 Game Pace: 6 goals, 25 assists (31 points)

Every time I watch Ethan Bear move the puck, I am more and more impressed. Nobody on this team is more calm under pressure. Playing with Darnell Nurse both 5-on-5 and on the Power Play should offer Bear every opportunity to improve on his 21 point campaign last season. He will match his total, only in 15 less games.

10. Darnell Nurse: 5 goals, 20 assists (25 points)

82 Game Pace: 7 goals, 29 assists (36 points)

Darnell Nurse was one point behind Oscar Klefbom for the team’s defenceman scoring lead in 2020, and should find himself in a similar competition this year with Tyson Barrie. Nurse saw a slight dip in production last year, but this is a player whose best asset is his ability to jump in the rush. Expect a bounce back in a big way.

9. Tyler Ennis: 12 goals, 13 assists (25 points)

82 Game Pace: 18 goals, 19 assists (37 points)

This prediction will be wrong if Tyler Ennis spends significant time on the fourth line. Obviously. However the reason the team went out and acquired Tyler Ennis was because he is a skilled player who has the speed to play with Connor McDavid. It’s why they re-signed him this season. Even if Ennis spends most of his time with Jesse Puljujarvi and Kyle Turris (you may have noticed I haven’t mentioned him yet) and only gets a few looks with the big boys, he is too good not to produce.

8. James Neal: 20 goals, 9 assists (29 points)

82 game pace: 29 goals, 13 assists (42 points)

This is a weird one. James Neal is, of course, the player that scored 58 points in 2015-16 with Nashville. He is also the same player that scored only seven goals in 2018-19 with Calgary. All I will say about this prediction is that last season, in 55 games, he managed 19 goals and 12 assists. I expect him to park his rear end in front of the net and stay there while pucks bounce off of him. It worked for Ryan Smyth.

7. Kyle Turris: 9 goals, 21 assists (30 points)

82 Game Pace: 13 goals, 31 assists (44 points)

It didn’t work out in Nashville. I’d argue that his “lack of success” had more to do with his contract than his actual play, but sure. It didn’t work out in Nashville. Kyle Turris has hit 40 points four times in his career, most recently in 2017-18. Yes, I’m expecting a very dramatic comeback. But the third line of Ennis/Archibald – Turris – Puljujarvi isn’t getting enough love, even from Oilers fans. They will be getting some favourable matchups and once they get rolling, they will be very fun to watch.

6. Dominik Kahun: 15 goals, 21 assists (36 points)

82 Game Pace: 22 goals, 31 assists (53 points)

I think that Dominik Kahun has finally found a home. The Oilers are his fourth team in his 3-year NHL career despite being quite productive for a man his age. The Oilers only signed him to a one-year deal, but he will be a Restricted Free Agent at its conclusion, so they will be free to lock him up long-term. We all know about the chemistry he should have with his childhood friend, Leon Draisaitl. Kahun could very well be the missing link that forms the best second line in the game. Personally, I think this estimate might be on the safe side.

5. Tyson Barrie: 12 goals, 38 assists (50 points)

82 Game Pace: 18 goals, 56 assists (74 points)

OK, now we are getting to the big boys. This is easily my most outlandish projection. I don’t think Barrie will get this high, but it is absolutely possible. This is a guy who was considered one of the league’s elite offensive defensemen until he got to Toronto. It was a bad fit. Edmonton is a dream scenario for Tyson Barrie. He gets to run the point on the best Power Play in the league with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while not being expected to be a top pair shutdown guy. This is one of the best puck movers in the game, and he will definitely improve on last season’s numbers. Consider this: Barrie’s best season from a production standpoint was 2017-18: 57 points in 68 games. Over a full season? 69. While unlikely, the 50 point plateau is definitely doable for Barrie.

4. Kailer Yamamoto: 20 goals, 36 assists (56 points)

82 Game Pace: 29 goals, 53 assists (82 points)

Not much to say here that hasn’t been said. Kailer has been a point-per-game player since he was called up last season, and revealed himself as the perfect winger to play with last year’s Hart Trophy winner. What I will say is that even if Yamamoto scores zero points (impossible, he already has three), he is still a very valuable member of this team, thanks to his relentlessness on the forecheck.

3. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 19 goals, 45 assists (64 points)

82 Game Pace: 28 goals, 66 assists (94 points)

On the YEG Sports Podcast Season Preview show, I said that one of Nugent-Hopkins or Yamamoto would finish in the Top Ten in league scoring. I don’t doubt Kailer’s ability to do it, but Nuge is the safe bet here. Ryan (27) is the first of the Oilers core to be entering his prime years, and a full season on McDavid’s wing should be enough to propel the product of Burnaby, B.C. to superstardom. His production has improved in each of the last four seasons and I don’t expect it to stop any time soon.

