Dissecting the Oilers’ contract situation to find defensive improvements

Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) and Connor McDavid (97) celebrate a goal during first period NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round action against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

EDMONTON — You can find plenty of improvement over the regular season for the Edmonton Oilers. It’s right there in black and white. 
 
From the 2018-19 season to the 2019-20 season, here are some of the Oilers’ primary stats (NHL ranking in parenthesis; ’19-20 stats prorated where necessary): 
 
• Points: 79 (25th) to a prorated 96 (9th). 
 
• Points percentage: .482 (25th) to .585 (12th) 
 
• Goals for: 229 (20th) to 258 (12th) 
 
• Goals against: 271 (25th) to 248 (12th) 
 
• Power play: 21.2% (9th) to 29.5% (1st) 
 
• Penalty kill: 74.8% (30th) to 84.4% (2nd) 
 
• 5 x 5 Goals For: 146 (24th) to 166th (15th) 
 
Basically, the regular season Oilers moved from being a bottom-third NHL team to a club that operated right at the cusp between the top and middle thirds. Nice progress for a general manager (Ken Holland) and head coach (Dave Tippett) in their first collective year in an organization. 
 
Then the Qualifying Round arrived, and Edmonton was poor. They got crushed in Game 1, then crushed Chicago in Game 2. So the series whittled down to Games 3, where the Oilers led 3-2 with six minutes to play, and Game 4, where the score was tied 2-2 after 40 minutes. 
 
Edmonton wound up in defeat both nights, basically losing two third periods. It’s a small sample size, considering the improvement shown through 71 regular season games. But coming up small when the games are big also carries weight. 
 
The other overarching factor with these Oilers is this stat: when it comes to goals against at 5-on-5, they were the 24th-ranked team last season, then dropped to 26th place this year. They are too easy to score on, a spike driven home by the Blackhawks, who got important goals at even strength whenever required. 
 
What are the chances that Edmonton finishes the 2020-21 season one-two in the league in special teams? Not good. If those numbers ultimately fall — especially the PK — then their 5-on-5 play has to improve if they are to maintain their standing as a playoff team. 
 
So, taking a sweep through the Oilers’ roster, it will be important to weigh things accordingly — acknowledging improvement, but recognizing that if they can’t win at 5-on-5 play, eventually they won’t win at all. 

FORWARDS

Connor McDavid 
Position: C 
Age: 23 
Contract Status: Signed for six more seasons 
AAV: $12.5 M 
The Skinny: If he’s not the best hockey player in the world, surely McDavid is the most valuable one, coming in 10 years younger than Sidney Crosby (respect to Nathan MacKinnon here). There is no questioning his offensive production. Only one part of his game bears inspection: 5-on-5 play, where his Corsi for is 47.93 per cent. He was on the ice for 62 even strength goals, and 58 against. His shots share was 47.64 per cent, meaning the other team got more shots on net than Edmonton did when McDavid was on the ice at even strength. He is a 48 per cent faceoff man. McDavid’s values and talents can not be aptly described by mere words. But, he can also find a way to give up less while dazzling every night. 
 
Leon Draisaitl 
Position: C 
Age: 25 (on Oct. 27) 
Contract Status: Signed for five more seasons 
AAV: $8.5 M 
The Skinny: His could be the best value contract in the NHL today; an Art Ross winner and a back-to-back 50-goal (prorated), 100-point player. All for a half-million less than Jeff Skinner. Draisaitl’s metrics are almost all superior to McDavid’s as listed above, and he has 50 per cent more D-zone starts than the captain. His defensive game will improve, but it is clear he is on that path while maintaining his offensive output. This is as good a one-two punch at centre as any NHL team can boast. 
 
