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.
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.
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.
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.