Canada’s Pacific Division Teams Dream Big in 2021 NHL Offseason
So…do the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks know something we don’t?
These three also-rans combined for one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins in 2020-21. Nevertheless, they recently pulled off major trades, free agent signings or both in order to compete right now.
This level of activity from the Oilers is understandable. Management needed to convince Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that the team is serious about winning. In previous years, Edmonton said all the right things while offering its two superstars downright laughable depth. Look no further than last season for proof: When McDavid and Draisaitl weren’t on the ice, Edmonton owned 35.8% of the goals scored at 5-on-5.
I guess Alex Chiasson, James Neal and Zack Kassian didn’t cut it. Who would have thought?
GM Ken Holland has made a number of moves to bolster the squad overall. Up front, grinder extraordinaire Zach Hyman signed a seven-year, $38.5 million deal. Considering the 29-year-old plays a style that doesn’t age gracefully, this is a gamble. With that said, he has experience playing with top-flight talent and is undeniably among the most effective forecheckers in the NHL. In fact, playing with more a puck-dominant center in McDavid may well mitigate Hyman’s tendency to kill plays in the offensive zone.
Edmonton also dealt inconsistent blueliner Ethan Bear to Carolina in exchange for middle-six forward Warren Foegele. Perhaps he can reach his offensive ceiling in a more prominent role. Derek Ryan has also joined the fray as a defensive-minded center.
The most significant changes occurred on the back end, though—and rightfully so. This is a club that couldn’t stop a nosebleed. To that end, Holland acquired future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith from the Chicago Blackhawks. The 38-year-old’s play has been slipping in recent years, but if he can provide 18-20 solid minutes per game, that would go a long way toward shoring up the team’s predominant weakness.
This rings particularly true because Holland then committed three years and $13.5 million to Tyson Barrie. While the puck-mover led all defensemen in scoring last season, his defense ranks among the very worst at his position.
With the Seattle Kraken claiming Adam Larsson in the expansion draft, Holland was also forced to add a right-side defenseman in the offseason. He opted for Cody Ceci. The 27-year-old has salvaged his career, but he hasn’t earned the four-year, $13 million contract the Oilers tendered him. Moreover, he doesn’t defend anywhere near as well as Larsson does.
At the very least, however, Edmonton is finally trying. No more bargain-bin nonsense. The Oilers have introduced a whole new supporting cast in an effort not to waste McDavid and Draisaitl’s dazzling exploits.
Their provincial rivals don’t boast that type of star power, but Calgary still decided to invest in championship pedigree via UFA Blake Coleman (6 years, $29.4 million). His arrival in Tampa Bay two years ago signaled a desire to play the right way, and Brad Treliving has his sights set on a similar breakthrough for the Flames.
Here’s the problem: His team has never looked the part of a contender. Calgary wasn’t one final piece away from getting over the hump. Its 2020-21 campaign was marred by utter dysfunction.
Johnny Gaudreau doesn’t enjoy playing for new head coach Darryl Sutter. Matthew Tkachuk reportedly wants out. Even if these top-six wingers can sort out their differences with the team, both are playoff underachievers. Longtime captain Mark Giordano was chosen by the Kraken too, creating a leadership void on a squad that desperately needs direction.
Does adding Coleman and some hard-nosed, lower-tier veterans (Tyler Pitlick, Trevor Lewis, Nikita Zadorov) really address this issue?
Maybe Connor Zary (24th overall in 2020) or Jakob Pelletier (26th overall in 2019) can make a splash in training camp to revitalize the forward corps. Otherwise, there isn’t much to get excited about.
Finally, there’s Vancouver. Despite icing a promising young core of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, it has been held back by its inability to resist overpriced, washed-up pieces.
Only a year away from escaping the grips of Loui Eriksson ($6 million), Jay Beagle ($3 million) and Antoine Roussel ($3 million), Jim Benning decided to acquire…one of the league’s worst contracts in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Sure, Arizona is retaining a portion of his cap hit ($990,000 out of $8.25 million), but this is a truly baffling move. Ekman-Larsson’s defense has fallen off cliff over the past few seasons, and while he can still generate offense, that shouldn’t be an area of concern for Vancouver. In the past three seasons, the Canucks have ranked 24th defensively.
Taking that next step requires buckling down in their end. Trading for a puck-moving sieve doesn’t seem to align with that goal.
And it cost a first- and second-round pick.
In fairness, there is a silver lining. 25-year-old forward Conor Garland was included in that deal. The 5’10”, 165-pound late bloomer has been nothing but productive since his NHL debut. Better yet, he keeps improving. Garland is a tireless worker who has put up outstanding underlying numbers throughout his career. He led all Coyotes in CF% (51.9), SCF% (51.3), HDCF% (53.0), xGF% (52.7) and GF% (56.9) during his time with the club. This is a three-year sample as well, so he’s not benefiting from unsustainable conversion rates or save percentages.
It’s unclear where he’ll slot in at the moment, but he would complement either Pettersson or Horvat quite well. His quick thinking and impressive finish would be useful on any trio, really.
But shoring up the top six wasn’t as pressing an issue as fortifying the blue line. Hughes sorely missed Chris Tanev in 2020-21. The franchise defenseman needs a safety net in order to maximize his freewheeling potential. Without that insurance, he was a hot mess last season.
Unfortunately, that steadying presence remains missing from the roster.
Some combination of Travis Hamonic, Tyler Myers, Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn will patrol the right side next year. Hughes and Hamonic were entirely mediocre together (46.1 xGF%, 45.7 GF%). Hughes and Myers were dramatically worse (40.2 xGF%, 17.6 GF%). Poolman is a 28-year-old who has registered average if not underwhelming numbers in three seasons. Schenn is a career journeyman who should not be deployed against top competition.
To make matters worse, longtime Canuck Alex Edler signed with the Los Angeles Kings. The 35-year-old was the team’s best defender a season ago.
In other words, Vancouver is betting big on a change of scenery for Ekman-Larsson. It couldn’t possibly be his recent track record. But if their assessment is off the mark, that albatross is on the books for another six years.
Despite little success of late, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver have gone all in over the offseason. You don’t sign Blake Coleman or Zach Hyman to long-term deals unless you’re committed to go down with the ship. You certainly don’t absorb Ekman-Larsson’s mammoth contract unless you believe in your core.
These transactions require a lot of hope to justify, and if they don’t pan out, the teams that made them will have a lot to answer for.