Saying the Oilers rebuild has been a disaster isn’t an understatement. The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons and fans aren’t happy. It’s been a dark and gloomy run over the past decade, but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.
When Craig MacTavish was hired in April 2013 he was pretty much handed the reigns to a sinking ship and in two summers has done a superb job of patching the deck.
The struggling goaltending duo based around Devan Dubnyk and Jason Labarbara has been replaced with two goaltenders entering their prime in Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth.
They’ve finally added a future top-pairing defenseman in Darnell Nurse and during his time as Senior VP of Hockey Ops MacTavish was key in bringing a college free-agent named Justin Schultz to the organization.
“Through the course of the last 13 or 14 months we’ve made some pretty good strides there, not the least of which will be the development of the guys we brought in through the draft and are in the process of developing into stars.” – GM Craig MacTavish (via Edmonton Sun)
Not only that but MacTavish has done a solid job in addressing the depth issues in Edmonton. There is more to a roster than a few young superstars in a cookie cutter mold that haven’t helped the team draft outside of the Top 7. But it’s not the fault of the three superstars, it’s the fault of the management team that didn’t properly address the 20 roster spots outside of Hall, RNH and Eberle.
Of the 23 players expected to be apart of the Oilers 2014-15 opening night roster only 8 remain from the Steve Tambellini led regime that have made their ways onto the main club roster – not including Schultz.
But what will the 2014-15 team look like and what will MacTavish’s moves mean for the battles at training camp?
G1: Ben Scrivens
G2: Viktor Fasth
Don’t expect much of a battle in goal at training camp.
The Oilers goaltending situation has been all but sorted out heading into training camp when MacTavish brought in Fasth from Anaheim at the trade deadline to backup Scrivens who was acquired in January. It’ll be interesting to see what Scrivens (3.01GAA, 0.916SV%) and Fasth (2.73GAA, 0.914SV%) can do over a full season in Edmonton and with an improved defense.
That means Laurent Brossoit and Richard Bachman will be on the outside looking in on NHL jobs. The duo will start the year in the AHL and most likely get recalls barring injuries or another goaltending catastrophy that took place in 2013-14 that saw the Oilers dress six different goaltenders.
Frans Touhimaa and Tyler Bunz will platoon with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors. Zach Nagelvoort will spend the year at the University of Michigan and likely won’t turn pro for a few seasons. Ditto for Keven Bouchard who will challenge for the starting job with the QMJHL Val d’Or Foreurs.
— David Staples (@dstaples) April 17, 2014
D1: Andrew Ference – Justin Schultz
D2: Martin Marincin – Mark Fayne
D3: Nikita Nikitin – Jeff Petry
X – Keith Aulie, Oscar Klefbom & Darnell Nurse
The defense is where the biggest and most interesting battles will take place. The Oilers added Fayne, Nikitin and Aulie in free agency this summer to go along with the rising young talent in the organization. The defense is slowly going to become a strong suit in Edmonton but it’s when all the ducks are in order and the management group knows who’s who in the zoo. Fayne and Nikitin are defense first players that like MacTavish said make the Oilers defense resemble something close to an NHL defense over the group that struggled with a league worst 3.26 GAA and 32.9 shots allowed (26th).
“For me it was really the way the team it’s going the direction it’s in, the skill level they have. And every guy he’s keeping on the team or has brought in, I’ve never looked forward to playing against them. Now I am looking forward to having them on my team and see what kind of work we can do together. I really think they’re going to turn this around and make a big splash over the next few years and I wanted to get in on the ground floor and do whatever I can to help the team win.” - Mark Fayne upon signing $14M/4YR deal with Oilers
Despite both Marincin and Klefbom getting extended looks last season only one of them will be getting a spot on the opening night roster. Marincin leads at the moment but you can’t forget about the Darnell Nurse factor. It’s a best case scenario for the kids because Klefbom will return to playing the top-pairing for the AHL Oklahoma City Barons. Nurse is likely headed back to the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds much to much dismay amongst Oiler fans but in junior Nurse will play on the top-pairing for the Greyhounds in best-on-best oppositional situations and play special teams. Nurse will also likely headline Team Canada at the World Juniors this December.
Either way the defense isn’t going to be flashy and will still rely on younger players in Schultz and Marincin continuing their development. After signing Fayne ($14M/4YRS $3.5 cap hit) the Oilers got a defensive-defenseman who will take on a huge chunk of the shut-down responsibility and could very well see the most TOI next season because of that. Nikitin ($9M/2YRS $4.5 cap hit) was a bit of a surprise to Oiler fans considering he’ll be mostly a stop gap until Klefbom and Nurse develop and the Oilers had cheaper options available for the same role. Aulie ($800K/1YR) will likely be a depth defenseman stepping in from time-to-time and a decent signing overall. The defense is better than last year so it’s a step in the right direction.
