When Ken Holland accepted the job as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, he inherited a roster with plenty of flaws. Chief among them was a lack of scoring on the wing. Sure, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combined for an outstanding 91 goals in 2018-19 (the most goals by any pair in the NHL). However, Alex Chiasson and Zack Kassian were the only natural wingers on the Oilers to reach double-digits in goals last season. Tha lack of scoring depth won’t get you into the playoffs; it puts you in contention for a lottery pick.
After signing a plethora of forwards to value contracts, Holland pulled off his biggest move on July 19, when he traded Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames for proven 20-goal scorer James Neal. On the surface, Neal should make the Oilers noticeably quicker and more productive up front. Here’s what to expect from the newest Oilers forwards this season.
After scoring 20 or more goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons, Neal didn’t even put up 20 points in 2018-19. When the Flames signed him to a five-year contract worth $28.75 million on July 2, 2018, he was expected to be a top offensive producer. However, he didn’t play enough with Calgary’s highly skilled players to be effective. His 11.6% career shooting percentage dipped to 5.0%, while playing mostly bottom-six minutes. The 31-year-old will undoubtedly be a top-six guy in Edmonton, and is primed for a bounce-back season.
“Wherever I’m slotted, I’m going to do my best,” Neal told Oilers TV reporter Tony Brar on July 20. I think I play my best hockey around guys like [Connor McDavid], who can move the puck. I’m a shooter. I play my best hockey when I’m getting open and finding fresh ice. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity.”
Acquiring Neal gives the Oilers the potential for two strong pairs up front. He could play alongside McDavid, allowing Draisaitl to move down to the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If new head coach Dave Tippett wants to keep McDavid and Draisaitl together, Neal is still the best winger Nugent-Hopkins has played with since Jordan Eberle was traded in 2017.
Given the number of players who shoot left on the Oilers’ first power-play unit, Neal’s not a lock to play there. If he starts piling up the goals, he could displace someone. Still, he has scored 196 of his 270 career NHL goals at even strength, so he should be able to contribute offensively without a ton of power-play time. I predict Neal will score 23 goals this season.
Selected by the Oilers in the second round (32nd overall) of 2016 NHL Draft, Tyler Benson is the top forward prospect in the system. In 2018-19, Benson finished tied for third in the AHL in assists (51) and eighth in points (66) in 68 games with the Bakersfield Condors, and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team. While it wouldn’t hurt him to play another 30 to 40 games in Bakersfield, he produced at an elite level in the AHL last season and looks ready to make his NHL debut in 2019-20.
Benson has an NHLe of 37 points, which he can reach if he stays healthy and plays the full season with the big club. The 21-year-old has the potential to one day play with McDavid, Draisaitl, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. There’s a chance that happens as early as this season if he exceeds expectations, but Benson should be playing soft minutes on the third line with some second-unit power-play time.
More than 20 NHL clubs reportedly pursued highly touted Swede Joakim Nygard, but ultimately the Oilers need for skilled wingers made Edmonton the perfect landing spot for him. “I mostly went on the gut feeling that I wanted a good chance to play. I saw that chance most in Edmonton,” Nygard told Sweden’s hockeysverige.se on June 12. “It’s hard to know how it will be and I really have no idea. I saw the biggest chance in Edmonton, and at the same time, it feels like they have something interesting going on.”
Nygard finished second in the SHL in goals (21) and tied for 14th in points (35) in 52 games in 2018-19. The 26-year-old possesses blazing speed, excellent puck skills, strong offensive instincts and a tireless work ethic. While he’s likely penciled in to play a bottom-six role, his skating prowess could help him move up the lineup. If Tippett decides to throw him and Kassian on McDavid’s wings for an extending period of time, Nygard could have a real shot of scoring 20 goals.
The Oilers have been searching for a third-line centre since they traded Ryan Strome to the New York Rangers for Ryan Spooner early last season. Gaetan Haas appears to be one of the front runners for the job ahead of training camp. A veteran of 10 professional seasons, Haas has spent his entire career playing in the Swiss National League. The 27-year-old is a smart, two-way forward with soft hands and excellent skating ability. I don’t see him putting up many points at the NHL level, but the Oilers will be counting on him to win draws and kill penalties.
It’s difficult to predict where Markus Granlund will play this season. He has the ability to play in the top-six, but he’s more effective on the third line and first penalty-kill unit. Still, Granlund has a 19-goal season in the NHL, and there are few players on the Oilers roster who can make that claim. The 26-year-old has only managed to put up 20 combined goals over the past two seasons, but he could probably play up in the lineup as an injury replacement.
After Jesse Puljujarvi requested a trade earlier in the summer, Holland signed Josh Archibald to grab what would have been Puljujarvi’s spot as the third line right wing. On the surface, this looks like another savvy pick up for Edmonton. Archibald has a quick release, good speed and plays a gritty game. The 26-year-old scored 12 goals in 68 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season, which would have placed him sixth on the Oilers in goals. While he doesn’t have a long track record as a goal scorer at the NHL level, I believe Archibald can be counted on to score at least 10 goals on a reasonably skilled third line.
Outlook for 2019-20
Under Holland, the Oilers are headed in the right direction. The future Hockey Hall of Fame manager has created real competition for jobs this season by bringing in several veteran forwards on short-term deals. Not only will the 26 and 27-year-old players push each other for more ice time, they will also force prospects like Benson, Cooper Marody or Joe Gambardella to steal a job, instead of just handing them one by default.
Neal and Nygard could be difference-makers this season. They both can put the puck in the net (although Nygard has not proved that at the NHL level), and it would be a massive win for the team if they can combine for 35 goals. Tomas Jurco, who the Oilers also signed this summer, is another wild card, but I think he’s headed for the AHL. Overall, this is not a championship forward group. However, if the Oilers improve their defensive play and get consistently solid goaltending, this forward group might be able to produce enough to help them sneak into the playoffs.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.