Blueprint for how to fix Oilers begins with rebuilding blue line

NHL insider Mark Spector joins the Jeff Blair Show to discuss what he thinks the criteria is for the Oilers in their GM search, and to suggest a few names that he thinks might be right for this high pressure position.

When the Edmonton Oilers were a 103-point, second-round team in 2016-17, there was one reason for their success: Goal differential.

Edmonton added 44 goals from the year before and shaved 33 off of their goals allowed. The 77-goal improvement in their plus-minus made them a good team — and its evaporation has kept them out of the playoffs ever since.

Three years later, the Oilers are still scoring roughly the same amount of goals they scored that season (232 in 2018-19 compared to 247 in 2016-17). But in the two seasons since they’ve not come close to duplicating the defensive effort that surrendered just 212 goals, the eighth-lowest number in the NHL that season. In 2018-19 Edmonton gave up 274 goals — 25th in the NHL and 49 goals more than the average of the eight second-round playoff teams this spring.

So, as the debate rolls on over who should be hired to generally manage the Oilers, let’s talk about the moves that person needs to make to put this team back on the map.

It won’t be easy, but the common theme out there is that most bad teams are in search of top end players — which can be very difficult to come by. The Oilers have a trio of elite centremen in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that are in place, and signed for the long-term. They’ve got a few NHL defencemen, and a bunch on the way, so the trick is to fill the gap while legit prospects like Evan Bouchard and Dmitri Samorukov mature.

Their needs are many, we’re all in agreement there. But they are also attainable — and not necessarily costly, as NHL salaries go.

Livestream every game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free. Plus stream the Blue Jays & MLB, Raptors and NBA Playoffs matchups and more.

So let’s get started:

• Wingers? You think they need wingers? Not me — I’m starting with the defence.

Obviously Edmonton needs a partner for Mikko Koskinen. A Curtis McElhinney, a Cam Ward, a Laurent Brossoit. No problem — 30-35 game goalies are easy to find.

It’s the Oilers’ blue line that has to be changed out, and improved. It starts with buying out Andrej Sekera and replacing him with a Caleb Jones or William Lagesson from AHL Bakersfield. The savings there, after the buy-out, are about $2 million, which you spend on a UFA winger.

Now, I trade one of Kris Russell ($4 million) or Adam Larsson ($4.2 million), two deals that would bring different returns. Russell, a solid competitor who makes too much for a third pairing D-man, would get you back his equal as a winger. A respected, responsible player who is deemed poor cap value elsewhere, but who may thrive playing next to one of Edmonton’s centres.

Larsson is a superior player who would bring a better return. His problem is that he played 21:37 per game in Edmonton this season, usually in a top pairing role with Oscar Klefbom. In, say, Toronto, where he could be a No. 4 or 5 D-man, he’d look great at 18 minutes a night. Larsson plays physical and defends well — he just plays too much on Edmonton’s weak blue line, and his game suffers because of that.

I’m pitching the necessary sweetener — a higher draft pick or legit prospect — to get Kasperi Kapanen back for Larsson. If it’s Russell we’re dealing, that’s a different trade. I’m getting back a player like him: valuable, but making too much for the role he plays. Maybe a solid third-line winger who kills penalties — someone who plays the way Nick Foligno, Brandon Tanev, or Joel Armia plays; the way Michael Frolik was playing before it went a bit sideways this season in Calgary.

• OK, so we’ve moved two defencemen. One spot gets filled by an AHL graduate. The other one, I need a defender. Don’t care about points — someone who keeps the puck out of our net.

(The plan is, with Bouchard and Dmitri Samorukov turning pro, with Ethan Bear in the mix, with Joel Persson coming over from Sweden, you’ve got to get through this season before help starts arriving from within.)

So you sign a Jordie Benn. Or a Ben Chiarot. I’d take a Ron Hainsey, or a Roman Polak. A Patrik Nemeth, or a Nick Holden. A veteran place-holder who can help keep the goals against down, but who you get on a two-year deal — which means they’re moving on when the kids are ready to play.

This team has stars. It needs responsible role players. Wingers who don’t give up more than the 12-15 goals they get; no home run hitters, but committed defensive players who take care of details and kill penalties.

Zack Kassian and Alex Chiasson should be your fourth-line wingers, who move up now and again. And if Milan Lucic can’t hold his spot on the third line, then he sits in the press box.

That’s how you win.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.