The 2019-20 season did not end the way the Edmonton Oilers would have hoped. Head coach Dave Tippett tried to describe it as briefly as he could when he claimed, “Perhaps we overachieved in the regular season and underachieved in the playoffs.”
That would be an understatement.
Edmonton was over-matched, under-prepared, and out-energized during a five-game series that only went four games. The No. 12 seeded Chicago Blackhawks simply played better than Edmonton and short of stopping the two best scorers in the NHL from scoring, the surprising upset has left the Oilers with a ton of internal questions that require answers.
The Oilers Core Is Set
Understanding that Connor McDavid will do McDavid-like things and Leon Draisaitl is every bit as good as advertised during the regular season, the core is set. Any team that has Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their one-two-three down the middle (should they choose to deploy them that way) has a fighting chance. It’s the pieces around that core that could use some tweaking.
Anything less than making the playoffs in 2021, and winning a round won’t be acceptable. Another season where McDavid doesn’t have the help he needs won’t cut it.
So, what do the Oilers have to do?
Get Top-Six Help, Decide on Athanasiou
Outside of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and a still unproven Kailer Yamamoto, the Oilers top six needs work.
James Neal started the season like a house-on-fire but tailed off, proving that he’s inconsistent for the hefty price tag that comes with his contract.
Alex Chiasson is a strong bottom-six option and extra hand on the power play, but he’s not the 20-goal scorer he appeared to be when the Oilers took a flyer on him the previous season.
When Tyler Ennis went down, there were real questions about how the team should construct their lines. Ennis isn’t guaranteed to be back as an unrestricted free agent even if Edmonton would like him to stay.
Let’s not even get into how invisible Zack Kassian was in the series and how potentially overpaid he is if he continues to play that way.
Perhaps more troubling than all of those things, it appears the experiment to add Andreas Athanasiou didn’t work. Obviously, the sample size is too small to know for certain and there were moments in the series against the Hawks where Athanasiou looked dangerous, but the Oilers don’t have the luxury of taking a longer look. A decision needs to be made on the player and it’s going to be a costly decision if it’s the wrong one.
There are still questions about whether or not the Oilers should qualify Athanasiou as an RFA. He will cost at least $3 million and whether or not he’ll be worth that in a tight salary cap 2020-21 season is unclear. Would the Oilers be better served to abandon Athanasiou’s deal and look outside the team for a solution?
There are options, they just aren’t cheap. Edmonton could try and convince someone like Taylor Hall to return. His future is very much up in the air, but the longer the Coyotes last in the playoffs, the more expensive he potentially becomes. Edmonton could try and nab a player like Mike Hoffman in free agency. He was just ousted along with the Florida Panthers from the postseason and there are certainly changes coming in Florida. Tyler Toffoli is someone Vancouver wants to keep, but he might fit nicely.
Find a Starting Goaltender
For GM Ken Holland, what he thought might have been a strong one-two punch in net isn’t good enough. The Oilers have Mikko Koskinen pegged as their starter but the team will really need to determine if that’s what he is.
During the course of the 2019-20 season, Koskinen played well but there’s no doubt the Oilers overpaid for his services. So too, during the series with the Blackhawks, he didn’t steal any games and that’s something a starting netminder should be able to do, especially at a $4.5 million price tag per season.
As for Mike Smith, it might be time to cut bait. Unless the veteran is willing to take a massive discount as a backup netminder, Edmonton should go looking for a cheaper, younger option. Even if he is willing to return for a lot less, there were some glaring issues with his game that Edmonton should be cautious of.
Smith was excellent at points in the season but far from consistent. He posted a .902 save percentage and played the puck so much that mistakes became something the Oilers had to manage instead of a strength. He’s a legitimate goaltender, but at his age and potentially declining production, there are certainly questions as to whether or not he can steal a starting job in the NHL moving forward.
Smith is a pending UFA. It will cost nothing to let him leave.
If the Oilers look outside their club, the best options for Edmonton in net are Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights, (pending free agent), Braden Holtby from the Washington Capitals (Washington will likely go with Samsonov), and Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins (likely going to be available via trade).
Sign Sheahan But Deploy Him Properly
It will be important for the Oilers to re-sign Riley Sheahan, but more importantly, convince him he’s a fourth-line center and a penalty killer on this current roster. Speculation is that he wants to be paid like a third-line center because Edmonton used him often there this past season. That’s not the best plan for the Oilers long-term.
If Edmonton can’t get that done, there should be players available on the trade market as teams start to disappear from the current playoff race. And, if a trade isn’t available, perhaps free agency has a handful of players that might interest Holland. Carl Soderberg, Derick Brassard, and Cody Eakin could be worth inquiring about.
Get Puljujarvi To Come Back
It wouldn’t be wise to cave into demands, but if Jesse Puljujarvi can be convinced that his future is best served as part of the Edmonton Oilers, he could be a less-costly option that works in the top-nine. If lucky, he becomes a top-six forward over the course of next season. If un-lucky, he’s an inexpensive draft pick that turned out to be a bust.
Edmonton will need some inexpensive contracts to round out their roster and while Puljujarvi has a history with the team that isn’t great, the Oilers do believe he’s got a high ceiling that he’s not come close to reaching yet.
It’s time to find out, one way or another.
A Good Season Gone Bad
Sweeping changes aren’t needed despite the cries by fans after a quick out from the 2020 playoffs. That said, this team is not strong enough in areas that make them a playoff contender.
The exit interviews done by Holland this weekend will be telling, as were the comments made by some of the Oilers at their media avails after their Game 4 loss. Clearly, there are holes in this lineup. Suggesting moves that may fill some of those holes is one thing. Convincing players to show up for a series is another.
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Jim Parsons is a freelance writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers and news and rumors posts here at The Hockey Writers.
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