2. Leon Draisaitl: 34 goals, 51 assists (85 points)

82 Game Pace: 50 goals, 75 assists (125 points)

Hard to believe that a 125-point pace is a decrease, but it is a drop of about two points. I expect Leon to follow a similar pattern to his first breakout year – 2016-17. The next season, his goal-scoring remained the same while the assists took a slight dip. Leon is 100% capable of repeating his success last year, but that was downright historic. I think that 85 in 56 is a much more reasonable and down-to-earth prediction.

1. Connor McDavid: 37 goals, 58 assists (95 points)

82 Game Pace: 54 goals, 85 assists (139 points)

Only in Edmonton can a 125-point pace land you second on the team’s leaderboard. Let’s start with the obvious: Connor McDavid is the best player the world has seen since Ovechkin/Crosby, he’s still three years away from his prime, and he’s playing in a league where scoring is increasing. Not to mention that he had an offseason to train and improve rather than rehab an injury. Plus he centres the best Power Play in the League. And now he’s reading articles saying he’s not the best player in the world (see: Michael Jordan). If you are a fan of a Canadian team not named the Edmonton Oilers, cover your butt.

I think that Connor McDavid would be the first to tell you how disappointed he was in his 97-point campaign a year ago. And he will be back with a vengeance.

For the record, 139 points would be the 25th highest single season mark in history, edging out Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL season by two points.

Breaking Down the 2021 Edmonton Oilers Schedule

EDMONTON, AB – FEBRUARY 06: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal with line mates Edmonton Oilers Defenceman Darnell Nurse (25) and Edmonton Oilers Defenceman Ethan Bear (74) in the first period during the Edmonton Oilers game versus the San Jose Sharks on February 06, 2020, at Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB.(Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire)

Let’s do that hockey.

The Edmonton Oilers will kick off their 41st National Hockey League season on January 13th with a back-to-back against the division rival Vancouver Canucks. What follows is 56 total games in 115 days (approximately one game every other day) against Edmonton’s other division rivals, both traditional and otherwise.

With the closure of the Canada-United States border due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the NHL decided to re-align their four divisions so that as many teams as possible were able to play out of their home rinks. The Oilers will partake in the brand new North Division, where they will see the usual suspects – your Canucks and your Flames – but will also see plenty more of the other Canadian teams.

The Opponents

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, because the re-ignited (pun intended) Battle of Alberta between your beloved Oilers and the evil savages to the South will occur TEN TIMES this season. 18% of Oilers games in 2021 will be against Calgary. The highlight of this series is a pair of games on back-to-back nights in February with the latter scheduled for Saturday Hockey Night in Canada. Expect blood.

The Vancouver Canucks are the other team the Oilers will square off with ten times, starting with the back-to-back curtain raiser on January 13th and 14th in Edmonton. While Vancouver-Edmonton pales in comparison to the Battle of Alberta, the Canucks are still a rival, and these are two teams that will be right in the thick of the playoff race. Besides, any time you play a team ten times in less than six months, it will get heated. Expect blood.

As for the other four Canadian clubs, the Oilers will play each on a total of nine occasions each. Again, I don’t care what team you’re playing, if you play them this many times in a season, it will get out of hand quickly. Expect blood.

The Format

I really like the decision made by the NHL to construct the schedule the way they did. To explain what I mean by this, let’s take a look at the Oilers’ schedule in the month of March:

To start the month, the Oilers play the last two of a three game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. Then Calgary makes the three hour drive north for a single game, followed by three against the Ottawa Senators. After two weeks at home, the Oilers take the short trip to Vancouver to play a single game. Then two in Calgary. Back home for two against the Winnipeg Jets. Then they travel east of Lloydminster for the first time in over a month. Three in Montreal, two in Toronto, and then it’s back home for the Oilers.

In a month, the Oilers play seventeen games, but they only get on a plane five times, and three of those trips can be completed in an hour and a half or less.

That’s the first reason I really like this schedule from the NHL. In the COVID Era, you want to limit travel as much as possible because it eases the strain on the players, and it reduces the risk of a potential outbreak. If a player in an Edmonton-Montreal game tests positive, it won’t affect the Ottawa-Winnipeg game because you’ve isolated the incident. We are less likely to see MLB-esque cancellations of games because of this schedule.

