It’s been 12 days since our previous Oil Check and wow have things changed as the Edmonton Oilers made a big splash at the deadline. The biggest of all was trading for defenceman Mattias Ekholm. Jesse Puljujarvi was traded (or rather, cap dumped) to make room for the highly sought after defender. With 4% retained by Nashville, Ken Holland was then able to add Nick Bjugstad.
There was also the hefty price of Tyson Barrie, Reid Schaefer, a 2023 first- and 2024 fourth-round pick out the door for Ekholm. One could argue it was an overpay however with the pleasantly surprising early results from the stout defender, as of today, three games in, the Oilers are getting fair value.
Edmonton’s trade deadline approach
From being selected fourth overall at the 2016 NHL draft to cap dump at the 2023 trade deadline, Puljujarvi is a story of how not to develop a player in the NHL. I, like everyone, was shocked when the Columbus Blue Jackets did not take Jesse Puljujarvi third overall. All the mainstream media and bloggers had JP going third and I with them was looking forward to the Oilers selecting Matthew Tkachuk.
It is interesting to ponder the possibilities if the Oilers had taken Tkachuk but I digress. It was just so shocking to have JP available that it honestly felt like the Oilers had won the draft again—oh the irony is rich! Oilers management only had 15 minutes and once Jarmo Kekalainen passed on Jesse, no one could blame them for running up to the podium to take him as soon as possible.
From there it is fair to lame blame on the franchise, player and agent for poor development. The Oilers shoulder the blame for bringing Puljujarvi over to early from Finland. Despite some early success in his first two years it became clear that JP needed more time to develop his strength in order to compete consistently in the NHL. There was apparently also some push back from the player and agent about being sent to Bakersfield. Obviously playing in NHL is way better than riding the bus in Bakersfield but it is a route that most Edmonton Oilers aside from Connor McDavid have had to take to earn their spot on the roster.
I do not enjoy this next criticism of JP; however, I do believe it does explain his lack of awareness or hockey IQ on the ice. During TV interviews, one could draw the conclusion that JP did not have a good grasp of the English language. It is totally understandable as I do not know any Finnish or Swedish if I was good enough to play pro in Finland. Overtime, Jesses’ English has greatly improved however there were rumours that for years when the players and coaches would try to explain strategy or positioning, Jesse would always just reply with a “Yep!” I do believe there should have been an onus on Jesse to start learning English earlier, especially when it became clear that he had NHL potential.
Then of course there was the request for a trade, hold out and eventual return to Finland. The agent should take the majority of blame for this fiasco. I believe that when Puljujarvi signed to play in Finland is the exact same moment his NHL stock tanked and never recovered. It basically handcuffed Ken Holland and no matter how well JP played the return was never going to be adequate. Holland needs to be praised for the handling of this situation and I’m surprised how little value JP had at the deadline even when packaged with the first-round pick.
It is also worth noting that Puljujarvi underwent double hip surgery in May 2019 and signed in Finland later that summer. I noticed in his last game with the team that his skating and transitions can be clunky or clumsy at times. Don’t get me wrong, he is a workhorse, but at times you can tell his hips give him problems.
It would be great if he took some boxing lessons in the off-season and dropped the gloves every now and again because he sure can throw his weight around! It would have been nice if things worked out in Edmonton but I wish all the best for him going forward. I will not be surprised when Puljujarvi finds his scoring touch and earns a top-six role in the NHL.
During the deadline Ekholm checked a lot of boxes for Ken Holland: experienced defenceman, 32 years old, under team control and second pair left shot. When Puljujarvi was traded for cap space I told myself I could live with it if it leads to Ekholm or Chychrun. Hours later that is exactly what was confirmed in a blockbuster! The Oilers give up four pieces to make the cap work and obtain the best player in the trade.
At first I was skeptical to believe that one defensive upgrade would have such an impact and questioned the return however the early results have been excellent. Aside from a poor start from Jack Campbell against the Jets, the Oilers are 2–1–0 since Ekholm joined the team. It is a small three game sample size but Ekholms’ 5v5 advanced stats are impressive: A CF% of 60.20, HDCF% of 73.08, and HDGF% 83.33, as per NaturalStatTrick.com.
Ekholm has been a calming presence on the backend for a team that has allowed 216 goals against ranking 22nd in the league. Nashville was a defensive juggernaut for what seemed to be the entire decade of darkness in Edmonton. His tutelage under Shea Weber, Roman Josi, P.K Subban and even Ryan Suter are evident.