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 
Position: LW 
Age: 27 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season 
AAV: $6 M
The Skinny: Nugent-Hopkins was on his way to the first 70-point season of his career. He has become a 25-goal, 65–70-point winger who has a bug hand in why the Oilers’ power play is the NHL’s best. Like all the Oilers’ skill players, his Corsi is slightly in the negative at 5-on-5 (48.92 per cent), as is his shots share (48.95 per cent). Like the team in general, Nugent-Hopkins may find production will have to dip if Edmonton is ever going to rein in its goals against. He is a keeper, no question, and will get a raise next summer. 
 
Kailer Yamamoto
Position: RW 
Age: 22 (on Sept. 29) 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season, then RFA 
AAV: $895,000 
The Skinny: A huge surprise, emerging as a rookie who became a genuine top-six winger for Draisaitl. He wins pucks from players far bigger than him, and is the perfect mix of puck retriever and offensive ally for a world-class centreman. And his defensive numbers are solid, too. 
 
Zack Kassian 
Position: RW 
Age: 29 
Contract Status: Signed for four more seasons 
AAV: $3.2 M 
The Skinny: Is Kassian a top-six player or a depth winger? Well, at $3.2 million, the Oilers are paying him like he is the former, and if Holland can find the proper left-winger for McDavid, Kassian is a nice fit for two highly skilled offensive linemates. He both protects and can trade pucks with McDavid. Kassian’s issue? When he’s not hopping the boards every third shift as a first-liner, he needs to bring his physicality more readily in a third-line role with less minutes. 
 
Josh Archibald 
Position: RW 
Age: 28 (on Oct. 6) 
Contract Status: Signed for two more seasons 
AAV: $1.5 M 
The Skinny: Excellent penalty killer who can move up and down the lineup. Can play a fourth-line role with a Riley Sheahan, or jump up and complement McDavid on the first line and not look out of place. Inexpensive, flexible, good speed. Nice depth player here. 
 
Tyler Ennis 
Position: LW 
Age: 31 (on Oct. 6) 
Contract Status: UFA 
AAV: $800,000 (last season) 
The Skinny: Ennis is a useful utility winger who has enjoyed time on McDavid’s left side. He is basically a placeholder until a younger version of himself can be found or developed, and can work in the bottom-six until needed higher in the lineup. Skill on reserve is always nice. It wouldn’t be surprising if Holland re-signed Ennis this off-season. 
 
James Neal 
Position: LW 
Age: 33 (on Sept. 3) 
Contract Status: Signed for three more seasons 
AAV: $5.75 M 
The Skinny: It’s unlikely that Neal finishes his contract in Edmonton. The question is: does a buyout occur this off-season? Neal still has above-average hands, but at 32 his feet are failing. Still, on a quick team he can help. Is that help worth his salary? Or would it be better to reallocate those dollars in a tight cap environment? 
 
Andreas Athanasiou 
Position: LW 
Age: 27 (on Aug. 6) 
Contract Status: RFA 
AAV: $3 M (last season) 
The Skinny: With the salary cap locked in for at least two years, there isn’t a chance Athanasiou makes $3 million with his next deal. Holland will not qualify him, but having expended two second-round picks for him at the deadline, the Oilers GM would like to keep Athanasiou around — but for closer to $1.75 million. As an UFA (if not qualified), the player can go wherever he wants. Athanasiou is super fast, does not play well with high-end centres, and has blinders on much of the time. Although he once scored 30 goals for Detroit, he’s best viewed as a valuable depth player. Until he sees himself that way, however, he may disappoint like he did in Edmonton last season. 
 
Jujhar Khaira 
Position: C/LW 
Age: 27 (on Aug. 13) 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season 
AAV: $1.2 M 
The Skinny: For a bottom-six player, Khaira isn’t good enough 5-on-5, where he was on for 15 goals for but 34 goals against this season. He’s big and skates well, but if we’re going to expect better defensive play out of the 90- and 100-point Oilers, Khaira’s 44.75 per cent shots share is not close to good enough. He had 10 points last season and was minus-19. 
 