The second reason I really like the schedule is related to the first section of this article. It builds hate. Sure, the Oilers might not have any hard feelings towards the Canadiens now, but you can’t tell me that playing Corey Perry three times in a week doesn’t end with a spear job. Expect blood.

How Does it Affect the Oilers’ Chances?

I’m not going to get into the “Which Division is the Best” argument here, because I don’t want to waste your time. I just want to look at how the Oilers might fare playing Pacific Division teams vs. their new division opponents. (I’m using Regulation Win Percentage to measure the quality of each team. The reason boils down to the fact that overtime is essentially random.)

Regulation Win %, 2019-20

PacificRW%NorthRW%
ANA.282CGY.357
ARI.371MTL.268
CGY.357OTT.254
LAK.300TOR.400
SJS.314VAN.391
VAN.391WPG.423
VGK.423
TOTAL.348TOTAL.348
Statistics from NHL.com

There you go. The overall quality of teams that the Oilers are facing are exactly the same that they would face in the Pacific Division (obviously this is a very crude measure. It doesn’t take into account offseason additions or internal development). If these numbers seem low, the league high RW% last season was the Boston Bruins at .543.

You may be wondering what the Oilers sat at. By this metric, the Oilers were the best team in the Pacific last year, and the best of the Canadian teams. Their regulation win percentage was .437.

If they’re the best team, then should strength of opponent matter? Perhaps not. Still, I want to compare how well the Oilers play against these teams head-to-head over the last three seasons (for a larger sample size):

Edmonton Oilers Head-to-Head Regulation Win%, 2017-2020

PacificRW%NorthRW%
ANA.300CGY.385*
ARI.250MTL.833*
CGY.385*OTT.400*
LAK.583*TOR.167
SJS.167VAN.333
VAN.333WPG.111
VGK.364*
TOTAL.341TOTAL.353
Statistics from hockey-reference.com and Stathead

Asterisks indicate teams that the Oilers have played well against (RW% above .336, which is Edmonton’s RW% against all teams during that span).

Despite struggling against Toronto and Winnipeg, the Oilers are roughly as successful against the Canadian teams as they are against the Pacific teams. The difference is .984 regulation wins over an 82 game season (.672 over 56). This is to say that the Oilers were a good team last year, should be a better team this year, and that the schedule isn’t offering much to change that. In fact, you could say that the Oilers were granted a very slight advantage from the schedule.

Facts & Figures

While diving deep into the Oilers schedule, a few interesting tidbits presented themselves:

  1. The Oilers are scheduled to play 11 back-to-backs, tied with Ottawa for the most in the North Division, and second in the NHL only to San Jose (According to Travis Yost of TSN). They played eight in 2019-20.
  2. 12 Oilers games are scheduled on Saturdays, compared to 17 that were scheduled over 82 games last season. We won’t know how many will be part of Hockey Night in Canada until the game times are released, but one can only assume that a lot of games in the North Division will be nationally televised.
  3. With divisional playoffs in effect this season, we could see a maximum of SEVENTEEN Battles of Alberta if the two should meet in the first or second round.

The NHL has set the stage for what should be the most entertaining regular season of NHL hockey we have ever witnessed.

The NHL is Going to Play this Year

I know, I’m crazy.

With all the balls up in the air and the reluctance from both sides to negotiate, you might be wondering how I can be so confident that the National Hockey League is going to complete the 2020-21 season. Well, dear reader, let me elaborate.

While the NFL started their season on time because they’re the NFL and nothing was going to stop them, the NHL is operating from a position of desperation. The damage that could be done to the sport if they don’t play (read: financial losses), will be ten times worse than any damage done if they do play.

To put it simply, they can’t afford not to play.

So here it is, my list of reasons why I am confident the NHL will commence and complete some semblance of a season.

1. Gary wants to play

I know this sounds contrary to my previous article in defense of Gary Bettman, but recent history has shown that what Gary (really majority of NHL owners) wants, Gary gets. He has a knack for getting a vocal minority of owners on board with whatever the Board of Governors is pursuing. So when Gary says that all 31 teams are going to play, it means we are more than likely getting a season.

2. Legally, they have to play

The owners and players have already signed a legally binding agreement that prevents a labour stoppage until at least 2026. Check out this beauty of an excerpt from the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

Neither the League nor any Club shall engage in a lockout during the term of this
Agreement
.” – CBA between NHL and NHLPA, Article 7.1 (b)

Obviously the NHL was able to shut down back in March to protect the health of it’s players. But the current negotiations aren’t about health, they’re about money. This means that if the owners decided to call it a day and go home, they would be locking out the players – a clear violation of the agreement they extended, regardless of whether or not they read the details.

