As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season.
The Edmonton Oilers are now two years removed from the team’s only playoff appearance in the last 13 seasons. Despite the roster’s superstar talent, head-scratching moves and a lack of organizational accountability have kept this team on the outside looking in. With general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett calling the shots now, things could be looking up, though the 2019-20 season could be a transition year as the Oilers look to get out from under a cap/roster nightmare. That being said, the Oilers have the benefit of playing in the worst division in the league, and anything can happen when No. 97 is involved (and no, that’s not a reference to Nikita Gusev).
Season in review
Welcome to the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl show.
The two young phenoms truly put on a show last season, though it still wasn’t enough to lift Edmonton to the playoffs.
It’s hard to ask much more of McDavid, who entered last season with 256 points in 209 regular-season games.
But the superstar kicked it up a notch anyway, tying his career-high goal total of 41 while setting new personal bests in assists (75), points (116), power-play points (33), game-winning goals (9) and overtime goals (3).
McDavid directly accounted for 50.7 percent of Edmonton’s goals. Yes, 50.7 percent. There is no one in the NHL more important to his team.
Fortunately for McDavid, one of his teammates marches to the beat of the same drum. Though McDavid finished second in the league in scoring, Draisaitl arguably had the more remarkable campaign, scoring 50 goals and 55 assists for 105 points in 82 games.
He finished just one goal behind Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin (51). Plus, he became the first Oiler to score 50 goals since 1986-87 when The Great One and Jarri Kurri scored 62 and 54, respectively. That’s pretty good company for the soon-to-be 27-year-old.
Connor & Leon are the first teammates with points each since Ovechkin & Backstrom in 2009-10 & the first #Oilers duo to hit the century mark together since Kurri & Carson in 1988-89. pic.twitter.com/Mhakrhk2tm— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) March 29, 2019
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a career season of his own with 28 goals and 41 assists for 69 points. Alex Chiasson scored a career-high 22 goals, though he scored 16 of those in the first half of the season before going 21 games without lighting the lamp. Zack Kassian potted a career-best 15 goals, but 13 of them came in the second half of the season once he joined the top line. Both players benefited greatly from playing with McDavid and Draisaitl.
Darnell Nurse set career highs in goals (10), assists (31) and points (41).
From there, the drop-off in production was, for the most part, staggering.
A few examples:
Tobias Rieder scored zero goals in 67 games. Former fourth-overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi scored four goals in 46 games. Milan Lucic managed six goals and 20 points. Ryan Strome and Ryan Spooner combined for five points in 43 games.
As dominant as McDavid and Draisaitl were, hockey is a team sport, and it’s difficult to win in today’s NHL when so much of the roster contributes so little. Making matters worse, the Oilers’ team numbers were rather grisly.
Though the power play was ranked ninth overall with a 21.2 percent effectiveness rate, the penalty kill was abysmal, coming in as the second-worst in the league (74.8 percent).
Edmonton ranked 28th in shots per game (29.2) and 13th in shots against (31.7). The Oilers’ goal differential was -42, which comes out to more than half a goal per game. That certainly played a role in the Oilers winning just 18 games on home ice.
Another contributing factor was the goaltending, which ranked 27th in the league with a team save percentage of .896. Mikko Koskinen had much better numbers than Cam Talbot but still struggled, going 25-21-6 with a 2.93 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. The Oilers suffered 25 losses by at least three goals; only the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils topped that with 26.
When all was said and done, the Oilers finished seventh in the division and 11 points out of a playoff spot with 35 wins and 79 points.
Two of the more significant offseason changes involved bringing in Holland and Tippett to try to right the ship for the Oilers. It won’t be an easy task, but the experienced hockey executives will look to bring more structure and stability to the franchise.
Part of that involves unraveling years of questionable decision-making. Holland took several steps towards achieving that end.
First, he traded Lucic for James Neal, securing a solid offensive player and changing up the team dynamic. The Oilers retained $750,000 of Lucic’s contract, but they get the better player with the same contract length, making it a sensible move with minimal risk.
Neal is a 10-time 20-goal scorer and, assuming he bounces back from his nightmarish 2018-19 performance, adds significant upside or, at the very least, reliable secondary scoring. He should improve Edmonton’s top six and could very well return to form in a new system. After all, he had success in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Vegas, so perhaps last year truly was an anomaly.
Secondly, Holland primarily stuck to inexpensive one-year contracts to serviceable depth players rather than overpaying for the sake of potential short-term improvement. As such, the Oilers signed Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Josh Archibald and Markus Granlund in free agency.
Holland also re-signed forwards Jujhar Khaira and Chiasson to reasonable two-year deals. Khaira signed a two-year deal with a cap hit of $1.2 million, while Chiasson was rewarded for his 22-goal campaign with a two-year, $4.3 million contract.
Further, Holland brought in esteemed European forwards Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas to one-year entry-level deals; both players will be eager to capitalize on the opportunity to break into the NHL, which will only contribute to Edmonton’s encouraged state of healthy competition.
Nygard is coming off a career season in which he finished second in the SHL in goals with 21.
Haas brings 10 years of experience in the NLA as well as speed and a solid two-way game to the table.
The Oilers brought in veteran goalie Mike Smith to replace the struggling Talbot, who had an abhorrent year last season, going 10-15-3 and mounting a 3.40 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in 31 games before putting up even worse numbers following a trade to Philadelphia.
Smith has had his issues with consistency, but he played the best hockey of his career under Tippett in Arizona, and he was excellent in Calgary’s short-lived postseason run in April. He’s highly capable, and if he and Koskinen are used effectively, Edmonton could get some decent goaltending this season.
Lastly, the Oilers bought out the final two years of Andrej Sekera’s contract and let Rieder, Ty Rattie, Spooner and Anthony Stolarz walk.
One thing the Oilers failed to do was find a suitable solution to the Puljujarvi problem.
Yes, Puljujarvi’s stock has dropped considerably; after all, he scored four goals in 46 games last year and has 17 goals in 139 games since getting selected fourth overall in 2016.
But he clearly doesn’t want to be in Edmonton. In fact, the RFA requested a trade and has since signed a one-year deal with the Karpat of the Finnish Elite League. He can still return to the NHL prior to the Dec. 1 deadline, though the probability of that happening seems awfully slim. Edmonton retains his NHL rights, but it’s certainly not an ideal situation.
Given the mess Holland inherited, it’s understandable that he didn’t make dramatic changes. Instead, he made calculated tweaks to begin what will be a several-year project. But perhaps the new brain trust and thoughtful approach to fixing this team could be the start of good things to come for the Oilers.
Tippett continues to play with line combinations, so nothing is set in stone.
One would expect that McDavid and Draisaitl will stick together on the top line, and Kassian could very well join them as he did in the second half of last season.
Though Nugent-Hopkins skated with Neal and Sam Gagner early on in training camp, it’s possible Jurco or another forward could push Gagner out of the top six.
The bottom six is very much up in the air.
Khaira, Chiasson and Sheahan figure to be in the mix. With Kyle Brodziak’s career in the rear-view mirror, that leaves Granlund, Archibald, Jurco, Colby Cave, Patrick Russell, Haas, Nygard and Anton Burdasov (PTO) to compete for the remaining slots.
Cave and Russell have been impressive, particularly on the penalty kill, and Jurco had a strong three-point showing the other night, but it’s too early to know which forwards ultimately will make the cut. The Oilers’ final preseason game could be the deciding factor for a lot of these bubble options.
As for the defense, Oscar Klefbom will look to bounce back as one of five returning veteran defensemen, including Nurse, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Matt Benning. That means two spots are open for business.
Joel Persson played with Klefbom for most of camp and had the inside track to secure that role for the start of the season; however, a preseason injury to Persson has paved the way for Ethan Bear to deservedly grab that final spot. That likely leaves Brandon Manning and William Lagesson in the running to be the extra defenseman on opening night.
Koskinen and Smith will be in a timeshare situation in the crease.
Taking all of that into account, here’s one possibility for what the Oilers’ lineup could look like to start the season:
Draisaitl — McDavid — Kassian
Gagner — Nugent-Hopkins — Neal
Khaira — Sheahan — Jurco
P. Russell — Haas — Chiasson
Nurse — Larsson
Klefbom — Bear
K. Russell — Benning
2018-19 record: 35-38-9-79
Position in standings: Division-7, Conference-14, League-25
Pacific Division record: 12-15-2
Record against Vegas: 1-3-0
Playoff result: Did not qualify for playoffs
Power play (NHL rank): 21.2 percent (9)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 74.8 percent (30)
Goals for (NHL rank): 229 (20)
Goals against (NHL rank): 271 (7)
Leading scorers: McDavid (41-75—116), Draisaitl (50-55—105), Nugent-Hopkins (28-41—69)
Top Corsi For % (min. 35 GP): Lucic (50.72), Klefbom (50.35), McDavid (49.93)
Goals above replacement: McDavid (19.8), Draisaitl (18.1), Benning (10.3)
Season opener: Oct. 2 vs. Vancouver
Looking ahead to 2019-20
Any year in which the Oilers miss the playoffs with McDavid on the roster is a failed season. The Oilers are hoping for some Barry Trotz/Islanders magic with Tippett taking over, but the Oilers’ depth remains a significant question mark.
Tippett has his work cut out for him.
It helps having two of the best young players in the league, and Tippett can certainly bring more structure and consistency to a roster that frequently didn’t know what to do with the puck when McDavid and Draisaitl were on the bench.
As Vegas proved a few years ago, you never know what can happen when you bring together a group of players with something to prove. Even so, it seems as though the playoffs are a long shot for Edmonton this season.
Golden Knights vs. Oilers schedule
Nov. 23 vs. Edmonton
Feb. 26 vs. Edmonton
Mar. 9 @ Edmonton
Mar. 31 @ Edmonton
Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.