Alex Chiasson 
Position: RW 
Age: 30 (on Oct. 1) 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season 
AAV: $2.15 M 
The Skinny: Chiasson is a veteran depth winger who helps on the second power-play unit and brings some much-needed winning experience from Washington. He is above 50 per cent in the important metrics, and is a guy you want among your depth group. He knows what he is and fulfills that role. 
 
Riley Sheahan 
Position: C 
Age: 29 (on Dec. 7) 
Contract Status: UFA 
AAV: $900,000 (last season) 
The Skinny: Sheahan is a 4C, one of two along with Gaetan Haas. The Oilers are in the market for a genuine 3C, and if they land one it’s hard to see Holland re-signing Sheahan. That said, Sheahan and Archibald were the first two forwards over the boards on a PK that went from 30th-place to second this season. His defensive metrics are not great, but we should note that Sheahan took less than 30 per cent of his draws in the offensive zone. 
 
Gaetan Haas 
Position: C 
Age: 28 
Contract Status: Signed for one season 
AAV: $915,000 
The Skinny: Holland re-signed Haas a couple of weeks ago, a player who ups the team speed, takes care of his own end, and chipped in 5-5-10 in his first North American season — a prorated 12-point season. Can he go to 8-12-20 in a second season? If he can, he is worth the modest salary he earns? 
 
Joakim Nygard 
Position: LW 
Age: 27 
Contract Status: Signed for one season 
AAV: $875,000 
The Skinny: Another older player coming over from Europe for the first time, the speedy Nygard lost too many games to injury to make a true judgement about. He had 3-6-9 in 33 games, and was re-signed by Holland. Cheap, fast and with some promise, Nygard will have the advantage of playing in Sweden this fall prior to joining Edmonton at training camp. 
 
Tyler Benson 
Position: LW 
Age: 22 
Contract Status: Signed for one season 
AAV: $808,333 
The Skinny: If Benson can find a half-step somewhere, he’ll play. If he can’t… He has the head, hands and skills of an NHL player, but his feet won’t buy those assets enough time to perform at that level. Not yet, anyhow. 
 
Ryan McLeod 
Position: C 
Age: 21 (on Sept. 21) 
Contract Status: Signed for two seasons 
AAV: $834,617 
The Skinny: McLeod has one AHL season under his belt, where he had 23 points in 56 games. He’s 6-3, 200 lbs. and looks to be the perfect 3C behind two elite top-six centres down the road. He is the Oilers’ best forward prospect and will almost certainly return to the AHL next season.

DEFENCE

Oscar Klefbom 
Position: LD 
Age: 27 
Contract Status: Signed for three more seasons 
AAV: $4.167 M 
The Skinny: Behind Draisaitl, Klefbom’s is Edmonton’s best value contract. He is not a genuine No. 1, but performs all those duties as Edmonton’s best D-man. He led the team in minutes per game (25:25; fifth in the NHL) and led the league in blocked shots while quarterbacking the NHL’s best power play. Not great, but very good and very versatile. A huge bargain at that price. 
 
Adam Larsson 
Position: RD 
Age: 28 Nov. 12 
Contract Status: Signed flor one more season 
AAV: $4.17 M 
The Skinny: Larsson is a hard-rock defender — a Jake Muzzin-lite, if you will. Good on PK, struggles on zone exits. He’s at his best when protecting a lead, not so much when trailing. With a farm system teeming with young D-men, Larsson could be traded to a team like Toronto that needs a defensive conscience. All those intangibles that can’t be quantified? Larsson has them in spades. Good teams always have at least one, maybe two D-men like him. 
 
Darnell Nurse 
Position: LD 
Age: 25 
Contract Status: Signed for two more seasons 
AAV: $5.6 M 
The Skinny: Five years into his NHL career, we’re still not sure what Nurse is. He skates above average, has great size and is snarly, but is still prone to mistakes he should be growing out of by now. He is a 35-point D-man who gets scant time on the second PP. A big part of the leadership group in Edmonton, they’d like Nurse to become a rock on their back end who moves the puck to the forwards and runs a clean D-zone. They don’t need him to be dynamic offensively. 
 