If the owners choose not to play, the Players’ Association has clear grounds for legal action against the league.

3. The TV Contracts

The NHL (based on incredibly rough estimation) makes about 10% of its revenue from its two national TV contracts with Sportsnet and NBC. This number gets magnified when the NHL has lost about half of its total revenue in the form of ticket sales. If the 2021 season doesn’t happen, the TV money will be in danger as well.

The NBC deal expires at the end of the 2021 season. A contract with the NHL looks like a good investment right now, but that’s only because hockey was played this summer. If the NHL isn’t present on televisions at all this winter, no TV executive in their right mind is going to want to hand the league a bag of cash.

I wouldn’t count on the Canadian deal being safe, either. The rumour is that Sportsnet was regretting their $5.2 billion deal before hockey disappeared from our screens. Imagine how they feel after the 61% decline in ratings for the Stanley Cup Final.

I’m not a legal professional, so I can’t speak to whether or not Sportsnet has a way to get out of that contract. What I do know is that if the upcoming season doesn’t happen, the NHL should expect a call from Sportsnet’s lawyers.

4. Future Ramifications

This leads into my final argument, easily the most significant. Let’s say we get the nightmare solution: No season, no new TV deal. All that growth they’ve seen in the U.S? hasta la vista. The NFL’s in full swing, the NBA has their plan in place, MLB got their season in, and soccer hasn’t missed a beat. Aside from Canada and a handful of northeastern American markets, the fans might not come back this time. They will spend that year watching sports that are on TV.

Not playing this season could mean the death of hockey as a major sport.

When the NBA was struggling in the late 70’s, the players and owners came to the negotiating table with one goal: forgoing short-term minor revenue increases for significant, long-term growth that ensured there would be a league in the future.

The NHL needs to change the way they think about money. Instead of screwing over your partner and taking a larger share of the current revenue, let’s focus on creating revenue and ensuring there is a league to profit from in 20 years.

Don’t Blame Gary

I had a Social Studies teacher in high school that was not a sports fan, and took issue with some of the ludicrous salaries paid to professional athletes. One day we discussed the topic, and my argument in favour of paying the hundreds of millions of dollars to these people (a good number of whom shouldn’t have graduated high school) was this: Sports is big business. People pay to see it, so there is money to be made. It’s only a matter of who gets that money.

Who would you rather give your money to – the people responsible for the product you enjoy, or the owners of the teams? You know, the same owners that were too stupid to read the agreement they signed.

Owners of sports teams (for the most part) fall somewhere on the spectrum between diabolical and incompetent. If the last hundred years of North American pro sports has taught us anything, it’s that owners would sell their own mother to a rival team for a 5% increase to their profits. They are (again, for the most part) greedy, selfish, and incomprehensibly brainless, which is a dangerous combination.

“So what,” I hear you scoffing at your screen, “The commissioners of the leagues are to blame. After all, they’re the leaders.”

That’s not how this works.

Commissioners in the modern day, such as Gary Bettman, have one job: to represent the interests of the owners. If they fail in that one directive, the owners will fire them and find someone else. The fact that Gary has kept his job for 27 years is downright impressive.

So while the NHL seems unlikely to play hockey this decade, it’s important to remember that it’s not Gary’s fault. Gary was not the one that agreed to extend the new Collective Bargaining Agreement without reading the fineprint. That was the owners. Gary wasn’t the one that asked the players to take a pay cut on top of the pay cut that was already agreed to. That too, was the owners. Gary didn’t push a salary cap, or eliminate NHL Olympic Participation, or implement an ‘anti-Canadian’ agenda.

It. Was. The. Owners.

Let’s talk about what Gary Bettman did do. He championed a program that gave assistance to the teams in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa while they were struggling in the late ’90s. Hell, Bettman can be given quite a lot of credit for keeping the Oilers in Edmonton after a Houston-based billionaire made a bid for the team in 1998. Bettman is responsible for the Sportsnet and NBC TV Deals, which in addition to making the league piles of money, has vastly increased hockey’s exposure in the United States.

While I will continue to participate in booing Mr. Bettman (it’s tradition), I am a firm believer that his impact on the league in over two decades has been a net positive. For all we know, he’s probably keeping some of the league’s most eccentric owners in check. He is adamant that all 31 teams play hockey in some form this season.

