Oilers Banking on Core 5: Success, or the Next Maple Leafs?

The Edmonton Oilers have put all their chips in. With the long-term extension for Darnell Nurse done — a deal that starts at the end of next season — they’ve selected five players they believe can bring them at least one Stanley Cup. Having invested nearly half of the team’s total salary cap in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Nurse, it’s logical fans might question if this is the right approach.

Choosing five players you believe can bring your NHL team the ultimate prize is a gamble. Oilers GM Ken Holland is hoping he’s chosen wisely and that regardless of what supplementary pieces are placed around this leadership core, the Oilers will not just be more than competitive, but will have a chance to win it all.

Is this a formula for disaster? Going this route hasn’t always worked out for teams in the past and the latest team to try, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is watching it fail and their window to win with their core is arguably shrinking. It didn’t work for the San Jose Sharks, but it has worked for teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. Are the Oilers bound to be the next Maple Leafs? Or, is there a chance Edmonton can do some of these other teams have done, even what the Oilers did back in the organization’s glory years?

Comparisons Between the Oilers Today and the Dynasty Years

It’s natural that fans are starting to look back at the good ol’ days of the Edmonton Oilers and wonder if comparisons can be made between this team and that one. Frankly, there are a number of similarities. The leadership core of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Kevin Lowe are, in many ways a lot like the core of McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse. Add a goal scorer here and a grinder and mucker there and you can see why fans are hoping this Oilers team can reach even half the success that one did.

Wayne Gretzky Mark Messier Jari Kurri Grant Fuhr

Things have changed from then to now. The salary cap plays a role, the ownership group is much different and the sheer number of teams competing for the same prize creates more parity in the NHL. It’s also fair to argue that the players of today are vastly different than the players of the 80s and 90s.

At the time, Glen Sather built a team that was built to win in a certain way. It’s not clear if one style of NHL team can win it all any longer. Ken Holland has put his fingerprints all over this roster and the question moving forward will be if he’s assembled the right mix? He’s identified his top guys and he’s placed all his chips in that these five can do it. It’s a well-rounded group, full of power play guys, penalty killers, and skilled elite talent. It’s certainly not a one-dimensional core.

What About The Maple Leafs?

Kyle Dubas knows what it’s like to stick with your guys. He signed Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and he’s about to have to make a decision on defenseman Morgan Rielly. The difference between the Maple Leafs and the Oilers is that Toronto hasn’t won with this core and Dubas is going to have to invest in a defenseman at an age and time where the rest of his leadership core is coming closer to the end of their current deals before they potentially begin to separate.

When Rielly is due for an extension, they’ll be two seasons left on Matthews’ and Nylander’s deal and three on Marner’s. The Oilers have their core together no less than four years and only Draisaitl would potentially leave in that time frame. Holland has opened a four-year window for the Oilers. These five players are at the absolute prime of their careers. Toronto’s window is closing rapidly and some will be leaving with their best years to come.

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More Good News for the Oilers

The accent pieces that could be major role players for the Oilers in the next few seasons won’t be costly. Yes, Edmonton needs a goaltender (their Grant Fuhr of the group) and they’ll have about $6 million to spend at the position starting next season. So too, their blue line and the depth forwards shouldn’t be incredibly difficult to keep together.

Some fans are concerned a new contract for Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto will be hard to get done with so much money committed to five players. That’s likely inaccurate.

Jesse Puljujarvi Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Oilers hold the hammer with both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto. At best, Yamamoto gets $1.5 million to $2 million on a bridge deal (he doesn’t have arbitration rights) and Puljujarvi $3 million (maybe a little more) if he explodes offensively. That’s an affordable thing for the Oilers to get done. Meanwhile, Duncan Keith is expensive now, but he won’t be in the future and he’ll be training his replacement (if he’s not re-signed for a low-cost deal). Evan Bouchard projects to be a massive contributor and his cost will be marginal for a number of years.

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Still, It’s a Risk

At the end of the day, the Oilers are in a bit of unique situation compared to other NHL teams. They have the two best (statistically based) players in the NHL on their roster. It cost the Oilers money to sign those players. They also had a ton of roster spots open and elected to fill those spots in free agency. That cost money too. Finally, they’ve banked on a defenseman that hasn’t reached his full potential yet. It’s a costly wager that needs to pay off.

The depth on the team is incredibly important and one can argue this is the deepest roster the Oilers have built in years. At the end of the day, it comes down to the five guys taking all the money. Are they the right five guys? While there’s still time for Toronto to win and prove the naysayers wrong, they’ve perhaps showed that if you potentially allocate all your cap to the wrong guys, it doesn’t work.

Did Holland choose wisely? Oilers fans have about four years to find out.