Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 21, the Edmonton Oilers.
Two seasons ago the Edmonton Oilers ended a ten-year playoff drought with a 103-point effort and a second-place finish in the Pacific Division. Connor McDavid won the Art Ross Trophy for the NHL scoring lead with 100 points and took home the Hart Trophy for league MVP. This new generation of Oilers were supposed to be a contender moving forward.
Oddsmakers pushed the hype and instilled Edmonton as the 2017-18 preseason favorite in the Western Conference, just behind the Pittsburgh Penguins as overall Stanley Cup favorites. But things did not go as plan.
General Manager Peter Chiarelli signed his two most important players, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, to long-term 8-year contracts but was unable to do little else to help a lineup which had depth questions. Compounding the depth issue, Chiarelli made another questionable (terrible) trade for the third straight summer when he dealt their top right-winger, Jordan Eberle, to the New York Islanders for center/winger Ryan Strome, leaving a hole on the top line. The Oilers may have had more question marks entering last season than most realized.
Record: 36-40-6 (78 points), 6th in Pacific Division, 23rd Overall
Playoffs: Missed by 17 points
A Canadian team has not lifted the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens so when the Oilers were expected to be a top contender last season, the weight of an entire country desperate to see a championship was squarely on their shoulders. The Oilers buckled under the weight of those hopes as the team struggled out of the gate to a 3-6-1 record and were 10-14-2 by the end of November, nowhere near meeting expectations.
Significant injuries to three of their top four defensemen, including Andrej Sekera who did not suit up until December, were a major factor for their slow start but the depth concerns came to the forefront as secondary scoring behind McDavid became hard to find. The defense, already without Sekera, saw the top pair of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson deal with injuries and ineffective when they did play, leading to more pressure on Cam Talbot who did not rise to the occasion and ended November with just a .903 save percentage.
The playoffs became an afterthought into the second half of the season and Chiarelli unloaded a couple of expiring contracts before the deadline in separate deals. Pat Maroon was dealt to the New Jersey Devils for forward prospect J.D. Dudek and a 2019 third-round draft pick while Mark Letestu was sent to the Nashville Predators for young forward Pontus Aberg.
With the pressure off, the Oilers finished the season with nothing to lose and played better down the stretch, finishing the season 9-6-2 over their final 17 games. In the end though, the Oilers went from a +35 goal scoring team to a -29 one, the fourth largest swing in the league behind only Montreal, the Rangers and Ottawa.
The Oilers were quiet as an organization this summer, starting at the top where owner Daryl Katz decided to keep Chiarelli in the GM role for the time being, despite a poor track record of losing trades and overpriced contracts. In turn, Chiarelli was also quiet, choosing to hang onto Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom, two players rumored to have been on the trade block.
Head coach Todd McLellan also survived the chopping block (for now) and will be behind the bench to start his fourth season here, but the leash has tightened, and another non-playoff season would likely be his last in Edmonton. McLellan will have some fresh faces behind the bench with him as a trio of assistant coaches were fired and replaced in May. Gone are Jim Johnson, Jay Woodcroft and Ian Herbers. In their place, Glen Gulutzan (Calgary Flames head coach past two seasons), Trent Yawney (assistant with the Anaheim Ducks past five years) and Manny Viveiros (Swift Current Broncos head coach in the WHL last year who won the league championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup). It is a strong group who will hopefully give the aid McLellan needs.
Edmonton selected 10th overall at the June Entry Draft where they selected defenseman Evan Bouchard who might immediately step in and help on the blueline. On the free agent market, Chiarelli brought in forwards Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak to shore up the offense and defenseman Kevin Gravel for depth on the backend. Maybe the most interesting signing came earlier in the offseason as elite KHL goaltender Mikko Koskinen signed a one-year deal for $2.5 million. He will backup Cam Talbot and replace Laurent Brossoit who the Oilers chose not to re-sign.
Others leaving the Oilers this summer were a trio of depth players who headed back to the KHL, forwards Iiro Pakarinen and Anton Slepyshev along with defenseman Yohann Auvitu. Defenseman Eric Gryba was put on unconditional waivers and had the final year of his contract bought out.
As the Oilers entered training camp last week, the mindset appeared noticeably different than from a year ago. The pressure of being a contender has been removed and the team is back in the underdog role, one they seemed to thrive in two seasons ago.