So let’s lay off of Gary. If anything, he deserves our begrudging respect. Let’s put the real villains on blast. If you have a problem, take it up with the owners.

Breaking Down Blue Jays Free Agent Targets, Part One

Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said it himself: “What we’d like to do is add another really good player, or two, or three.” After years of stagnation and cautious spending in the free agent market, last year the Jays shocked the world by inking the National League ERA Champion Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four year, $80 million deal.

Heading into 2021, the bluebirds are expected to again be a major player, as it seems they are one of few teams that are in a position to take on salary. Many top Free Agents have come up in rumours, and today I’m going to break down some of the top names and give my thoughts on whether the Jays should pursue them.

George Springer

Easily the top of this year’s Free Agent Class. The 31-yera old former World Series MVP put up a slash line of .265/.359/.540 last season, adding an OPS+ of 140 and 1.9 Wins Above Replacement. The guy hits. He doesn’t strike out, he hits the ball hard, and he can touch soft or hard stuff – a weakness of the Jays that was exploited in the Tampa Bay series. Add this to the fact that he’s an above-average baserunner as well as a plus defender in centre filed, and you have yourself a slam dunk signing.

George Springer checks all the boxes for things I love in a ballplayer. He puts the ball in play, plays good defense, is a great athlete and possesses high baseball IQ. A real Cavan Biggio type – if Biggio was faster and averaged 35 home runs per season.

The only real objection (other than cost, of course) to going after Springer is a moral one. Of course, Springer was a member of the 2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal and won his World Series MVP thanks to knowing exactly what pitch was coming when. He was not one of the ringleaders, but he certainly didn’t do anything to stop it. Do we as Blue Jay fans really want that kind of person on our beloved ball club? Some won’t care, just as long as he performs. Which he has, since 2017. His career-high OPS+ came in 2019.

Should the Jays sign him? I really want to say no. But we’re not talking about Alex Cora, Carlos Beltran, Jose Altuve or Alex Bregman. As far as we know, Springer went about his business and wasn’t the guy pushing this idea.

The Blue Jays had the best outfield in baseball last season, and adding Springer to the mix would put fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. While Randal Grichuk performed admirably in centre last season, the Jays don’t have an everyday-caliber natural centre fielder. Springer would fill that hole. You could move Grichuk to right and use Teoscar Hernandez as a primary Designated Hitter, where his defense doesn’t hurt you.

I’m going to say yes. The Jays should go after Springer.

Trevor Bauer

I’m not going to get into the Trevor-Bauer-is-cheating-just-look-at-his-spin-rate controversy (you can read about it here.) because I have my own argument for staying far away from Trevor.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy. If it was a different time, different place I’d crawl over broken glass to get him to Toronto. But right now, the Jays have plenty of starting pitching.

They have an ace in Ryu, a four/five guy in Tanner Roark, and rising stars Nate Pearson, Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki (I still prefer Ryan in a starting role, but either way the Jays need to make up their minds). They already locked up Robbie Ray for another season. That’s six. So maybe there is room for Bauer.

Should the Jays sign him? No. I’d much prefer the Jays use the money they would spend on Bauer and use it to lock up Matt Shoemaker and Taijuan Walker. It sounds like both of them have at least some interest in returning, and both have proven themselves to be solid middle-of-the-rotation arms.

For these reasons, I’m not going to talk about any more starting pitchers.

DJ LeMahieu

Maybe it was my strict anti-Yankees bias, but I was surprised when I heard Jays fans were excited about potentially landing the three-time Gold Glove, two-time Batting Champ. But then I looked into him some more.

Everyone knows the pitch here. LeMahieu is a lifetime .305 hitter with a .357 OBP who plays great defense at second and third base. And that is what I really like about him. Just like George Springer, he fills a whole. Travis Shaw is a fine third basemen, but it’s hard to see him as a part of the team’s long-term plans when we never know what kind of season to expect from him. LeMahieu would give the team everything Shaw does, minus home runs, plus contact, plus defense.

Should the Jays sign him? Yes. I suppose it’s more a preference of style, but the Jays already have a lot of guys who can put the ball over the fence, and not a lot who can hit .300. If the Jays land DJ, expect those solo and two-run shots to turn into three-run home runs and grand slams.

Let’s Talk About the Alberta Sports Ban

This is a sports blog, so I will do my best to not bring politics into this.

We need to talk about three things: The Alberta Government’s decision to shut down* sports* for two weeks*, the general mindset towards coronavirus in this province, and this picture:

From @_Ruptown_ on Twitter

I’m not going to get into how we as a province should address the COVID-19 Pandemic. I’m not a policy analyst or infectious disease specialist. What I do know is that the decision from the Alberta government was at best inconsistent and at worst horribly misinformed.

