Did the Oilers Improve Enough Upfront?

Following what was yet another disappointing campaign for the Edmonton Oilers, it should have surprised no one to see Ken Holland waste little time in tinkering with the club’s roster. Though one can argue with certain moves that were made along the blue line and between the pipes, the collection of forwards on the roster is improved. Now the question becomes, will it be enough?

Ken Holland, Dave Tippett
Edmonton Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Ken Holland and new head coach Dave Tippett (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Over the course of the past four to five months, the Oilers decided to part ways with Milan Lucic, Ty Rattie and Tobias Rieder. Also, albeit for different reasons, it appears unlikely that either Kyle Brodziak or Jesse Puljujarvi will return to Edmonton during the 2019-20 campaign. That is a ton of turnover, and for the most part, Holland went the safe route and made short-term bets in hopes of improving his new club.

Another Summer of Change in Edmonton

Outside of James Neal, who was acquired in the trade of Lucic to the Calgary Flames, the Oilers added the following forwards on one-year deals: Josh Archibald, Markus Granlund, Gaetan Haas, Tomas Jurco, Joakim Nygard and Riley Sheahan. With the exception of the potential that is Puljujarvi, it cannot be argued that the moves Holland made improved the overall depth of the forward group from a year ago.

Related: Archibald, Granlund Additions Should Improve Oilers Penalty Kill

With that being said, are those moves enough to help Edmonton make a push up the standings? In my mind, the addition of Neal will end up being a big win for this group and will certainly help the Oilers grab a few more wins over the course of an 82-game campaign. However, we are talking about a team that was nowhere near finishing above the playoff cutline in the Western Conference.

Of the group of forwards listed above, only Neal seems destined for a top-six role. Add in the potential of Tyler Benson making a push throughout training camp for a spot on the second line, and suddenly we are looking at a numbers game. Essentially, we are talking about the six names already mentioned fighting it out with Sam Gagner and Jujhar Khaira for five or six spots inside the Oilers third and fourth lines.

Too Many Pieces, Too Few Spots

How things play out with Benson will determine whether we see Alex Chiasson on the second line or slotted somewhere in the bottom six, where he is better suited at even strength. If it ends up being the latter, there will be three spots left open on the wing and one would think Archibald and Granlund have two of the three all but sewn up.

Markus Granlund Canucks
Markus Granlund, Vancouver Canucks, Nov. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The late addition of Sheahan suggests Dave Tippett and company envision him as one of his bottom-six centres. This would leave Haas and Khaira to battle for that final spot down the middle but if history tells us anything, the native of Surrey, BC is far more effective on the wing.  Meaning, if the Swiss pivot proves capable, the 12th and 13th spots on the roster will come down to Gagner, Jurco, Khaira, and Nygard.

Related: Oilers Holland Attempts to Fix a Chiarelli Wrong

At 26-years of age, with an ability to put the puck in the net and speed to spare, the talented Swede will be given every opportunity to make this team out of camp. The Oilers lack of speed has been an issue for some time now, same goes for forwards capable of being used effectively in both a top-six and bottom-six role, depending on the team’s need at said time or opponent. There is no question, that some versatility would be a welcome addition.

Oilers Hoping Haas, Nygard Win Spots

Again, what the organization decides to do with Benson could free up another spot but the number crunch is obvious. At 30-years of age, with a $3.1 million cap hit, Gagner could be left on the outside looking in and the same could be in store for Jurco, who may wind up in Bakersfield as organizational depth. At the end of the process, is the roster any better?

One would think the trio of Archibald, Granlund, and Sheahan will help a penalty kill, which has been a mess for the better part of the last three seasons.  On the other hand, if the defence and goaltending don’t improve dramatically, it will feel as if we are in the midst of another episode of “rinse and repeat”. Chances are the Oilers penalty kill will be improved but by how much is debatable, and that can’t be overlooked.

Related: Jesse Puljujarvi and the Edmonton Oilers

The power play finished up inside the top ten last season at 21.2% and the addition of Neal should help this group continue to move up the ranks. Add in the skillset of a Joel Persson to the blue line, or potentially Evan Bouchard later in the season, and the power play is the one wild card the Oilers have up their sleeve. If they can click at an elite level on the man advantage, they’ll give themselves a legit shot at two points on a nightly basis.

Oilers Special Teams Should Be Improved

This brings us to the results at even strength, and at this time, we really have no clue as to what we can expect. With so many new pieces in place, it’s next to impossible to know if this collection of players will click or not. One thing we can be sure of — if there isn’t some kind of balanced scoring up and down the lineup, Edmonton won’t be good enough defensively or in goal to help offset an inconsistent offence.

Also, one can’t lose sight of the fact Alex Chiasson, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian, Connor McDavid, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all coming off career years. Though no one would be surprised to see McDavid put up a bigger point total in 2019-20, the rest will be hard-pressed to match their totals from a season ago and the chances of all them doing it is next to zero.

Florida Panthers Riley Sheahan
Florida Panthers center Riley Sheahan (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

In other words, the need for more goals is obvious and the Edmonton Oilers are banking on their latest additions upfront being able to help close that gap. Though it hasn’t worked for them in recent memory, Ken Holland is hoping he will have better luck than his predecessor did in adding peripheral pieces that actually make an impact at both ends of the ice.