No general manager or coach is perfect and the Edmonton Oilers’ season definitely hasn’t been that either, but there have been a few mistakes or mismanagement of the roster that may have resulted in the struggles throughout the year the team has faced.
The first is the entire goaltending scenario has been rough and a topic of conversation for the Oilers the entire season. The second mistake is how the forward lines were set up regarding Ryan Nugent-Hopkins‘s place in the lineup. That era under Dave Tippett is over but we still can look back and analyze why the team slumped at times and have made making the playoffs much more difficult than it should be. The third is the trades or lack thereof in upgrading the team, partly due to cap management and somewhat addressing the needs. We will get into all of this below.
Not Playing Skinner More
It has been a roller coaster of a year not just for the team but for the goaltenders as well. Even though Mike Smith has been a disappointment overall from the standards he is held to from last season, he has had some bright spots for the Oilers and given a bit of hope since there were no moves made to acquire help in net.
As many know, the Oilers have run with three goaltenders this season, Mikko Koskinen, Smith, and Stuart Skinner. Koskinen has taken the starter role for most of the season and ran with it, recording a great win/loss record despite posting questionable numbers overall. Smith has been injured on three separate occasions and has failed to find consistency, and while he has been out, Skinner has been up and down between the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL) way too often.
At least for this year, there is the worry about rushing Skinner to the NHL and throwing him in a situation to harm his confidence and all the work and patience the Oilers have had with him. He is so close and is looked at as the goalie of the future that should be in the mix in the NHL moving forward next year.
There’s not much left for him to prove in the AHL after dominating down there for the second season in a row. Sure, the team around him is solid, but after posting a .914 save percentage (SV%) and a 20-9-1 record last season, he has elevated his game higher this year. Skinner is now 13-3-4 with a .922 SV% in the AHL after posting a .913 SV% in the NHL in 12 starts this season. That’s the best among the three goaltenders. I understand not putting a ton of pressure on him, but a key moment that stood out was playing Smith in a back-to-back over giving Skinner one of the starts which caused Tippett to lose his job the next day. Just a few more starts here and there to take the pressure off of Koskinen in the starter role or Smith when he’s been playing badly could have helped the team as a whole.
There should’ve been a conversation about placing Smith on waivers after two more games in a row where he allowed eight goals over two games on 29 shots. Looking around the league to other teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild that have struggled to get adequate goaltending as of late, they both did something about their situations.
The Maple Leafs finally waived Petr Mrazek, freeing up $1.125 million by having him play in the minors in place of Erik Kallgren while the Wild traded for Marc-Andre Fleury, traded Kaapo Kahkonen who had struggled, and cleared the way for Jesper Wallstedt to be the clear goaltender of the future after trading up to the Oilers’ spot to draft him (from ‘Minnesota Wild trade tracker: More details on the Marc-André Fleury deal — Wild were on his ‘very, very short list’, The Athletic, March 21, 2022). The least the Oilers could’ve done is send a clear message that Smith had to do better and Skinner could come in when needed to support Koskinen, relieving the pressure from both of them and creating a serviceable tandem.
Waiting Too Long to Play Nugent-Hopkins at Centre
It’s not the management’s fault that Nugent-Hopkins has been injured for a month on two separate occasions this season, but his utilization in the lineup is. While in the lineup, the Oilers have done better than without him, going 10-4-1 in the past 15 games he has played.
Nugent-Hopkins brings multiple different elements to the game that can oftentimes be overlooked. He is great at being an outlet on the left side of the power play when entering the zone and allowing the team to get set up. He also is one of the main penalty killers who pairs very well with Zach Hyman, even creating offence while a man down.
For the past number of years, Nugent-Hopkins has either played the wing on the first or second line with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. This has mostly worked due to the lack of impactful wingers the Oilers had and it allowed the top-six to score. But while the Oilers had always stacked the top-six, the bottom-six suffered year after year and the lack of depth was always put into question and even taken advantage of in games. Take the playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets for example.
When Nugent-Hopkins was finally used at centre again on the third line, it helped elevate the play of Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan, two players that were in dire need of a resurgence. This, along with having an entirely new line to create offence and defend well gave the Oilers the much-needed depth they had been hoping for. Even now when Nugent-Hopkins is injured, the confidence and elevated play has continued with his linemates and the third line and depth has continued to play better hockey, contributing more often than not (from ‘Lowetide: Should the Oilers move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the 3rd line?’, The Athletic, Nov. 15, 2021).
Having waited to change around the forward line combinations for not only too long this year, but years prior has played a major factor in the lack of forward depth that’s always a topic of conversation as well as the inability to get more players into the game early and often.
Trades & Non-Trades
Trades and who plays on a daily basis is all in the hands of the management, whether it’s the general manager or the coach. We’ve discussed the misuse of the goaltending this year and the countless chances Smith seems to get despite turning 40 today and providing the team with few good outings.
There has seemingly been an opportunity to acquire a number of goaltenders this season as the goalie market wasn’t very active and not many moved at all. It is a real gamble to hope Smith returns to form and wait to put in the work in the offseason as well as hoping Koskinen stays hot and doesn’t go on a stretch of down games.
Back to the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the Oilers acquired Duncan Keith to play the left side of the second line. As solid of a player as he has been, the cap that Ken Holland failed to have the Chicago Blackhawks retain has caused a bind for this season and next with key contracts coming up and Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen stepping up quicker than anticipated.
Though the deadline addition of Derick Brassard wasn’t very costly, it makes you wonder why the move was made when the forward group is crowded as is, especially with the returning players from injuries. Holland also failed to move Josh Archibald, who will have to miss the regular season and playoff games due to his vaccination status. He stated there wasn’t much of a market out there for Archibald and he smartly didn’t use a sweetener to pull off a deal. Adding another forward makes the group that much more crowded, but at least the Oilers have insurance if a number of players go down at once again.
The other deadline deal cost more to acquire, but Brett Kulak shores up the left side of the defence, is a big help on the penalty kill, and is a great rush defender. The team was limited to depth moves due to the lack of cap space that Holland was somewhat responsible for.
Related: Oilers’ Big Deadline Move Had to Be Adding a Left-Shot Defenceman
The Oilers would be in a much better position than they are and nobody would be worrying about whether or not they would be fighting for a playoff spot at any time in the season if instead of these major mistakes, solutions were found earlier or even at all.