Any sane member of the hockey community will agree that COVID-19 is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, and it has been. Teams and leagues are doing what they can to prevent the spread. Masks, social distancing, and contact tracing are examples of measures that have been put in place to save the hockey season. Other sports are doing the same. Hockey is a contact sport, but that doesn’t mean that figure skaters are immune from transmission. I counted at least one participant not wearing a mask. I’d imagine these skaters share a dressing room. What would happen if, God forbid, a skater took a spill – which is not an uncommon occurence – and collided with another skater? Is this not the same incident the Ontario government argued was the biggest risk of spread in hockey?

This double standard is the root of most people’s frustration. While hockey is shut down for two weeks, kids have to watch images like this one. Other athletes are allowed to train and compete. People can visit bars, casinos, and places of worship. If shutting down group activities is an effective defense against COVID-19 (which I believe it is), shouldn’t we be shutting down all group activities? How does drawing an arbitrary distinction between activities make any sense?

The decision handed down doesn’t even completely agree with itself. One of the asterisks above is that professional, junior and collegiate sports were exempt from the ban. Somehow this meant that the men’s Alberta Junior Hockey League could continue play, but the women’s Alberta Junior Female Hockey League was shut down. Bothe leagues represent the highest level of Junior hockey for their respective genders administered by Hockey Alberta.

None of this is to say that shutting down sports was the wrong decision. In fact, it is a good course of action to take. But just focusing on some sports while allowing others to continue, along with bars, restaurants, casinos, churches, temples, mosques, and house parties not only will not be effective (there has yet to be a major outbreak associated with minor sports), but it sends the wrong message. Kids that are playing the game they love are being punished while the people responsible for spreading the virus are allowed to continue living their lives.

I am more than happy to play my part in controlling this disease. If two weeks without sports (my primary method of employment) is what it takes to save lives, to stop people from dying, then I am willing to do so. But if we want to get this pandemic under control, it can’t just be us.

Ranking Every Jersey in Oilers History

This is not the first Oilers uniform ranking you have ever read, and it will certainly not be the last.

But with the Oilers teasing the design for their new “reverse retro” set, what better time than for a self-proclaimed jersey nerd to chip in with his humble opinion.

I’m going to count down, in order, all twelve designs that the Oilers have employed, starting with the duds and working down to the classics. If one design had nine variations, I’m only counting it once, choosing what I consider to be the best rendition. Oh, and no WHA jerseys.

Feel free to scream at me through your screen.

(Note: big thanks to Chris Creamer’s sportslogos.net for providing the images. By far the best sports uniform database on the internet.)

12. Reebok Edge Home

Pyjamas. They look like pyjamas.

By far the worst of the worst – and not just because the team sucked. The bright minds behind this monstrosity not only ditched the classic design elements that remained constant throughout the franchise’s history, but it appears they ran out of time when designing this thing. WHAT KIND OF JERSEY HAS STRIPING THAT DOESNT GO AROUND THE WHOLE SLEEVE?!

11. Reebok Edge Away

Same issues as its sister uniform, I just think the striping looks slightly better on a white background.

10. Adizero Home

The final of what I consider to be bad jerseys, but one simple fix would elevate it to one of the best Oilers uniforms. I really like the concept of combining the late ’90s/early 2000s navy blue with the classic orange. The problem is that they used the wrong shade of orange. This is much too light and not at all what was featured on the shoulders of Gretzky and Messier. Picture this sweater but with the orange we saw on the “Orange Crush” jerseys in the 2017 Playoffs. I’ll take six, please.

9. Smyth Era Away

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. The blue and orange had served Edmonton well, but with the turn of the century (as well as a period of transition for the team) looming the Oilers’ look needed an update. Copper and navy were here to stay. If there was one thing that I’d say the Oilers need to bring back, it’s the rigger shoulder patch. It’s less of a logo and more of a testament to the blue collar mindset of people in Northern Alberta. So let’s get on that, please.

If there is one flaw of this design, is that there’s too much white. I like when my away jerseys have some kind of colour happening on the shoulders…

8. One-Season Wonder Away

…like this. Exact same jersey, more colour. Shame it only lasted the one season.

