With back-to-back seasons with at least one playoff series win each, the Edmonton Oilers have, at least partially, fulfilled their destiny of becoming a perennial contender. Quite frankly, this much is owed to the simultaneous primes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s careers. Of course, this does little to quench thirst for a Stanley Cup that resides in their hearts as much as any across Oil Country. As disappointing as the ending was for this Oilers season was, the rarefied air of the NHL’s upper echelon of teams is not to be taken for granted.
Regardless, anxiety can fester across a fan base when the expectations are high. Perhaps even more so given the Oilers intense fan base and the unending talents of McDavid and Draisaitl. While virtually every other aspect of the team is in question, it is fair to acknowledge the Oilers are reasonably reinforced to an extent. Still, the pursuit of a Stanley Cup requires the Oilers to search aggressively for upgrades in many areas across the roster.
Where can the Oilers improve
While the Oilers, from GM to coach to players, acknowledged that their defensive efforts, or even their defensive identity as a whole, must be improved, the search for answers does not stop there.
Sure, the goaltending situation has the Oilers with a tandem closer to the middle of the league than the top, but a stronger defensive effort would aid in this respect. Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell could be improved upon, but on paper and in practice the duo has found a way to deliver reasonable play at reasonable value.
The truth is that the Oilers only have so many assets, or cap dollars, to improve. While big ticket free agents or high stakes trades might be able to fix any given area on the Oilers roster, the Oilers will have to pick their spots to best solve the puzzle of the roster as a whole.
Through the past couple seasons, and rearing its head once more in the playoffs, another question seems to loom. It may often be left unsaid, but the reality is that there is a hole in this lineup that has persisted, and twisted its way into the symptoms that most mock lineups try to fix: finding a final member of the Oilers top six forward group.
Yearning for more? Defining desire
McDavid and Draisaitl set the tone as the NHL’s foremost dynamic duo. Their presence alone might make our quest to improve the top six forwards seem counterintuitive. Joined by career seasons from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman, the Oilers took off around the time they added Evander Kane to the lineup in the 2021–22 season. Together these five bring a lot of skill and dimension to the lineup.
Despite this, the expectation for more from the rest of the Oilers forwards continued. Ultimately this was a large part of what drove the criticism surrounding the play of Jesse Puljujarvi, something that Kailer Yamamoto might now be bearing the brunt of. As good as the top of the Oilers forward group is, there is clearly a desire for more from the rest of the group.
These concerns became amplified in the playoffs. With Hyman and Kane playing through injuries, their effectiveness was limited, and the crux of the issue was laid bare. While the Oilers depth forwards do provide a lot of defensive ability, the Oilers need another scorer or two among these ranks. This has to be a player that can exceed the production that both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto have been able to provide.
Is a forward a top priority?
Even with Coach Woodcroft’s line shuffling, a necessity especially inherent to the Oilers use of the 11 forward-7 defencemen lineup, the weight of the issue is consistently brought up. While adding a forward might not seem necessary to one of the league’s best offences, might it be a top priority this offseason? Aren’t the bigger issues, as referenced by the GM, coach, and key players, on the Oilers defensive abilities?
While the comparability of these ideas might seem paradoxical, they don’t have to be at odds with each other. In fact, in recognizing the minutiae of how the two are intertwined we might see that offence and defence might rise on the same tide. We should not ignore what is clearly an issue on our minds, as the coaching staff, too, searched for answers, promoting the capable Nick Bjugstad to the top six in the playoffs, hoping for a spark. Though Bjugstad is a good player, and managed to chip in with three playoff goals, he was not any less overextended than Yamamoto or Puljujarvi were over this past season.
The point of contention comes with the Oilers defence, but as we take a closer look we can see some important context. The Oilers steadily improved their expected goals against over the course of the season, ending with 2.45 expected goals against per 60 at even strength, good for ninth in the league. The only teams in front of the Oilers in this metric were the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, Seattle Kraken, and Vegas Golden Knights, all renowned for their even strength defence.
Over the course of the season the Oilers had several extenuating circumstances. Jack Campbell had a poor stretch, to say the least. The penalty kill barely rose to an average level by the end of the season, improving after a rough start. Moreover, the Oilers overall level of play faltered when several key forwards were missing with injury in the fall of the 2022–23 season.
The Oilers have multiple issues that need addressing
After the trade deadline, bolstered mightily by the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm, the Oilers rounded into form, taking off during the second half and into the playoffs. The Oilers ultimately fell victim to the goals against surrendered to the Vegas Golden Knights in a high scoring series. While some issues might be brought up, like whether or not the Oilers should have turned to Campbell, who played great in the playoffs, sooner or at all, the team recognized that there were momentary lapses in detail that derailed the Oilers season.
Ekholm and GM Ken Holland both referenced this idea in their postseason press conferences, that the Oilers had the ingredients, the defensive skill, required, rather it was their recipe, the application of those resources, their defensive will, that was the shortcoming.
Ekholm continued by mentioning that the Oilers need to embrace low scoring games to win, though recognizing that the Oilers strength as a team, mirrored by his defence partner Evan Bouchard, is in taking risks to make great offensive plays. Adding a bonafide scoring talent might help the Oilers put the players, coaches, and fans more at ease in letting the game come to them instead of chasing for offence.
As such, even if our prospective forward isn’t a reputable defender this could still be an addition that makes the whole team better. While the defensive services of Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and Bjugstad were appreciated in theory, there was something left to be desired in offensive quality.
While the gaps in where the Oilers need to improve defensively might be a question mentality, the gaps offensively might be more rooted in ability. The Oilers have a number of in-house options worth exploring, each bringing their own lists of pros, cons, skills, and experiences, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that the team looks to bring in another option from the outside. The Oilers must strike a balance, but it could make sense for this to be the area in which the Oilers are most aggressive in improving the roster this offseason.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire