By most accounts, the Edmonton Oilers 2019-20 regular season was a huge success, followed by a postseason play-in round that wasn’t pretty. Head coach Dave Tippett said of the 71 games that got the Oilers to the four that let them down, “Perhaps we overachieved in the regular season and underachieved in the playoffs.”
Yes, that would be accurate.
But, not all is lost. Like many teams this offseason, the Oilers have some work to do and some money juggling that needs to take place. But, unlike many teams, the Oilers are still in fairly good shape for contracts, needing to make only a few changes to be contenders again in 2020-21. Some small tweaks, that shouldn’t be tricky to maneuver, could help Edmonton take the next step necessary to win a round or two in next season’s playoffs.
Key 1: A Decent Back Up Or a Starting Goaltender
General manager Ken Holland has already said the Oilers will be sticking with a goaltending tandem. The question becomes which pair of netminders will he go with?
Edmonton will have plenty of choices and many that won’t be costly. They can re-sign Mike Smith on another short-term bonus-heavy deal, or they can go out into the marketplace and grab a backup at a time where netminders could be less expensive than they’ve ever been.
Anton Khudobin just posted a shut out in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and he’ll be available on the open market for around the price Holland paid for Smith last season. Khudobin has filled in admirably for an injured Ben Bishop and he would be a prime target for a team like the Oilers.
He’s experienced like Smith, has played for winning teams, posted excellent career save percentages, and won’t require a long-term deal at the age of 34. He’s the type of netminder who has proved he can fill in as a starter and that’s potentially an area of concern when it comes to Smith being brought back for one more season.
If not Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, Jimmy Howard and Brian Elliott may all be relative inexpensive options as well.
There is some indication that the Oilers are looking at stepping up their goaltending game and have kicked tires on Matt Murray about of Pittsburgh, or that the team might look at Frederik Andersen or Jacob Markstrom. That changes the entire scenario for the Oilers if they are investing bigger dollars between the pipes.
That’s probably not the biggest issue for Edmonton so it might be wise to steer clear of the money getting out of control.
Key 2: Find a Winger for McDavid
The Oilers have a decent top-six, but it’s really more like a fantastic top three and some pieces that should be able to produce beside them. While James Neal is a proven scorer, there are questions about his ability to consistently produce as he gets a bit older and a bit slower. Kailer Yamamoto took a huge step last season, but it might be a mistake to heavily reply upon the idea that he’ll pick up right where he left off. Zack Kassian hasn’t just been unpredictable, he’s been quite frustrating at times with his inconsistencies. Tyler Ennis might not be back and the Oilers might not qualify Andreas Athanasiou.
So, what should Edmonton do?
If the Oilers choose to let Athanasiou walk, they’ve freed up some money to go after a winger in the $2-$3 million range. There should be a few options out there for them. Certainly, Ennis is among them and wouldn’t cost much more than $1 million. Carl Soderberg might be a nice fit as well.
Or, the Oilers could invest heavily at the left wing position.
Taylor Hall would be available and there have been rumors Holland asked at the NHL trade deadline about the cost to acquire him. So too, Mike Hoffman will likely be available and he’s coming off a strong 59-point season.
Edmonton will have some choices to make. Should they qualify Athansiou and go with what they have? Add a less expensive forward and hope he exceeds his value alongside one of the game’s best, or invest big money into the position knowing that winger is likely to produce with anyone and could become a scoring leader if there’s chemistry with McDavid.
Key 3: Take Advantage of a Desperate Team
Good GM’s are going to be in a particularly prime position to take advantage of less experienced GM’s or teams that are desperate to make a move. There are so many teams that have cap issues far worse than the Oilers, someone will make a mistake. At the very least, they’ll be forced to make a deal they lose.
This is where Holland and his experience needs to pounce.
Whether it’s shaking Max Domi loose from the Canadiens for a song or finding out the Maple Leafs are actively going after a player they can’t afford, Holland can grab a player that not only helps Edmonton, but allows the Oilers to move pieces that would otherwise be unmovable.
In one transaction, Edmonton could move a player like Kris Russell and pick up a third-line center or a better bottom-six winger/penalty killer.
Key 4: Sign Sheahan
This may sound more simple than it is, but Edmonton needs to sign Riley Sheahan now and get that deal done.
The delay has been a belief that Sheahan played far above that of a fourth-line center and should be paid as a third-line one. He’s not completely wrong, but in an offseason where everyone is going to have to take a pay cut, Sheahan needs to understand it’s never going to go the way he wants it to on an extension.
Whether he stays with the team or looks elsewhere, to think he’s going to get much more than the $900K he made last season is ridiculous. Josh Archibald signed for $1.5 million but has shown he can play in the top-six from time to time. Give Sheanhan $1.25 million and call it a day. He’s useful bottom-six player with penalty-killing expertise. He’s useful.
Key 5: End the Puljujarvi Drama
Jesse Puljujarvi continues to be in the news for the Oilers. Sometimes it appears he’s ready to come back, other times it seems like that’s the last thing he’s willing to do.
For the Oilers, it might be time to give him an internal deadline like the NHL Draft and say, ‘If you don’t sign by this date, we’re not trading you and you won’t be coming back. You spend another season in Finland and your value may drop forever. Then what team will want you?’
Holland and Tippett have tried the nice approach and it sounds like it almost worked, only for it come to end in the same old song and dance.
If being more forthright works, get him in an Oilers uniform, put him in the bottom-six, and give him second-unit power play time. See if he explodes offensively and changes his tune or trade him. Either way, the Oilers need to move on from this situation before he’s worth absolutely nothing on the market and becomes another Nail Yakupov.
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