7. Smyth Era Home

These two jerseys scream nostalgia for me. When I first started watching hockey and following the Oilers, they were dressed in these uniforms. But they’re nice to look at, too. They keep the triple stripes from the team’s original uniforms but play with the colours to make the jersey appear more modern and, in my opinion, more oil-themed. While the original sweaters are pretty, I feel that the colours on these sets are a better fit for a team named the “Oilers.”

6. Adizero Friday Night Alternate

This is how you design a third jersey. Slightly adjust the colours and play around with the design. Make small tweaks until you have what seems to be a brand new jersey, while still seeming familiar. While the team’s new colours don’t really work on the primary home jersey, the combination is drastically improved just by flipping them. Plus, this jersey looks much better on the ice in hockey rink lighting then in any image on the internet.

5. Todd McFarlane Alternate

Controversial, I know. But this sweater has a few things going for it. First, trying something totally new in sports fashion usually explodes in a firey ball of crap, so kudos to Mr. McFarlane for designing something that objectively, on its own, doesnt completely suck. Second, the symbolism in this jersey is AWESOME. The logo is an oil drop (on the nose), but also a gear (more subtle representation of the oil & gas industry), and it has five bolts, one for each Stanley Cup the club has brought home.

Really the reason I love this jersey so much is because it was the first I owned, and I wore that thing everywhere.

4. Original Away

All I’ll say is that there is a reason the Oilers brought this design back from the dead. Not only did they win five Stanley Cups in these beauties, but the orange and blue sweaters were considered a classic set in the National Hockey League, up there with the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Kings. They were a part of hockey history.

3. Orange Crush Alternate

When a team breaks a decade-long playoff drought, fans are going to have fond memories. For me, this jersey is symbolic of a new chapter for the team. Breaking away not only from the Decade of Darkness, but even separating themselves from the dynasty years. For the first time since the eighties, the Oilers had two superstars in the same lineup, and they were in totally different jerseys. Jerseys that look impeccable, I might add.

The Oilers would have been fine if they stuck with this shade of orange, but instead they ruined a good thing and we’re stuck with the yellowish-orange disasters we have now.

2. Adizero Away

I don’t have a sentimental reason for putting this jersey ahead of the original whites, I just think the navy blue pops (in a good way). There’s so little orange that the shade really doesn’t affect the look of the sweater.

1. Original Home

Do you think I’m an idiot? Of course this jersey finishes first. When you think of Gretzky, Messier, Kuuri, Coffey, Fuhr, McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, nine times out of ten you picture them in this jersey. The colours and striping are just so Oilers. This jersey is the franchise.

Since you stuck around this long, here’s a little tidbit of trivia as a reward. Due to Wayne Gretzky’s famous jersey tuck, the manufacturer’s logo on NHL jerseys was moved in 1981 from the back right corner to the back left corner so that it could be seen on the league’s brightest star. The tags were later moved back, but 99’s sweaters featured tags on both corners.

I know that you, dear reader, probably think I’m out of my mind for ranking the uniforms as I did, so let me know: what is your all-time favourite and least favourite Oilers sweater?

The Oilers are scary good.

Remember back in February, when the Taylor Hall rumours were flying? Reliable sources indicated that Hall may have wanted to play in a Canadian market. Because of the COVID-19 situation that brought along the flat salary cap for 2020-2021, many believed that he’d take a one-year deal from a Cup contender, and then get paid next offseason. Some folks in Edmonton thought that there was never a better time for Hallsy to make his return to Oil Country.

That obviously didn’t happen, as Hall inked a one-year, $8 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. While there are many reasons I was relieved the Oilers weren’t in on him, the main one was that the Oilers could spent that $8 million much more wisely, and fill more than just one hole in the lineup.

Essentially, my argument was this: Who would you rather have on the Edmonton Oilers: Option A – Taylor Hall ($8 million cap hit) – or Option B – Kyle Turris, Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyler Ennis, Dominik Kahun, and Tyson Barrie ($8.55 million cap hit). For an extra $550k, the Oilers nabbed themselves 26 more goals and 60 more assists than Hall put up last season, PLUS a fill-in for Klefbom as the team’s power-play quarterback, PLUS whatever Puljujarvi can contribute.

I’ll say that again. For less than the equivalent of league minimum salary, the Oilers got two and a half of Taylor Hall.

And for a team that finished second in the Pacific Division last season, on pace for 96 points, this is a scary team.

Top-Loaded

Let’s start with the fact that the Edmonton Oilers have on their roster two bona fide top five forwards in the league. They are the first team to have two Hart Trophy winners in the same lineup since the 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin). Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid finished first and second, respectively, last season in the Art Ross race. Connor was three points short of a hundred, which would have meant back-to-back seasons in which each player hit the century mark. These guys are studs.

