Oilers’ Big Deadline Move Had to Be Adding a Left-Shot Defenceman

We’ve seen a very busy 2022 NHL Trade Deadline by a number of buyers and sellers, but the Edmonton Oilers had themselves a quieter day, making two depth moves. They are very much in the mix to make the postseason after a resurgence under new head coach Jay Woodcroft.

On Saturday, Jeff Marek stated: “The Oilers are happy with their forward group right now. It sounds as if there’s one move here for the Oilers, probably a left-shot defenceman.” They indeed went out and got a left-shot defenceman in Brett Kulak while also adding a depth forward in Derick Brassard.

General manager Ken Holland seems to be sticking with the goaltending duo he intended from the start of the season in hopes that they can play well and take the team past the first round, and it makes sense not to massively overpay mid-season as every other trade seems to have cost a lot.

Why Acquiring a Defenceman Was the Only Move for the Oilers

The Oilers are happy with their forward group, and why wouldn’t they be? It’s like they have acquired a number of players because three forwards have just come off the injured reserve, and one more is close. Jesse Puljujarvi missed a month and slots in the top-six. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should be back in just over a week to shore up the third line, while Zack Kassian and Josh Archibald slot in on the fourth line and add grit and physicality, something the Oilers need more of. It didn’t stop them from adding one more piece before the deadline. Kris Russell also returned on the back end.

Kris Russell Oilers
Kris Russell, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

They also signed Evander Kane in late January, which was like a deadline acquisition, only earlier and cost nothing but cap space. With a number of fringe NHL players in the minors as well, the Oilers are set with skill and depth up front.

As for goaltending, Mikko Koskinen has played very well, given the pressure and criticism he’s faced. He is on an 11-1-2 streak, allowing three or fewer goals in 12 games and recording one shutout, moving his record to 23-9-3 and raising his save percentage to .904. He is also 12-3-3 on the road, where the Oilers will play half of their remaining games and would like to be a little better. Despite his save percentage and goals-against average not being great, he has stepped up when needed to get the win.

Mike Smith, seemingly the backup at this point, has less than ideal stats this season. Injured three times, he is finally healthy and looking to regain his form. Allowing seven goals in the past three games is a step up from how he’s performed all season. If he struggles more, the Oilers always have the option they’ve called upon multiple times this season in Stuart Skinner to provide good starts and support Koskinen.

Having those two areas of the team covered, the Oilers seem to be doing very little because of their cap constraints. They are paying multiple players more than they’re worth, which leaves little room to upgrade without moving money out. That costs assets, and Holland doesn’t seem willing to do that at this time. The offseason might be different, however.

The left side of the defence seems to be the team’s weakest, particularly on the third pairing. The Oilers recently welcomed back Russell to the lineup, bumping Philip Broberg back to the American Hockey League to join Markus Niemelainen. Both have impressed in their rookie seasons, but the Oilers feel like they need a bit more experience down the stretch and into playoffs. With William Lagesson as the seventh defenceman, there were better options still available on the market (from ‘Fact checking Oilers coach Dave Tippett’s claim that Kris Russell is a “good, solid defender’, Edmonton Journal, Nov. 29, 2021).

Oilers Trade for Brett Kulak

Some of the biggest names on defence had already been moved ahead of deadline day, like Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, Ben Chiarot, and Mark Giordano, so that automatically left the Oilers with less impactful options to upgrade their bottom pairing.

Names like Justin Braun and Jacob Middleton got traded earlier yesterday, so the Oilers had few options. They elected to go with Kulak from the Montreal Canadiens. The asking price was originally rumoured to be a second-round pick, but for the role he is expected to play, that was too high of an ask.

Brett Kulak Montreal Canadiens
Brett Kulak, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Holland ended up paying that plus more for a depth defenceman, and when compared to what some other depth defencemen are costing, that is a big overpay. His analytics are decent, and he is great at defending off the rush, but his mistakes stand out and will look bad. For what it’s worth, his analytics look similar to Ethan Bear when he was in Edmonton.

To pay a second-round pick is too much as it is for a rental depth defenceman. But the Oilers also moved on from Lagesson, who was serving as a seventh defenceman. He has some upside and had recently upped his game at the NHL level but had also asked for a trade due to lack of space in the organization. The hope is Kulak can lower the number of mistakes and play a solid game alongside Evan Bouchard or Tyson Barrie.

Oilers Will Be Tested Down the Stretch

The Oilers have 12 of their remaining 20 games against playoff teams, including three against the Colorado Avalanche, who they play tonight. This will be a challenge, and the Oilers will be tested against the type of competition they should be expecting to see in the postseason.

The most likely first-round matchup for the Oilers is the Los Angeles Kings, who they play on March 30, having split the season series this season. This may be one of the biggest games to finish up the season, along with one game against the Vegas Golden Knights for seeding and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Oilers have had home-ice advantage the past two postseasons, but both matchups have been against Central Division teams, and they are now set to finally match up with a Pacific Division team for the first time since 2017.

Under Woodcroft, the team’s defensive play has been much more solid overall and has resulted in better goaltending performances by Koskinen. The forwards are encouraged to backcheck hard and support their defence, causing less odd-man rushes and opportunities against. The offence has increased, while the goals against have declined, the perfect combination for a team planning on being competitive in the postseason. A big problem had been depth scoring, and it looks as though they finally have that as well.