Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl reinforced two truths in 2018-19: They’re brilliant hockey players…and their contributions won’t single-handedly propel the Edmonton Oilers to the postseason.
Edmonton iced the top-heaviest lineup in the NHL last year. McDavid set a career high with 116 points in 78 games, whereas his running mate erupted for 105 points in 82 games. That eclipsed his previous best mark by 28 points. Despite boasting the most dynamic duo in the world, the Oilers’ lack of depth remained glaring. Their most productive pure winger was journeyman Alex Chiasson (38 points in 73 games), and that was followed up by inconsistent energy player Zack Kassian (26 points in 79 games) and washed up power forward Milan Lucic (20 points in 79 games). The team’s wingers are so horrendous that centers Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (69 points in 82 games) both spent time with McDavid in order to not waste their captain’s extraordinary playmaking ability.
Even with two of the top four leading scorers in the league, Nugent-Hopkins quietly delivering a banner year and Darnell Nurse’s (41 points in 82 games) breakout offensive campaign on the back end, this was far from a deadly attack. It averaged 2.79 goals per game (20th) and controlled just 48.0% of the shot attempts (24th), 47.8% of the scoring chances (24th) and 46.5% of the high-danger bids (25th) at 5-on-5. Though the club’s ninth-ranked power play was a bright spot, it was a fairly insignificant saving grace in the end.
Neither Todd McLellan nor his midseason replacement, Ken Hitchcock, could muster any balance up front.
During McDavid and Draisaitl’s shifts together, Edmonton averaged a staggering 4.25 goals per 60 minutes. However, only one line would ever accomplish anything in that setup. When Draisaitl was tasked with centering his own unit, there weren’t enough quality wingers to maximize the top six’s impact and both superstars saw their GF60 plummet.
No matter the configuration, the sum would never be greater than its dismal parts. Lucic has been borderline useless over the past two campaigns. The 31-year-old has always been mercurial, but you would put up with the valleys because he was such a bruising and effective presence at his peak. These days, he looks perpetually disinterested. If someone rattled his cage, he might wake up and start throwing the body for a shift or two. Otherwise, he was perfectly content to coast his way to $6 million per year through the end of 2022-23. Yes, those are the real terms of his contract. Maybe a change of scenery could right the ship, but that wouldn’t benefit Edmonton because it would surely be required to package him with a valuable draft pick or absorb an equally terrible contract in return (as occurred).
Yet as bad as he was, Lucic was not the Oilers’ biggest issue last year. Free agent signing Tobias Rieder mustered 11 points in 67 contests while performing below the team average in most underlying metrics. 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi has yet to establish himself as a full-time NHLer. He registered nine points in 46 games last season and has produced at a 22-point pace over his career. You could point to questionable usage as a hindrance to his offense, but he hasn’t exactly flashed much upside beyond his skating and willingness to shoot.
At the tail end of 2017-18, Ty Rattie put up nine points in 14 games alongside McDavid. That fooled some into believing he could provide nice depth up front. He ultimately posted 11 points in 50 games. Ryan Strome (2 points in 18 games) performed so woefully that he was swapped for fellow underachiever Ryan Spooner, who floundered to the tune of three points in 25 outings. He was then dealt to Vancouver for Sam Gagner (10 points in 25 games). Jujhar Khaira (18 points in 60 games) and Kyle Brodziak (9 points in 70 games) are serviceable bottom-sixers, but any offense from them was considered gravy.
With only one line to account for on most nights, opponents relished the thought of facing anyone but McDavid’s trio.
Edmonton’s defense wasn’t built to withstand that sort of pressure. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are decent players, but they aren’t proper No. 1 rearguards. You could only get away with that deployment if the squad tilted the ice more toward the opposition’s end. Though Nurse produced well, he still committed his share of mistakes and was rather poor in the high-percentage areas. The 24-year-old posted the second-lowest HDCF% (43.5) on the entire blue line.
Matt Benning enjoyed a solid season and Kris Russell is passable as a stay-at-home defenseman. However, those are depth pieces. Aside from them, Andrej Sekera missed most of the year with an Achilles injury. Caleb Jones didn’t look ready for the NHL.