Stanley Cup: +5604 (Bookmaker)
Western Conference: +3050 (Bookmaker)
Pacific Division: +1353 (Bookmaker)
Regular Season Points: 92.5 (-120, -110) (Bovada), 90.5 (-110) (BetOnline), 89.5 (-110) (Bookmaker)
Make Playoffs: YES -160, NO +130 (BetOnline)
Current odds as of September 19, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 3
Edmonton’s strength is down the middle and it all begins with All-World Connor McDavid, the single highest projected skater this season. The greatest player on the planet is coming off a second consecutive Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point scorer and is a back-to-back Ted Lindsay Award winner as the NHL’s Most Outstanding Player, as voted on by the NHLPA.
He is the odds-on favorite again to win another scoring title and bring home the Hart Trophy for league MVP, but another award to keep him in mind for this season could be the Rocket Richard Trophy for the league’s top goal scorer. McDavid has always been an elite playmaker first but scored a career-high 41 last year, good for sixth in the NHL, and has talked about shooting the puck more this season and that is terrifying news for opposing goaltenders. What is even scarier is the fact the clear-cut best player in the world is just 21-years old.
Leon Draisaitl took some heat this summer for only scoring 70 points in 78 games (a 0.90 per game rate) after he put up 78 the year prior and then 16 more in 13 playoff games. The criticisms are hardly fair as Draisaitl still had a strong season, increasing his shot totals for the third straight year along with his even-strength scoring numbers. The Oilers were dead last on the powerplay last season which is shocking considering the talent level they can deploy on the top unit and that is where the scoring numbers dipped. Draisaitl will turn just 23 in October and is still entering his prime years. He has proven he can drive offense on his own line away from McDavid and a correction in the Oilers powerplay numbers should see Draisaitl in line for another big season.
The bottom-six sees a steep drop-off in name recognition and skill to Ryan Strome and Kyle Brodziak. More was expected from Strome last season after being acquired for Jordan Eberle, but he only recorded 13 goals and 34 points. Strome said he feels more comfortable going into this season and feels the coaches believe in him. After seeing a vision trainer this summer to help correct a weak eye, Strome is going to be relied upon to be a key secondary scoring contributor.
Brodziak comes over from the St. Louis Blues and returns home to where he began his NHL career and spent four seasons. The Alberta native is coming off his best offensive season in seven years with 33 points and while the Oilers should not expect a repeat in those numbers, they hope his puck possession stats improve as he was one of the worst Blues players last year in shot differentials.
NHL RANK: T-22
The Oilers were thin on the wings last year and things have not changed a whole lot now. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins saw his season really take flight once he was moved from third line center to McDavid’s left side, tying a career-high with 24 goals and enjoyed his highest point per game pace since his 2011-12 rookie season.
It was a particularly bad year for Milan Lucic who admitted this summer to struggling with his confidence and being in a mentally unhealthy frame of mind. He finished with just 10 goals and 34 points, his lowest point per game pace since his 2007-08 rookie season. Lucic had a good summer and is looking to hit the reset button entering the season and the Oilers could use a big bounce back.
The bottom-six will see several depth players competing for playing time with Jujhar Khaira and Drake Caggiula the most likely to be penciled in on opening night. Khaira was slated to start as the fourth line center before the pick-up of Brodziak after a fine first full season with 11 goals and 21 points in 69 games. He will slide to the wing and has been playing in the preseason on the third line. Caggiula brings needed speed to the lineup and contributed 13 goals over 67 games but has put up underwhelming shot differentials over his first two seasons.
Veteran 34-year old Scottie Upshall was expected to have a good chance at earning an extra forward spot but failed his medical test at the beginning of camp due to a knee injury. He was given medical clearance to practice with the team this week and will do everything he can to crack the lineup as another fourth line option.
A wild card in the group is 24-year old Pontus Aberg who the Oilers acquired prior to last year’s trade deadline for Mark Letestu. Aberg is an intriguing young player with flashes of offensive skill and good speed but has been questioned on his compete level at times. He was given an immediate chance to play alongside McDavid but fell out of favor with the coaching staff after missing a team practice. He later returned to the lineup beside Draisaitl and put up six points in three games. He could slot in anywhere from the top line to the 13th forward and will be one of the more interesting players to watch.
