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.

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.