EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are on the precipice of history, and it’s not the kind of record anyone wants to be known for.
This franchise has missed the National Hockey League playoffs for 12 of the past 13 seasons. No team has ever missed the NHL post-season 13 times in a 14-year span.
But if the historical backdrop seems bleak, the here and now is anything but, with captain Connor McDavid the leading contender for Best Player in the World, Leon Draisaitl coming off a season in which he was the NHL’s only 50-goal, 100-point player, and a farm system that finally appears to be delivering enough quality players to surround the stars with a playoff-calibre team.
As has become seemingly a biennial occurrence, the Oilers cleaned house this summer and brought in much experience in general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett. It’s now their turn to do what numerous management teams have failed to conquer over the past decade-plus in Edmonton — stabilize a franchise, and give a historically great Canadian hockey market a properly built team that can compete.
And while they’re at it, give McDavid some playoff games and realistic Stanley Cup hopes, so the Toronto media can shut up about the Oilers captain wanting out.
Here are three questions that need to be successfully answered before any of the above can occur:
Current cap space: $1,553,001
GM: Ken Holland
Head coach: Dave Tippett
Assistants: Jim Playfair, Glen Gulutzan, Brian Wiseman
Unsigned players: Jesse Puljujarvi
Can Holland stabilize this franchise in the long-term, and produce a playoff team in the short term?
The first part should be easy. The second part…?
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has played nine NHL seasons, and counting a couple of interim coaches he has played under nine head coaches. Fixing that should be easy, shouldn’t it?
Holland has used the word “stability” ad nauseum since being hired in May, and that covers everything from stopping the coaching carousel, to letting Jay Woodcroft build something that can last down in AHL Bakersfield, to piecing together a scouting staff under new Director of Amateur Scouting Tyler Wright that gives Woodcroft something legit to develop.
Making the playoffs while ceasing the circus-like atmosphere in Edmonton could be a tall order, however. At least in Year 1.
Although Edmonton’s farm system has not been this healthy in ages, Holland inherited a mess from deposed GM Peter Chiarelli when it comes to the NHL roster and its requisite salary cap situation. He moved out Milan Lucic, bought out Andrej Sekera, and spend his meagre cap space mostly on a handful of bottom six forwards — hoping that improved depth combined with his top-end talent might allow Edmonton to surprise this season.
They are a long shot to make the playoffs, for sure. But if we are no longer saying that 12 months from now — and for the foreseeable future after that — then Holland will have done his job.
Is the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith good enough?
Koskinen was Chiarelli’s parting gift to Oilers fans, and this season will open the ill-advised three-year, $13.5 million deal gifted him by Chiarelli after having played less than 50 NHL games. The six-foot-seven Finn — nicknamed “The Three Metres of Koskinen” back home — is thus far simply an OK NHL goalie, with a suspect glove hand.
Now, a goalie should be able to improve in his second NHL season, sure. Koskinen worked out with Kobe Bryant’s old trainer over the summer, and has every intention of being better than the 2.93 GAA, .906 saves percentage netminder he was a season ago. But the book on Koskinen is out: His glove hand is suspect.
Fix that and there may be a starter here. But if we’re still saying that by Christmas, then the No. 1 job will fall to the 37-year-old Smith. With his injury history, that’s probably more than he can handle, long-term.
Can James Neal become a 20-goal winger again? Or maybe more, playing with McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins?
He had better.
It’s been a long time since the Oilers can say they decisively won a trade, a pox that goes back to Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, a transaction that still irks folks in these parts. But Holland has a real chance to scratch two itches with this deal, moving out a malcontent Lucic, whose game has severely eroded, for a player who has scored 21 goals or more in every NHL season except for the 2018-19 campaign in Calgary.
Neal just never worked in Calgary, coming off back to back trips to the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville and Vegas. In Edmonton he will play, at worst, with Nugent-Hopkins, and at best with McDavid. If Neal can not find his usual 20 goals with centremen as slick as those two, then Holland will be considering a buy out next summer.
If he does rejuvenate, why stop at 20 goals? If Neal can help Edmonton to have a second line that is productive, while pushing either Zack Kassian or Alex Chiasson down to third-line right wing, then suddenly the Oilers have some depth and balance.
With improved forward depth, some goaltending and a defence that can help get the goals against down, this could be a team that is still competing for a playoff spot come March 15.