Since the 2010-11 season, the Edmonton Oilers have only qualified for the postseason three times, making it out of the first round only once. They lost in the second round under Todd McLellan in the 2016-17 season and lost in the first round the other two times they made the postseason. While the team has been much more competitive in recent years than it used to be, the results that they hoped would come with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl entering their primes have yet to manifest themselves. The team is now past the point of being able to blame its struggles on poor moves made by previous management, as current general manager (GM) Ken Holland has now put his stamp on this team.
After a very busy offseason, Holland failed to address the team’s goaltending situation which has been very inconsistent for the majority of the 2021-22 season. The Oilers find themselves outside of a playoff spot with a very tight battle in the standings that is changing on a daily basis. They are still in the mix for a postseason berth, but it would be beneficial for them to take this time to retool their roster to help prepare for next season. Rather than find themselves with another first-round exit or worse, they should take the opportunity to fix the team’s root problems that are leading to mediocre results and come back stronger and better equipped for 2022-23.
Oilers 2021-22 Playoff Race
The Oilers are coming off back-to-back losses against two teams with no playoff aspirations in the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens. The losses leave them with 64 points through 56 games this season which puts them four points back with a game in hand on the Vegas Golden Knights for the third spot in the division and two points back of the Nashville Predators, who have a game in hand, for the second wild-card spot. Despite their March schedule featuring more non-playoff opponents with a chance to make up ground in the standings, they have so far failed to make the most of the opportunity.
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Since the league returned back to its normal divisions after shuffling them around last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Pacific Division is much improved overall with more teams vying for a playoff spot. The Central Division is also loaded with talented teams battling for a wild-card spot to book their playoff berth. It is unusual for a team that is in the mix for a playoff spot to decide to retool but without relying on McDavid or Draisaitl to outscore teams in a playoff series, their odds of legitimately competing are slim.
Oilers Retool Will Help Cap Situation Next Season
While no GM ever wants to be in the situation to be sellers at the deadline, it is sometimes necessary in order to improve the team. Holland is now in his third season at the helm of the Oilers where he made some noteworthy moves last offseason that made this team his. He opted to trade for Duncan Keith and also signed free-agent forward Zach Hyman to a long-term deal. He also re-signed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to a long-term deal, brought in a scoring winger in Evander Kane and opted to stand pat with a goalie tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen after missing out on the big goaltenders that were available in free agency.
Most of these moves showed the intention of the Oilers finally being playoff contenders this season, however, it is being derailed by inconsistent goaltending. Heading into any playoff series with the current goaltending situation seems like a disservice to the team and fans because they will likely be set up for failure. Having to rely on the forwards to outscore opponents to win games is not a recipe for success in the playoffs. Despite their improved team defense with Jay Woodcroft behind the bench, it is not enough if you can’t get timely saves when they matter the most.
The Oilers are in a unique situation because of their tight cap situation, which makes it difficult to add to their roster right now. This makes any trade to address their needs difficult to navigate and not worth the risk of trading future assets in order to invest in a team that likely won’t be able to make a deep playoff run. Rather than mortgage the future, they should take the opportunity to move out some contracts and prepare for some offseason moves that will benefit them in the long run.
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The Oilers have plenty of restricted free agents (RFA) to re-sign over the offseason and with Koskinen’s contract being the only major deal coming off the books, allocating cap space correctly is even more important next season.
What Does an Oilers Roster Retool Look Like?
With the likes of Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan McLeod headlining the RFAs on the roster, Holland will need to set money aside to keep them around. Darnell Nurse’s extension also kicks in next season, which furth limits the cap space available to him, while still needing to address the team’s goaltending situation.
The Oilers have the opportunity to make some moves prior to the deadline in order to create some cap space for next season which would start with trading Zack Kassian. He is currently working his way back from injury but should be ready to return prior to the playoffs. His style of game is best suited for playoff hockey but his $3.2 million cap hit until the 2023-24 season is something they can’t afford moving forward.
Kassian’s value would be at its peak if the Oilers could find a suitor before the deadline because he is a player that any team would welcome on their roster to provide a physical presence for a playoff run. They could trade Kassian and replace him with a much cheaper player with a similar playstyle next season in order to conserve precious cap space.
The Oilers should also opt to shop defenseman Tyson Barrie because of the emergence of the young blueliners on their backend this season. He is becoming more of a luxury rather than a necessity and one that many playoff teams would love to add because of his offensive upside and affordable cap hit. Evan Bouchard proved he can handle the workload of a top-pair defenseman working alongside Nurse for extended periods throughout this season. Bouchard and Nurse are also more than capable of handling powerplay duties making Barrie and his $4.5 million cap hit better suited to be used to improve other areas of the roster next season.
Another move the team could make is recouping some future assets by trading away Evander Kane, who is a top-six player on a very affordable deal. Bringing in assets that can be used in trades to address areas of need next season (specifically to acquire a starting goaltender) should be a priority. The odds of the Oilers being able to retain Kane next season are unlikely considering he probably played well enough to put himself out of their price range next season. Taking any asset they can for a pending unrestricted free agent would be more beneficial than using him as an own rental player, especially since a deep playoff run seems more like a dream as opposed to reality at this point.
Oilers Have More to Gain Long-Term
Without goaltending, it makes it tough to envision the Oilers making a deep playoff run and the lack of goaltenders available in order to address the area for the right price means they will be forced to stick with their current situation. Over the last few seasons, the team went with reserved approaches at the trade deadline making minor acquisitions because of Holland’s hesitancy to give up anything of major value in a trade.
Related: Oilers Have Regressed Instead of Improved From Last Season
Considering the Oilers are outside of a playoff spot for the time being, it is hard to imagine Holland picking this instance to make a commitment to the team and go all-in by making a major acquisition that will immediately impact the roster. Last season the team made one move heading into the trade deadline, in acquiring Dmitry Kulikov which was not an addition that really moved the needle in bringing them to the next level.
Rather than the team moving forward this season with a similar reserved trade deadline strategy, Holland and the team can benefit much more from moving pieces out to retool the roster for next season. Even if they do move some of the players off their active roster they could still find themselves making the playoffs, but will need several players to get hot in order to make a significant postseason run.
Management Needs To Be More Decisive
History proves the Oilers’ indecisiveness and unwillingness to give up future assets to acquire players to help the team win now leads them to suffer similar mediocre outcomes as they have in the past. Last season they were faced with a unique chance in the North Division to make a deep playoff run, but still did not take the opportunity to be buyers at the deadline. Holland needs to be more confident in his decision-making processes in order to propel this team forward.
The Oilers, for the most part, are a team stuck in neutral and with how close the standings are this season, it is hard to imagine him deciding that this is the time to be aggressive at the deadline. If they shift their focus to retooling rather than holding out hope that they can make a strong playoff run, it can benefit them in the long term and help prepare for another critical offseason with several areas to address.