NHL RANK: 31
Edmonton projects to have the weakest right wing depth in the league this season with no obvious choice to fill the role on the top line. Ty Rattie spent time with three NHL teams last season before finding a home in Edmonton. He put up solid offensive numbers on McDavid’s wing with five goals and four assists over the final 12 games of the season, but their overall possession numbers were much weaker than a McDavid line is accustomed too. A high shooting percentage made the goal numbers look pretty but I would be cautious to think Rattie’s success carries over to that degree this year.
McLellan will no doubt try several players on McDavid’s right side again so while Rattie might start here, expect to see Puljujarvi, Rieder and Caggiula in bunches and even Draisaitl will get his minutes with McDavid at times.
Ideally, Jesse Puljujarvi will take another step forward and blossom into a top-six scoring threat. The fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft is still just 19-years old and has a lot of room to grow. He scored 12 goals in his first full season last year mostly on a sheltered third line. The Oilers need someone to step up as a scoring winger on this side and Puljujarvi should be the player with the most breakout potential.
The Oilers are expecting Tobias Rieder to jump into a top-six scoring role alongside fellow German countryman Draisaitl this year. Rieder had increased his goal totals in each of his first three NHL seasons before struggling last year between Arizona and Los Angeles. He has mostly been used as a bottom-six player without the luxury of lining up beside a player of Draisaitl’s caliber, so a bounce back might be a good bet for Rieder with the potential even for a breakout 40+ point season if he sticks in the top-six.
Zack Kassian is a fan favorite who shows some nice touch with the puck at times, but his main contribution is the added muscle he brings to the lineup. Kassian might be best utilized in a fourth line checking role but could slide up to the third spot if Puljujarvi grabs the top line and Rattie slides down the depth chart.
The wild card on this side is prospect Kailer Yamamoto who made the team last year out of training camp and showed his offensive potential in a nine-game audition before tearing up the WHL. Yamamoto has unquestionable skill which should serve well in the Oilers lineup, the question is if he is ready for a full-time role and how high he could play in the lineup. He should get another nine-game trial again this year and although he is waivers-exempt, I personally think he stays with the team unless Upshall earns a spot as an extra forward. In a best-case scenario, Puljujarvi slots in on the top line and Yamamoto takes the third line spot, leaving Rattie on the outside, but there is just as good a chance Yamamoto is sent back down for another season.
Alex Chiasson also enters training camp on a professional tryout after playing in 61 regular season and 16 playoff games for the Washington Capitals last season. It is possible Chiasson could make the club in a depth role, but I do not think he brings anything unique to the roster.
NHL RANK: 10
Edmonton took a major step back last season and there was no area more noticeable than the defense. As a unit, they fell from 9th best in the league at 212 goals against to 25th with 263 goals allowed and surrendered nearly 400 more shots on goal.
The left side suffered with the loss of Andrej Sekera who missed 46 games after major knee surgery sidelined him until December. He looked hesitant and unsure upon his return and really struggled for the rest of the season. Returning to a normal summer of training and finally shedding the knee brace (which limited his mobility last year), Sekera was more mentally assured in the strength of his knee and hopeful for a strong bounce back year.
Then on August 14 the Oilers announced Sekera had suffered an injury during a summer training session, requiring surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. A huge blow once again as Sekera will be placed on LTiR once the season begins and could be lost for the entire season this time.
In Sekera’s absence, Darnell Nurse stepped up and played all 82 games, his first full season. Nurse showed great strides in his defensive game and helped in more of a shutdown role, eating big minutes against tough competition along the way, while maintaining positive shot differentials and chipping in 26 points on the offensive end (all at even-strength). Nurse was a RFA most of the summer until signing a new 2-year contract just this week. He will be asked to fill a significant role again on the second pair and could become more of a factor on the offensive end this season.
Oscar Klefbom had a breakout season in 2016-17 playing in all 82 games with 38 points and was responsible as anyone on the backend for Edmonton’s turnaround but a shoulder injury limited him to 66 games last year and just 21 points. Even when healthy, Klefbom said his shoulder was an ongoing issue which has bothered him for years and eventually the decision was made to completely shut him down for the final ten games of the season. He underwent a procedure where the shoulder was vacuumed out, removing bone fragments and received a clean bill of health with just a six-week recovery timeline. Klefbom’s shoulder is now one hundred percent and his confidence is back in full force. As with Nurse on the second pair, Edmonton will rely on Klefbom to fill a crucial role on the top pairing and as the quarterback on the powerplay. A huge bounce back year could be in store.
