EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are not a Stanley Cup contender, but they are a Stanley Cup playoffs contender, and there’s a difference.
It is why general manager Ken Holland will explore adding a centreman like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, but also why he will not give up a first-round pick or a prime prospect to rent the pending unrestricted free agent this spring – which could keep him from landing the player. Stanley Cup contenders part with first-round picks and top prospects for rentals. The Oilers will not and should not. Not this year.
It’s also why this team, for the first time in a long while, doesn’t need to bring in leadership from the outside. They just need a solid, Top-9 forward or two — the young leadership that includes Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom is just fine.
But that doesn’t mean Holland won’t try to improve his club, and it certainly does not mean his Oilers don’t have room for improvement. In Edmonton, after years of making the wrong deals at the wrong times, Holland can’t get his timing wrong here.
As painful as this is to hear, it is still a time to build in Edmonton — to draft, develop and stockpile — rather than carving up the small prospect pool for mid-20’s players who are about to hit the jackpot in career earnings. If the plan works, as soon as a year from now we may be advocating moving a first-round pick for the next Taylor Hall.
But not yet.
Edmonton is very likely to lose their third-round pick to the Calgary Flames in the James Neal-Milan Lucic deal, should Neal score more than 20 goals and Lucic finish with 10 less. Right now, Neal is outscoring Lucic 19 to four. So if Holland deals his second-rounder at the Feb. 24 deadline, that leaves his scouts with a huge gap between the first and fourth rounds of the 2020 NHL Draft.
That doesn’t mean that Holland can’t help his team with a stretch run addition or two. He needs a third-line centre. And another Top-9 winger wouldn’t hurt. But if the big boys like St. Louis, Washington, Boston and Colorado are willing to mortgage the future, we predict that Holland’s deadline will be a modest one.
When you are sitting around the top of your division in late January, and you’ve missed the big dance in 12 of the previous 13 springs, making the playoffs is a must in Edmonton. So how do the Oilers do it?
Acquire a 3C
The gold standard is Pageau, and if Holland could engineer a trade-and-sign, he may change his mind on what he’s willing to send to Ottawa. Assuming Pageau becomes too rich for Edmonton’s blood, think Luke Glendening from Detroit, who has a 56.5 faceoff percentage and leads all Red Wings centremen in shorthanded ice time. He’s 30.
Is there a way to pry 29-year-old pending UFA Melker Karlsson away from San Jose? He may be a fourth-line centre, however, Edmonton already has two of those. I’d look at him in the off-season.
Nick Bonino would be the perfect guy, if Nashville’s season goes south. But he makes another $4.1 million next season, so he would have to be part of a bigger deal where Edmonton could shed. Holland needs Nashville to become a seller to make that deal happen.
Find a winger to help Connor McDavid
Head coach Dave Tippett split up Draisaitl and McDavid after Christmas, and this marks the first time the move has worked for an Oilers coach. Draisaitl landed with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on his left wing, and the team called up Kailer Yamamoto to play the right side.
McDavid, meanwhile, is making do with Neal and Zack Kassian, though we believe the line would be better 5-on-5 if Holland can acquire a left-winger with some speed. Then you play Kassian on the right side sometimes, Neal there at other times, and your Top 9 is better.
Could you get in on Tyler Toffoli, a pending UFA in Los Angeles? What about the Leafs, who need defencemen and have cap issues? Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson would both fit the bill in Edmonton.
He likely has too much term left, but Anaheim’s Adam Henrique would be an interesting acquisition, as would pending New York Rangers UFA Chris Kreider.
A D-man, if Matt Benning is iffy
By all accounts, Matt Benning will return to action soon after the Oilers break. But he’s had two concussions already this season, and if he has one more blow to the head you can bet the doctors will shut him down for the rest of the campaign.
Benning doesn’t handle the puck as well as either Caleb Jones or Ethan Bear, but he still defends better than both of them. And keeping the puck out of your net is a premium as we near the playoffs.
That could leave Holland in the market for an Andy Greene or a Justin Braun. You can’t have enough defencemen once the playoffs start, and Holland’s blue line is not deep.