EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are a good team. Just not a successful one.
They’ve got two of the best players in the world, but that has not equated to playoff success.
So GM Ken Holland went about re-shaping his roster in the off-season, adding more depth and more genuine NHL talent at the bottom end. So when the inevitable injuries arrive, the players stepping in are ready to help, as opposed to being baggage that’s just along for the ride.
So, how do the Oilers take the next step? What are the key questions they have to answer?
Well, there are many, but we’ve found three that really matter.
As training camp beckons, here are the top-three questions in Oilers land.
Current cap space: $0.00
GM: Ken Holland
Head coach: Dave Tippett
Assistants: Jim Playfair, Glen Gulutzan, Brian Wiseman, Dustin Schwartz (goaltending)
Unsigned players: None.
Can Tyson Barrie make up for the loss of Oscar Klefbom?
Oscar Klefbom quarterbacked the best power play in 40 years last season, as Edmonton crushed it with the man advantage, going nearly 29.5 per cent. But, Klefbom only had 18 power play points; he played the seventh-most power play minutes among all NHL defencemen yet finished 12th in points.
Klefbom can shoot the puck just fine, but he’s not the shooter that Barrie is. So, suggesting that Klefbom’s role was to simply guide the puck to the right people is fair, which he did well enough to produce a lethal Oilers power play.
As the only right-hand shooter on the unit, Barrie will shoot the puck more and take a more influential role on the power play. But will that be as effective? Barrie’s overall game improved markedly in Toronto last season once he was promoted to the top unit — it’s part of what he does, and those minutes affect his confidence during five-on-five play.
But what about all the five-on-five time? Klefbom was fifth in NHL ice time last season, averaging 25:25. However, he was a minus player (minus-17). The fact that the Oilers’ stated goal this season is to be a better five-on-five team makes it conceivable that Klefbom as your No. 1 defenceman does not work. Or, at least, has not worked in Edmonton.
In comes Barrie, about whom fans invoke that ol’ favourite, “If the puck isn’t in your zone, that’s the best defence of all!” That’s great, until the puck is in your zone, and it’s time to defend.
Barrie will cover for Klefbom offensively. But will he be an improvement when it comes to keeping the puck out of Edmonton’s net? His history says no.
Does Ryan Nugent-Hopkins play with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl?
As strange as it may sound, this is a real thing: On a team that has the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, plus the consensus “best player in the world,” the Oilers’ No. 1 unit will be the line that Nugent-Hopkins plays on.
But think about it: If Nugent-Hopkins is the Oilers most skilled winger — and he is — then it all makes sense. The centreman that gets him has the most dangerous line, and should see the opposition’s No. 1 defence pairing.
So the question becomes, where do you deploy Nugent-Hopkins? For me, it is with McDavid.
Let’s build lines. If Kailer Yamamoto is your best right-winger, and he’s going to play with Draisaitl because of the excellent chemistry they built last season, that leaves Zack Kassian on McDavid’s right side to start the season. Now, the leash is short on Kassian. He has to be far, far more engaged than he was in the qualifying round and much of last season. But he can keep up on McDavid’s line, has the hands to trade pucks with a star player, and no one messes with McDavid when the unpredictable Kassian is on the ice.
Call me a dinosaur, but there is still some value in that.
So, if I’m giving McDavid the lesser of two right-wingers (skill-wise), he gets the better left-winger in RNH. And on the second line I give Dominik Kahun a shot with Draisaitl — at least to start the season. If he doesn’t work, you’ve got James Neal and Tyler Ennis waiting in line.
That gives Draisaitl a steady diet of second pairing D-men, and McDavid a left-winger with the skills to maximize the captain’s offensive output. Not to mention that Nugent-Hopkins’s defensive acumen allows McDavid to take some risks, far more than any of the Oilers’ other left-wing candidates.
Can the Oilers transition from exciting to successful?
It’s awesome to watch McDavid walk Morgan Rielly, or Draisaitl score 50 goals. But then the playoffs roll around and poof! The orange team isn’t entertaining anyone anymore, because they’ve packed up their gear and gone home.
Edmonton is must-see TV. But how can they become a viable playoff team? Or perhaps even (gasp!) a Stanley Cup contender?
“Our five-on-five, both offensively and defensively,” head coach Dave Tippet told 630 CHED this week. “That’s going to determine how good a team we’re going to be this year. There will be a lot of emphasis put on that.
“Five-on-five is a big part of our game we need to improve. Personnel-wise, we’ve made some changes that I think will help. But now you’ve got to get out on the ice and do the job.”
It’s not only been this columnist beating the drum for more defensive awareness in Edmonton. Ken Holland said earlier this month, “Losing out to Chicago, it was very disappointing. But I’d also like to think it was educational.
“Some of (the solution) is in roster makeup, and some of that is in players digging in and understanding the way it’s got to be played.”
Said Darnell Nurse: “Five-on-five, obviously, we have to get our goals down. We talk about it far too often in the last five years that I’ve been here. To be a team that wins consistently in this league you can’t be giving up over two-and-a-half, three goals a night. That’s a goal of ours, and a goal of mine for sure.”
We haven’t heard from McDavid or Draisaitl yet, but we’d predict more variations on the same theme from that pair. Edmonton will be a team with a greater focus on winning 3-1 instead of 5-2 during the regular season, so when the playoffs begin they’re ready for the inevitably tighter, more defensive oriented hockey.
Which doesn’t mean they can’t still load up on the power play now and again.
“Hopefully (that) will continue to be a big part of our team,” said Tippett. “But hopefully we don’t have to rely on them a much.”