While the Oilers top four are set, the third pair is going to involve some potential rotating early in the season due to the expectation of Evan Bouchard sticking around for a cup of coffee and should start out a little different than how I have the depth chart laid out (explained below and in next section).
Kris Russell can play either side but look for him to start on the left to begin the season and then shift to the right around the ten-game mark if things go as expected. Russell is loved by his coaches and (some) fans but criticized heavily among the analytics crowd. He led the league in blocked shots (by a wide margin) for the second straight year and third time in four but was a drag in possession and posted the worst shot differentials relative to teammates of anyone on the blueline (and only Pakarinen who played 40 games was worse among the forwards). The best news might have been Russell’s ice-time was cut over two minutes to 19:04 per game, his lowest average TOI in five seasons, and he was moved down to the third pair which is where he should remain this season.
After the injury to Sekera, the Oilers signed left-shot Jakub Jerabek a week later to address some depth concerns. Jerabek’s strength is his offensive game and he is a strong puck-moving defender with above average skating ability. He had superb underlying numbers last season between Montreal and Washington, albeit in a small sample of 36 games. Jerabek will likely start as the seventh defenseman and then slide up on the third pair on this side after Bouchard is sent back to Juniors.
Kevin Gravel was also signed this summer as a free agent after playing just 16 games last year for Los Angeles due to Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the bowel. Gravel had a solid rookie season with the Kings in 2016-17 and with the disease now under control, Gravel showed up to Oilers camp in great shape and will compete with Jerabek for playing time on the third pair. With Bouchard expected to start the year in Edmonton, Gravel will likely move down to the AHL and then be recalled early in the season. The Jerabek/Gravel combo could be an underrated duo for the Oilers this season. If for some reason neither of these options work out, veteran Jason Garrison is in camp on a PTO and will look to earn a spot, along with prospects Caleb Jones, Keegan Lowe and Ethan Bear (on the right side).
NHL RANK: T-20
Adam Larsson is not your typical top pair defenseman, but he is the best the Oilers have on the right side currently. He is a defensive defender with a physical edge and plays his role well, but last season was difficult for Larsson and his defensive standard suffered. A bad back early in the season caused a three-week shutdown at the end of November. In February, the sudden passing of his father saw Larsson make two separate trips to Sweden to be with his family and for the funeral. Entering this season, Larsson is healthy and a bounce back to his form the previous two seasons could be in the cards.
The Oilers struggled to fill the second pairing last year as Russell and Matt Benning were both in over their head. Benning did a fine job last season while on the third pair, posting positive numbers both on the offensive and defensive side of the puck but struggled when moved up in the lineup. He will be entering just his third pro season and at 23-years old could still show improvement.
The potential rotating early in the season I mentioned earlier applies to the third spot. While Russell will likely see the most playing time here, No.10 overall draft pick Evan Bouchard is expected to step right into the lineup for the first nine games. Being only 18-years of age, Bouchard is ineligible to make the jump to Bakersfield in the AHL so if the Oilers decide not to burn the first year of his ELC, he will be sent back to his Junior club in the Ontario Hockey League, the London Knights, where he will remain for the year.
Bouchard has a booming shot and projects to be a top four defenseman and can quarterback a powerplay. His offensive skills are close to elite, but he still needs work on the defensive end and while he might make it hard for the Oilers brass to send back down, it should be the right call. Bouchard put up a staggering 87 points in 67 games last season and was the first defenseman in the OHL to finish in the top 10 in league scoring since Ryan Ellis in 2010-11. The Oilers have a good one here.
NHL RANK: T-20
(Starter – T-15, Backup – T-51)
Cam Talbot led the NHL in 2016-17 with 42 wins which was helped thanks to a heavy workload with a league leading 73 games played. The burden of that load also led to Talbot allowing the most goals in the league at 171 while facing the most shots in the NHL, as well. Despite the overuse, Talbot put up a .919 save percentage in just his second full year as a starter.
Last season, Talbot’s numbers fell off a cliff as he continued to be overworked, leading the league again in games played along with Connor Hellebuyck of the Winning Jets at 67 games. Again, he allowed the most goals in the league at 188 and the fourth most shots against but his save percentage dropped to a career low .908 mark.
