It is time to take the next step forward for the Edmonton Oilers. The team is coming off of consecutive seasons that saw them eliminated in the first round. In those two playoff appearances, they have one win that came against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019-20, the lowest-seeded team to qualify for the play-in round. Though they were a younger and more inexperienced team, that excuse can’t be used anymore.
A step forward had been taken after the Oilers missed the playoffs for a record-tying 10 consecutive seasons until they finally made it to the postseason and impressed by making it to Game 7 of the second round. Everybody thought that was the beginning of the bright future of the Oilers. That didn’t hold as they went on to miss the playoffs the next two seasons and ended up acquiring two integral pieces to the team’s success this year and beyond.
The first stop on the path to success for the Oilers includes the top two draft picks from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod. These names, along with Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto are the main group I am referring to when mentioning the young group of players on the NHL roster that need to take a step forward, not back. There are a good amount of contracts on this team that pay handsomely. The players making the big bucks will have to play up to those contracts if the Oilers want to make it anywhere. Finally, the window is open to start winning when it counts, and this team will have to avoid another first-round exit to prove that.
Oilers’ Young Guns Fire, Not Faulter
The four youngest players that should make the Oilers roster, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Bouchard, and McLeod, are all set for larger roles after the roster was shaken up a bit in the offseason. The first two of those names have already been given the opportunity to succeed after proving their work ethic and ability at the NHL level. These players should line up on the right side of the top two lines once regular-season action begins.
With a full season in the books, both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto will have eyes on them as they are expected to elevate their game even higher. Puljujarvi has a new competent winger that should stick, and Yamamoto will look to continue his tenacious play and hope he gets some puck luck this season.
The other young guns, Bouchard and McLeod, are a little further behind the other two. They have just broken into the NHL and project to play on the bottom pairing and in the bottom-six. With a healthy squad, it will be very difficult for McLeod to move up the lineup into the top-six, as all of the players are trusted and have lit it up in the past. Bouchard will have a bit more wiggle room, as he plays a similar game as Tyson Barrie, only he is younger and more able to change his ways before they are ingrained in his head. Half of the defensive core is also new to the team, so pairings will have to be tested.
Players on cheap contracts who perform is a major key to success for any team wanting to make a run. Each of these four players will make $1.175 million or below next season. Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are both on contract years, which means extra incentive to perform well. McLeod is also on a contract year, but after proving himself in the minors and only projected to have one full season under his belt in the NHL, a bridge deal is most likely on the horizon. Nevertheless, there is an incentive to play well, as he could earn a bridge deal with a higher average annual value (AAV) or be given a lengthy extension off the hop. McLeod joins Bouchard as the only players that will be on entry-level contracts.
Oilers’ Veterans Playing to their Worth
On the subject of contracts, there are some players on this Oilers team that are or are about to be paid very nicely for their services. In a salary cap era, every penny counts. These players will have to perform to the standard at which they are being paid. To name a couple, contracts for Zach Hyman, Zack Kassian, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci have been criticized.
Keith is a veteran with the shortest term left on any of the contracts mentioned. Yet his $5.538 million AAV scares many, as he is not the player he once was. Looming over that is the trade that sent Caleb Jones and a higher draft pick back with no salary retained. Two years is not too long, and with what he can and should bring to the room and the young team, it has to be worth it. He also needs to be a staple defensively, as his responsibilities have changed with age and the cast around him on the back-end.
The money Hyman and Ceci are earning will not be the problem early. It is the term that they are signed for. The Oilers now have something to look forward to as far as prospects go, and with any luck, will be pushing for roles sooner than later. If a team has players making more than what they are worth, especially at an older age, it never ends well. The Oilers feel like it’s their window to win now and that’s what these two players can help them in doing. We see more and more that players front-load contracts and go for it early, and worry about the cap problem later, usually ending with a buyout or trade with some future assets. Hyman and Ceci will need to stick and do what they were brought in to do, create stability and produce if the money is to not be wasted away.
Kassian is not expected to play top-line minutes anymore, but the $3.2 million he is making will be wasted if he isn’t playing physical hockey every night on the third line. He can’t be in and out of the lineup, he has to rebound to some extent. He has played some of the best hockey in his career in Edmonton. Despite playing not playing on the first line, he will have to keep a playoff mindset throughout the year, since his style of play demands intensity. It should be easier for him with fans back in the building.
“That to me is hockey, where you get the goosebumps & get the adrenaline … fans are a big part of hockey.”(Kassian, 2021, via Jamie Umbach/EdmontonOilers.com)
The last names that will be making big money this year and beyond are Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse. McDavid and Draisaitl are cause for no concern, as they have finished the top two in the scoring each of the past two seasons. Both have won the Hart Trophy in that time as well. Nurse will be the only player of concern, as after this season he is set for a $3.65 million raise, which sees him earn more than Draisaitl for eight more years. As many think that is an overpayment, he has improved each year and finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting last season while not even earning top power-play minutes. He will have to have a massive year again, both offensively and defensively, to silence the doubters and make that money worth it.
Oilers Need A Deep Playoff Run
A couple more playoff wins won’t even be enough. After some people think that the Oilers have taken a step back after last season, the players and management know that this is their window to make something happen. The accomplishment of just making the playoffs might fly in their first season doing so, but being swept regardless is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter who they match up with in the first round next season, with the best player in the world, the expectations have been raised.
2017 saw a young Oilers team play their hearts out. For the younger players that didn’t get to experience that, they had attempts the past two seasons. Hopefully, every player has learned from the losses and is ready to make the necessary changes to succeed.
The Oilers have all the tools to succeed. General manager Ken Holland has filled in the necessary gaps that this team has been lacking. Big years from the young guys, newcomers and familiar faces performing to the standard at which they’re being paid, and a deep playoff run is what has to be in store for the Oilers if they hope to succeed in 2021-22.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. As a fantasy hockey veteran, he will be informing you on the best weekly options for your matchups to begin the week and mid-way. He will also keep you in the loop for weekly news and updates on the Oilers & Flyers.