Ethan Bear 
Position: RD 
Age: 23 
Contract Status: RFA 
AAV: $720,000 (last season) 
The Skinny: A very good player who has room to improve at just 23. No rookie D-man played more minutes in the NHL last season. He retrieves pucks and puts them on the forward’s tape. He battles, will fight, and gets his shots through. He is the new-age D-man who will play in Edmonton for a long, long time. 
 
Caleb Jones 
Position: LD 
Age: 23 
Contract Status: Signed for two more seasons 
AAV: $850,000 
The Skinny: Seth’s little brother will likely get a bigger bite next season and spend the year as an every-day player. He can play the right side, has good feet, moves the puck well. It’s his time — guys like Kris Russell and Matt Benning should be nervous — and he’ll lead a group of youngsters who will eventually populate the Oilers’ blue line. 
 
Kris Russell 
Position: LD 
Age: 33 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season
AAV: $4 M 
The Skinny: Russell was Edmonton’s best D-man in the Qualifying Round. Of course, $4 million is too much to pay for a third-pairing defenceman, but he shows younger players the sacrifices that are necessary to win. He’ll have one more season in Edmonton, unless Holland can swing some kind of salary relief deal. 
 
Matt Benning 
Position: RD 
Age: 26 
Contract Status: RFA  
AAV: $1.9 M (last season) 
The Skinny: Perpetually underappreciated by Oilers fans, Benning’s only issues could be his rising salary and the fact that he slots in as a third-pairing guy. As someone who hits, defends pretty well, and is a local boy, Benning will play in the NHL for many more years. Will that be in Edmonton? Tough to say. 
 
Evan Bouchard 
Position: RD 
Age: 21 (on Oct. 20) 
Contract Status: Signed for two more seasons 
AAV: $895,000 
The Skinny: A No. 10 overall pick in 2018, Bouchard is the future of the Oilers’ blue line. A hopeful top-pairing RD, he needs to find some urgency as a pro that he did not require as a 35-minute player in junior. Once that sets in — this year? Next? — there could be an excellent player here. 
 
Philip Broberg 
Position: LD 
Age: 19 
Contract Status: Three-year ELC not begun yet 
AAV: $925,000 
The Skinny: Broberg is the best skater on Edmonton’s blue line — already. He’ll start the season in Skelleftea, but showed so well at the July camp that targets for his NHL arrival may have been moved up. There is a chance that Broberg-Bouchard could be a legit No. 1 pairing one day down the road. A chance, not a lock. This kid skates like Jay Bouwmeester, is 6-3, and has better offensive instincts.

GOALIES

Mikko Koskinen 
Position: G 
Age: 32 
Contract Status: Signed for two more seasons 
AAV: $4.5 M 
The Skinny: He’ll be here for the next two years and perhaps beyond, a part of a top duo with someone else. His numbers were good last season — 2.75 GAA, .917 saves percentage — but he wasn’t great against Chicago. Koskinen is enough of a goalie if the other guy is also good. He has not proven he can carry the ball. 
 
Mike Smith 
Position: G 
Age: 38 
Contract Status: UFA 
AAV: $2 M (last season) 
The Skinny: Smith was a decent partner for Koskinen, and brought the team much-needed swagger and confidence. Those intangibles, and his superior puck-handling, could land Smith a one-year deal in Edmonton. Holland may choose someone younger if the right goalie becomes available, but would be comfortable bringing Smith back as well. Stay tuned. 
 
Stuart Skinner 
Position: G 
Age: 22 (on Nov. 1) 
Contract Status: Signed for one more season 
AAV: $785,000 
The Skinny: A big goalie at 6-3, 203 lbs., Skinner is the organization’s No. 3 who will be the AHL No. 1 this season. The path to the NHL is wide open in Edmonton. He just has to prove he is good enough. 

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