EDMONTON — When new general manager Ken Holland took over the Edmonton Oilers in May, he inherited a club that has missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and had minimal cap space with which to fix his roster.
The realization from inside the organization was clear: They could not come to training camp with the same roster, then try to convince Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl et al that the same lineup would yield different results. There had to be definitive change, but with the cap mess former general manager Peter Chiarelli left behind, Holland didn’t have a prayer of landing a big fish in the free agent market.
“That’s just reality. It’s how things work,” Oilers forward James Neal said of the changes in Edmonton. “When you don’t make the playoffs you need change. You want to make yourself better, so they’ve made changes here, like Ken coming in. Like Tipp (head coach Dave Tippett) coming in, and all the new players.”
Holland bought out defenceman Andrej Sekera, then went to work on shoring up a group of bottom-six forwards whose ineffectiveness last season was of a historic level. And he did so by signing players to one-year deals for $1 million or less — contracts that can go to the AHL if need be, without leaving a mark on the Oilers cap situation.
In came winger Joakim Nygard and defenceman Joel Persson, two unproven Swedes who might be able to play. Add Markus Granlund, Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald, a trio of NHL veterans who all have proven themselves on the defensive side of the game.
“Tipp has a history of coming in and helping with teams’ defensive games, and we added some different pieces that are effective in that area,” said winger Sam Gagner. “You’re hoping for some little improvements across the board, and that can make for big improvement.
“As much as (small depth moves) may seem like they don’t do a lot? It does a lot.”
Without the money to accrue any top-six free agents, Holland then dealt a bottom-six winger in Milan Lucic for Neal, who has been a top-six winger for his entire career, save last season in Calgary. Yes, it’s a gamble. But it’s a minimal gamble with the possibility of huge upside, and it was one more change in a locker room that needed shaking up.
“I’ve played on enough teams to know: If you don’t put up the game you are supposed to play, there will be changes in the locker room,” said right-winger Alex Chiasson, who signed a two-year, $4.3 million deal to return as an Oiler.
Some fans have criticized Holland for not doing enough in acquiring impactful, offensive players. Instead, what he has done is used his limited cap space to make change throughout the lineup — particularly on the defensive side of things and on the penalty kill, two areas that need vast improvement in Edmonton.
Sheahan walks in the door as the best faceoff man this team has had in a long while, and the Granlunds and Archibalds will mean that McDavid and Draisaitl see less time on the penalty killing units, so they are fresher at even strength and on the power play.
With all the new guys on one-year deals, you’ve got eight forwards, four defencemen and a goalie in contract years. That works in any town.
“Look at our (expansion) team in Vegas. The Golden Misfits,” said Neal. “We were a team full of guys who were cast away. Every single guy had something to prove. We have a lot of guys with a lot to prove, who want to show everyone they can play. They want to win.
“Not making the playoffs for two straight years here, this is a great hockey city. They want playoff hockey, and when you don’t make it you have to evaluate your squad.
“We have a chance to win. I think we’re going to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Now, as this experiment hits the ice for training camp beginning next week, it is up to the veterans to make sure the chemistry is just right. There is a lot, as they say, to unpack here.
“The main thing is, making sure those guys are familiar with the group,” Chiasson said. “Also, you have competition. Guys will compete with each other for spots, and for ice time. And you bring in guys who know how to play in the league.
“You can’t teach games (played), you can’t teach playoffs, you can’t teach experience. Look at the majority of those guys — they’ve been around the league. We’ve all played against those guys.
“I’m excited for the year to start,” Chiasson grinned. “I think we’re going to be good this year.”