Pairing Ekholm with Bouchard gives the Oilers an excellent second pair option logging 20 minutes each game which has reduced Darnell Nurse’s minutes to 22:06 in the last 3 games. Nurses’ minutes were as high as 26:00 a night earlier this season. Nurse and Cody Ceci are an okay defensive pair, but they sure do make some head scratching decisions with the puck in the defensive zone. Reduced minutes for them should help the team in the long run and utilizing Nurse and Ekholm as a shut down pair late in games is a nice option to have.
Although I have seen some fans on Twitter ready to build a statue for Ekholm, I am willing to wait and see how the season pans out. I do look forward to the next three seasons as Ekholm is an upgrade over Barrie. Brett Kulak is now the shortest Oilers defensemen at 6’1″. Having Kulak on a better suited third pair with Philip Broberg plus the seaweed man Vinny Desharnais at #7 gives the Oilers the best defensive squad they have had in long time.
Nick Bjugstad is a big centre, coming it at 6’6″, 209 lbs. He was selected 19th overall in 2010 by Florida. It’s fair to say that Bjugstad has taken Jesse Puljujarvi’s spot. He is a centre with a career 49% face off percentage and was having a decent season while playing on a bad Arizona team posting 13 goals 10 assists 23 points in 59 games with a plus-7 rating. He also has a team friendly cap hit of $900K, with 50% of that retained by the Arizona Coyotes. It is possible that the Oilers could re-sign him in the summer depending how things workout.
His goal in the crazy 7–5 loss to the Jets was rather nice: off the faceoff , going the net, tracking down the rebound and scoring. The Oilers need to score a few more goals like that. Overall Bjugstad is an upgrade over Puljujarvi as the team is now deeper and it will be interesting to see if he resigns in the summer.
The cost to acquire players
Tyson Barrie signed as a free agent Oct 10, 2020 to a one-year “last chance” contract and went on to run the NHL’s #1 power play for the past two seasons. It is quite remarkable how little respect Barrie earned despite putting up good offensive numbers. The biggest slap in the face was during the pandemic-shortened season when Barrie led all defencemen in scoring yet did not receive any Norris Trophy votes. In the end, Barrie is the main piece that allowed the Oilers to obtain Ekholm.
Reid Schaefer is a 19-year-old, 6’3″, 219 lbs left winger who currently has 26 goals and 24 assists for 50 points in 46 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Taken 32nd overall at the 2022 draft, Schaefer is an interesting prospect that could eventually turn the tide of the trade in the Predators’ favour. Although the thought of having Schaefer pushing for a bottom-six spot is enticing, Raphael Lavoie, Ty Tullio, Xaiver Bourgalt, Tyler Benson and James Hamblin are having steady seasons for the Condors and would be better call up options over the next few years anyway.
This year’s first-round pick sent to Nashville is unknown, but again has the potential to turn this trade into the favour of the Predators. Only time will tell and we still have to include the 2024 fourth rounder as well. For now, Oiler fans get the big deadline deal that improves the defence and gives the team more balance and depth going forward.
Edmonton needs to play better defensively
Now that the deadline has passed, the roster is set, the team can start dialing in for the playoffs. As much fun as pond hockey is to watch, the Oilers need to start playing better team defence. They need to start cracking down on important spots of the game.
I can recall at few times this past week that just after the Oilers scored the opposing team scores before they even announce the goal in the arena. Another untimely goal is near the end of the period which proved to be the case against the Bruins. Boston scored late in the second and locked down the third to secure the win. Those goals against are momentum killers and if the Oilers can learn to bend but not break when the opposition is pushing back the better their chances in the playoffs.
Jack Campbell has proven to be streaky even though he has had a decent win loss record in the new year. The last loss versus the Jets could easily be blamed on Campbell but in a back-to-back situations you need both goalies to perform. All will be forgiven if Campbell can get hot in the playoffs and steal a game or two. Otherwise it looks like it’s Stuart Skinner’s net for now.
Would you rather have the best power play or penalty kill? When you have the best power play you can punish teams for taking bad penalties. When you have the best penalty kill your team can over come bad penalties and generate momentum. The Bruins proved that having the best kill could be the difference in a one-goal game. But then the Oilers look really good lighting up the Jets’ second best penalty kill in the league over two games. Maybe there’s a big discrepancy between the Bruins and everyone else.
Edmonton’s upcoming schedule
The Oilers are currently in the first wild card spot with 76 points, eight points ahead of ninth place Nashville and nine points ahead of tenth place Calgary in the playoff race. The Oilers will face teams in the playoffs or chasing a spot in the next two weeks playing Buffalo, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Dallas and Seattle until our next Oil Check. Obviously we hope the team can keep pace and least gain six or more of a possible 12 points as this is an interesting set of games to have, especially right after the deadline.