Talbot’s drop in play could be contributed simply due to the weight of playing too many games. The top starters in the NHL typically play 60-65 games each year and Talbot has averaged 70 over the past two seasons. This year, Chiarelli brought in KHL-import Mikko Koskinen to help lessen the load and the plan is for Talbot to see 55-60 games of action and 22-27 for the backup.
This will be the second run in the NHL for Koskinen, who was drafted by the NY Islanders 31st overall in 2009 as a 21-year old. He appeared in just four NHL games and allowed 15 goals with an .873 save percentage. Koskinen reflected this summer about how he had only played one pro season in Europe at the time and was not mentally prepared for how much harder the competition was in North America.
Since then, Koskinen has gone on to post elite numbers in the KHL with a .926 save percentage over 185 regular season games, mostly with SKA St. Petersburg. His playoff performances have been even sharper, with a .938 save percentage over 125 KHL playoff games. It should be noted though that St. Petersburg has consistently been one of the top teams in the KHL this decade. During Koskinen’s four seasons with them, the team has made it to the Conference Finals every time and twice gone on to win the Gagarin Cup. Their top scorers in those four years were Artemi Panarin, Vadim Shipachyov and Ilya Kovalchuk (twice). The defense in front of Koskinen has also been one of the best in the league, with the most recent season being mostly comprised of mostly the entire Russian Olympic team defense.
The $2.5 million contract is a lot for a backup goaltender unproven in the NHL, but the Oilers are counting on those numbers translating to NHL success this season. It will be interesting to see how Koskinen handles the spotlight the second time around and if the Oilers are prepared to go back to Al Montoya if he struggles.
I was one of the few last year who were not sold on the Oilers being a solid playoff team, yet alone a contender, and we cashed an easy under ticket on the regular season points total. This season, the Oilers will be better than last year’s 78 points and one of several teams in contention for a playoff spot, but I still do not believe they have the depth to leap over enough teams ahead of them.
I expect the defense to be significantly improved under a healthy Oscar Klefbom and think the left side could be even better than their current tenth place projection. In turn, Talbot should see a bounce back with his numbers. I like the coaching changes and think they will make the changes necessary to improve the special teams. I think Milan Lucic could have a better season than anyone wants to give him credit for and this might be the year Jesse Puljujarvi blossoms into a star winger. And, of course, any team led by Connor McDavid will always have a chance to be better than any projection as he will likely win the Art Ross Trophy again and could register a point total the likes of which we have not seen since Sidney Crosby’s 120 points in the 2006-07 season.
For all these reasons I am cautiously pessimistic about my low projection and think the Oilers could sneak into the playoffs, however, I still believe the higher probability is they sit on the outside of the bubble this season. The depth scoring is still a question mark and I am skeptical Tobias Rieder can fill a second line scoring role. Milan Lucic could just as easy have another horrid season and Ryan Strome will likely underdeliver again. The lack of high-end talent on the blueline means everyone is going to have to contribute and the depth is questionable outside the big three of Klefbom, Nurse and Larsson. And I question whether Mikko Koskinen’s KHL success translates to the NHL and Talbot ends up overextended once again. The Oilers are certainly one of the more intriguing teams for me this year.
My projection of 89.8 points currently sits between the 90.5 at BetOnline and 89.5 at Bookmaker but comes in almost three points under the 92.5 number at Bovada. While everyone agrees Edmonton will be improved over last year, those point totals are generally outside of what is required to reach a playoff spot. While the point total is too close for me to get involved on, the current “To Make Playoffs” prop offered at various shops has the Oilers listed as a favorite for “yes”. The +130 line for “NO” at BetOnline looks like the strongest play to make here and one worth recommending currently.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list the Oilers all over the place anywhere from 10th to 19th but appear overvalued at almost every offshore sportsbook. Even if you want to grab a ticket on the Oilers, I would recommend waiting until later in the year, especially considering the difficult schedule early in the season.
With the awards category, Connor McDavid must always be considered for every award he is listed under. Unfortunately, the value is going to be slim. McDavid is currently the favorite for the Art Ross (+120) and second favorite for the Rocket Richard (+505) at the only sportsbook I see with posted odds for these awards. Bovada currently lists McDavid as the favorite for the Hart Trophy (+333) which I would avoid. McDavid was the best player in the league last season and was wrongly snubbed on the final ballot, not even receiving a nomination, and if the Oilers miss the playoffs again this year he could receive the same treatment, even if he runs away with the scoring race.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com