The player that seems to get lost in this conversation is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Nuge quietly had himself quite the season, chipping in 22 goals and 61 points, while also being one of the team’s best defensive forwards and a lock on both the power play and penalty kill.

In Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have one of the best group of top three forwards in the NHL.

Depth Scoring

If this was the NBA, the Oilers would be a lock for the championship. Unfortunately, three superstars are not enough to win a Stanley Cup. In prior years, “depth scoring” has been a repeated cry from Oilers fans. The idea is that McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins cannot be expected to carry the entire offensive load.

I’ve never really subscribed to this theory, because I believe that the players I mentioned are just so ridiculously good at hockey. Their bad nights are usually two assists. But for those readers who kept praying for the Oilers to add depth, your prayers have been answered.

Let’s start with Kyle Turris. 31 points last season made his $6 million contract look awful, and thus the Nashville Predators bought him out just two seasons after the deal was signed. But for $1.65 million, the Oilers signed a player who is two seasons removed from a 51-point campaign, and who averages 38 per full season. Look for him to bounce back.

Speaking of bounce back candidates, Jesse Puljujarvi is back in Edmonton. While he was away, he finished fourth in Liiga scoring with 53 points in 56 games. This season so far he has recorded five goals and two assists in eight games. Safe to say he has his confidence back, and numerous reports indicate a whole new attitude from the 22-year old. I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he locked down a role in the Top 9 and put up a 30 point pace.

Tyson Barrie is in a very similar spot as Kyle Turris. A very good player who had a down year last season, and who the Oilers got for pennies on the dollar. Barrie is a guy who averaged 49 points per season in Colorado, and whose lack of production with the Toronto Maple Leafs might be summed up as a bad fit system-wise. It looked as though Barrie turned a corner when the Leafs replaced Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe. Thanks to the Oscar Klefbom injury, there is an opening for Tyson on the league’s best power play a season ago. 70 points from this guy is a possibility – I don’t expect anything less than 50.

The Defense

I consider Tyson Barrie to be more of an offensive upgrade, and thus the Oilers made no cupgrades to their back end. They are hindered by the fact that their number one defenseman, Oscar Klefbom, is going to miss significant time with a shoulder injury, and by the loss of Matt Benning, one of their most underrated defensive defensemen.

This absolutely does not mean that the Oilers will not improve defensively next season.

For starters, Adam Larsson is still Edmonton’s best shutdown defenseman. He is still going to play the big minutes against the opponent’s top forward lines and do just fine.

Plus, aside from Larsson and Kris Russell, the Oilers’ D-core is young. Darnell Nurse is 25, Caleb Jones is 23, Ethan Bear is 23. Evan Bouchard and Phillip Broberg are waiting in the wings to make their debuts as impact players in the NHL. I fully expect all of these guys to make improvements this year, especially on the defensive side of the puck.

We should also talk about the Oilers’ bottom six forwards. Now that the team has a solid scoring third line, their fourth line will not be expected to produce anything offensively and can really focus on shutting down the opponent. It’s too bad that the Oilers didn’t bring back Reily Sheahan, because he was a fourth line centre who played well enough offensively to earn a spot on the third line. This year’s iteration of a fourth line would have been a perfect fit.

I project the fourth line to be some combination of Jujhar Khaira (elite penalty killer), Gaetan Haas (team’s best defensive forward other than Nugent-Hopkins), Josh Archibald (great penalty killer, decent speed), and Zack Kassian (great wheels, more of an old-school-play-defense-by-bashing-the-other-guy’s-brains-in). I think Haas is going to take a step forward as he gets more comfortable in the NHL. I also think that the pressure is going to be off of Khaira and Archibald to contribute offensively so they can settle into that defensive role. I know a lot of people want to see Kassian on the top line with McDavid, but he doesn’t have the scoring touch of a James Neal or an Alex Chiasson.

Now seems like as good a time as ever to bring up the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s: options. Flexibility. If a guy in the top six falls into a slump, the Oilers have three different guys who can slot in.

I’ll wrap up with this neat stat: Thanks to JFresh, EvolvingHockey, and @AdnacOil on Twitter, according to the WAR stat, the Oilers are projected to finish with 101 points next season, an improvement of five points from this year’s pace, and good enough for eighth in the NHL this year.

This is far from a perfect team. The Oilers have plenty of weaknesses (Hello, Goaltending!). But if things go right, this is a team that has the potential to make some serious noise.