L1: Taylor Hall – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle
L2: David Perron – Mark Arcobello/Lion Draisaitl – Teddy Purcell
L3: Benoit Pouliot – Boyd Gordon – Nail Yakupov
L4: Matt Hendricks – Anton Lander – Iiro Pakarinen
X – Luke Gazdic, Jesse Joensuu, Tyler Pitlick
The Oilers have fleshed out much of the roster during the MacTavish re-modelling phase of the rebuild since his arrival. The building blocks in Hall, RNH and Eberle are still in place but the Oilers have now done a better job at surrounding those pieces with solid secondary players in Perron, Pouliot and Purcell.
The Perron for Paajarvi trade has proven to be a steal so far with Perron already netting a 28G 57PT season.
That anemic offense that plagued the Oilers with a 2.43 GF (25th) saw a boost with the additions of Pouliot and Purcell this off-season.
Sam Gagner who struggled to break the 50-point barrier as an Oiler was traded away in exchange for Purcell ($4.5M cap hit 2 years remaining) who has improved in three consecutive seasons with Tampa Bay before being lost in the shuffle last year. It was a good trade that added a scorer to the Oilers depth on the wing and made a much deserved opportunity for Arcobello/Draisaitl to step into the line-up which could be one of the bigger stories to watch in training camp.
Will the Oilers send Draisaitl back to junior and give the second-line center job to Arcobello? Or will Draisaitl impress at training camp and wrestle the job from Arcobello? Either way the Oilers can only benefit from the competition between the two.
Pouliot brings a big salary ($20M/5YRS $4M cap hit) for a guy who will likely be a tweener second and third-line winger. As much as many are bragging about his impressive possession numbers the fact of the matter is Pouliot played on one of the best lines in the NHL last season with Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard with the NY Rangers and benefitted from solid chemistry with his linemates. That said the line propelled them offensively when Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan all struggled. Just remember Pouliot has never scored more than 36-points in a season and is now making $4M a season.
The other notable signing upfront was Pakarinen ($1.85M/2YRS $817K cap hit) who came over from Finland where he has emerged as a hidden gem with some scoring upside. Pakarinen could start the year in Edmonton on the fourth-line but could also start in the AHL and make his way up to the main roster. Either way Pakarinen will be an Oiler regular by the end of 2014-15.
The recently re-signed Tyler Pitlick will have a shot at fourth line duty this season but will be in direct competition with Pakarinen and Joensuu. This is a big season for Pitlick who turns 23 in November. The former 2nd round pick in 2010 has yet to establish himself as a full-time NHLer after battling consistency and injury problems in the early part of his pro career.
The long-drawn out story arc of Lander will finally come to a close this season. Lander, 23, has struggled to gain traction in the Oilers organization since being drafted 40th overall in 2009. That said Lander finally broke out last season with the Barons as their captain and had a 18G 52PT season. Barons head coach Todd Nelson had a lot to do in turning Lander into a successful AHL player and the fourth-line center position with the Oilers is Lander’s to lose. Lander has earned his spot on the opening night roster.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 7, 2014
Finally will Nail Yakupov finally be let out of the Dallas Eakins doghouse? Yakupov will be entering the final year of his ELC, his trade value is at an all-time low and so is his perception amongst fans. The Oilers aren’t helping the situation with the former 1st overall pick in 2012 because they don’t exactly know where to put Yakupov in the lineup.
“My relationship with Nail is a great one, that’s why I kind of chuckle with the way it gets drawn out in the media. You take a kid out of the lineup and suddenly there’s a big fight going on. Well, there’s no fight. Nail understood what was going on.” - Dallas Eakins (via Sportsnet The Fan 590
That said Yakupov will be in his third season as an Oiler and will need to score more than the 11 goals he scored last year if he wants to consistently stay in the lineup. But Yakupov isn’t the only player selected in the Top 3 selected in 2012 that is struggling. Ryan Murray (2nd) missed much of the 2012-13 season with shoulder surgery before emerging as a Top 4 defenseman with Columbus. Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd) fell to just 9 goals last season and saw his TOI drop to 15:39 (9th amongst Panthers forwards) but isn’t facing the same criticism playing in a non-traditonal market.
All in all 2014-15 is setting itself to be a big year. The Oilers might still ultimately fall shy of making the playoffs but the playoffs are finally within sight.