Jason Garrison, who initially signed a PTO, began the year as a healthy scratch and was then given a shot, was just awful. His game simply doesn’t translate to the much quicker pace of modern hockey. He and forward Drake Caggiula were shipped to Chicago for Brandon Manning — that is indeed the man who ruined McDavid’s rookie year — and Robin Norell. In another puzzling move, general manager Peter Chiarelli acquired one of the very worst defensemen in the world in Alex Petrovic. Unsurprisingly, both pickups did little to shore up the blue line. Moreover, Petrovic put up shockingly poor numbers: 44.8 CF%, 43.7 SCF%, 38.2 HDCF%, 11.1 GF%. Opponents owned nearly 90% of the goals when he was on the ice. Seriously.
In between the pipes, Cam Talbot (3.36 GAA, 89.3 SV%) and Mikko Koskinen (2.93 GAA, 90.6 SV%) couldn’t do much to stop the bleeding. Talbot was traded to Philadelphia for 2012 second-rounder Anthony Stolarz (3.77 GAA, 89.7 SV%), who didn’t impress in his appearances. As one final middle finger to the organization before he was fired, Chiarelli capped off an atrocious managerial season by signing 31-year-old Koskinen to a three-year, $13.5 million extension.
Edmonton’s 2019-20 outlook isn’t necessarily any rosier, but it will feel different because experienced GM Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett are now leading the charge.
While the Oilers have been busy on paper, the moves seem fairly lateral. Lucic was indeed dealt away for another terrible contract, as Calgary’s James Neal (19 points in 63 games) will hope to revive his career following a disastrous campaign with the Flames. The fact that division rivals were perfectly comfortable swapping players speaks volumes about their value. Elsewhere, Sekera was bought out and then signed with the Dallas Stars after a pair of injury-riddled years. Unrestricted free agent Rieder will not return to the Oilers. After all, his lousy output was the reason why a team with a minus-42 goal differential missed the postseason…right?
On the flip side, the club inked bottom-sixers Josh Archibald (22 points in 68 games) and Markus Granlund (22 points in 77 games) to one-year deals. Tomas Jurco, who was originally drafted by Holland but never quite panned out as a talented winger, will fight for minutes and provide a bit of competition up front. 26-year-old SHL veteran Joakim Nygard will also push for a spot in the opening night lineup.
Fellow mid-aged SHLer Joel Persson could offer an offensive spark from the blue line. 2018 10th overall pick Evan Bouchard will look to prove he’s ready for NHL minutes too. He displays impressive vision and poise with the puck, yet it’s unclear if he’s prepared to defend at the pro level. Seth Jones’ younger brother Caleb will also set out to earn a full-time role on the blue line. He possesses good tools and it will be up to Tippett to help him put them all together. The good news is that Tippett’s Coyotes were actually solid defensively. Well, they were at the start of his tenure.
Meanwhile, Puljujarvi has reportedly asked for a trade. That obviously puts Holland in a bind because the youngster’s value couldn’t be lower at the moment. Moving on from a lottery pick is fine if you can bolster an area of need, but Puljujarvi would likely bring back a mid-round selection or a fellow underachiever in a deal.
Jesse Puljujarvi has made it clear to the Edmonton Oilers he wants to be traded. He wants a fresh start to his young NHL career. It’s believed the Oilers are willing to accommodate, but won’t give him away and intend on being patient in finding a right fit.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) June 19, 2019
Despite all the activity, it seems like very much the same old story in Edmonton. Unless the Swedes, Bouchard or Tippett can make a monumental impact on how the Oilers play, McDavid and Draisaitl will dominate and the rest of the club will undermine their contributions.
At least for next season, that’s OK. Constructing a contender is a tall order and management has a ton of work to do. Expecting them to complete it within one year is unreasonable. Thankfully, the team appears ready to play the long game. 2019 eighth overall pick Philip Broberg will suit up in the SHL this fall. Even though the Oilers desperately need help on the blue line, they won’t rush the 18-year-old. Holland also has an extensive — and generally impressive — track record to lean on, which should buy him enough time to shape his vision for the club.
Edmonton just has to hope that he can rediscover his old savvy and avoid the litany of mistakes that have recently sunk the Red Wings.