The Edmonton Oilers and Ken Holland have a very busy offseason ahead of them as there is much to do to get the team looking as good as it did for their Western Conference Final run in 2021-22. At the top of the list is re-signing head coach Jay Woodcroft, moving money around, bringing back key free agents, and finding a starting goaltender.
Despite Experienced Coaches Available, Oilers Must Re-Sign Woodcroft
There are a number of experienced coaches available on the market as this looks to be one of the biggest shakeups of head coaching in recent years. Names like Barry Trotz, Bruce Cassidy, Paul Maurice, Pete DeBoer, Claude Julian, John Tortorella, Rick Tocchet, and Alain Vigneault are looking for a new team to name just a few. Despite what’s available, Woodcroft did too good of a job as head coach in his half-season with the Oilers and they’ve spent too much time allowing him to grow as a coach to let him walk.
Woodcroft succeeded at the American Hockey League (AHL) level for the Bakersfield Condors and is only getting started in Edmonton. In the final 38 games of the regular season, the Oilers went 26-9-3 and had a .724 win percentage. The team also recorded four shutouts in the regular season from the time he took over, four more than Dave Tippett and at least one shutout from each of the three goaltenders to have played a game for the Oilers this past season.
The playoffs solidified the great coaching demonstrated by the young head coach as he used his lines correctly in helping the Oilers rally to beat the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1, dominate the Calgary Flames in the Battle of Alberta, and make the Western Conference Final. He was responsible for the Oilers running an 11-7 lineup to give the impactful forwards more time on the ice while evening out the defence and allowing them to rest more. His experience with many of the young players on the Oilers has and will come into play in helping them develop at the NHL level after he’s already helped them grow at the AHL level. He is deserving of a contract and Woodcroft stated in the post-season press conference that he and Holland will have that conversation next week following exit interviews with all the players.
Oilers Must Move Money Around
If Holland is planning on making moves to bring key players back or even bring in impactful players, he will have to free up some cap space. Three players, in particular, come to mind: Tyson Barrie, Zack Kassian, and Mike Smith.
Barrie has a $4.5 million cap hit as a third defenceman and as the defenceman on the top power play most of the time. Many times throughout the season though Bouchard was given the opportunity to show what he can do on the top unit and he didn’t disappoint. He has a hard shot and is not afraid to use it. Barrie has a good shot as well, but not many can match Bouchard’s and his great ability to walk the line and get in.
Barrie did improve his defensive game over the course of the season and was a great match with Brett Kulak when the Oilers acquired him at the trade deadline but paying a third-pairing defenceman that much money isn’t a luxury the Oilers can afford next season.
The Oilers are in the same boat with Kassian as he’s a bottom-six player and normally a fourth-line player with a cap hit of $3.2 million for two more seasons. Though he does bring physicality, that’s not enough to warrant the Oilers electing to keep him in a low-impact role over a restricted free agent (RFA) in need of a new contract. Smith is contemplating his future, so a retirement on his end would benefit the Oilers and free up a goaltending spot that they will have to address as well.
4/5 Key Free Agents Need to be Brought Back
The Oilers have three RFAs and two unrestricted free agents (UFA) that need new contracts and who are all possibilities of returning. The RFAs include Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan McLeod, while the UFAs are Evander Kane and Kulak.
Ryan Rishaug, an Oilers reporter, stated that Yamamoto and McLeod have to be higher up on the priority list than Puljujarvi, but that doesn’t mean a deal doesn’t get done. Of the five players I mentioned, Yamamoto and McLeod are surely the two you can count on to return to the Oilers next season. Rishaug also said that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl often request Yamamoto as their linemate, and since he and Puljujarvi both play right wing, that means they choose Yamamoto over Puljujarvi. It is understandable considering the success and the finishing ability Yamamoto possesses over the big Fin. There have been rumours that Puljujarvi may have played his last game for the Oilers and Holland said in the post-season press conference that he had talks with Puljujarvi and his agent and will go from there about his future.
As for Kane and Kulak, the latter seems more likely at this point in time to return as he costs a lot less and Kane is a luxury that the Oilers can allocate the money elsewhere that they would use to sign him. Also, at his age, it is a risky deal to lock up someone already in their 30s and likely on the decline sooner than later to term. He may have also said his goodbyes via Twitter this morning.
Kulak did wonders for the Oilers and Barrie and will be able to do that with any partner he is paired with. He is everything you could ask for in a shutdown defenceman who has the ability to produce some offence as well. He won’t cost a lot and could be a solid staple on the Oilers’ blue line as they integrate the young and talented defenders into the NHL.
Of the five, I believe the least likely to re-sign or be brought back to the Oilers for next season are Kane and Puljujarvi, in that order. Puljujarvi is young and has time to still grow and better finish, while Kane has proven to be somewhat of a liability at times putting the Oilers at a disadvantage.
Oilers Have to Find a Younger Starting Goaltender
With the uncertain future of Smith, the Oilers will likely be upgrading their goaltending with or without his retirement. Despite being solid at times, he was the most inconsistent netminder in the postseason and it forced the Oilers to score many more goals than they should need to in order to win games. The Oilers lost three games in the 2022 Playoffs when scoring five or more goals while never having lost more than one in a playoff year before in their history.
With moves and money allocated, the Oilers will be able to actually afford to bring in a true number one or even someone who can provide the team with a solid 50 starts. Holland describes a starter as someone who can play 55-60 games and the Oilers don’t have that in Smith or Stuart Skinner which is alright because there are some big names that should be available in free agency and on the trade market if that fails.
Whoever the Oilers go out and get in net has to provide them with more consistency if the team hopes to push further than they did this season. A 40-year-old isn’t the answer, but neither is a 23-year-old Skinner yet. As long as the Oilers aren’t required to score more than five on many nights to pull out wins, that’s an upgrade the team will be satisfied with.
There is a ton Holland must do and not everything may be a success. He’s proven he can pull the trigger and make good signings like Kane and Zach Hyman, but also drop the ball on others. It will surely be an exciting offseason that should have everyone glued to the progress.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with NHL Stats News, trade talks, and daily betting guides.
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