How the Leafs and Oilers built around their stars through signings

Kyle Bukauskas and Luke Fox get us set for Oilers vs. Maple Leafs, where the pressure is really on Edmonton to turn things around, but this one could get ugly as they'll be without their captain Connor McDavid, who's in Covid protocols.

The hardest pieces to acquire in becoming a Stanley Cup contender are the foundational ones, the metaphorical eagle wings on which winning teams rely to fly their groups to victory. That’s not news. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, you get the Brayden Point.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers both have players among that tier in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Mathews and Mitch Marner. You can quibble about how you’d rank the names that come next such as Morgan Rielly and Darnell Nurse, John Tavares and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, William Nylander and Jesse Puljujarvi, but the point is there’s no shortage of top-end talent on these teams. They’re good enough to be on the type of teams that play winning hockey in June.

Despite these similarities, and being within a half-dozen points of one another, the organizations sit in wildly different places. Rumours have the Oilers kicking around the idea of a big trade or a coaching change or both, having won just two of their past 12, while the Leafs sit third in the NHL in points percentage, and on a three-game winning streak. The talk in Toronto is about maybe making a couple deadline improvements to already-decent roster spots (maybe upgrading Justin Holl in the top-four, or finding a top-six left winger to bump down Michael Bunting or Alex Kerfoot), while Edmonton’s roster issues have them seeking a full upgrade in net, on defence, and maybe a couple improvements to their bottom-six forwards.

So with both teams having the quality names they need, why does it feel so much more solid with the Leafs than with the Oilers?

I suggest we start with free agent signings.

Let’s open both teams' CapFriendly pages and look at the column where it tells us how players were acquired by the team, and keep our eye to the word “signed.” As in, the team sought the player out and offered them a deal, usually as free agents (there are cases where teams extended players who are listed as “signed,” which is the same premise).

Let’s look at both teams by position, with actual salaries excluded just so we can mostly talk about the usefulness of guys without the lens of paychecks:

The “signed” Leafs players make up a huge part of their forward group, and they’ve been tremendously successful here. The John Tavares deal is how they acquired part of their “core four,” but looking at the seven names past him sheds light on what we’re talking about more specifically.

I think you can fairly call Nick Ritchie a swing and a miss (he has eight points on the season). But Ilya Mikheyev is a contributor up and down the lineup (and elite on the penalty kill), David Kampf has been a game-changer for the Leafs at third line centre in a defensive role, Ondrej Kase has had an effective few months (earning more opportunity with every passing week), Michael Bunting is sniffing 20 points in 30 games in 15 minutes of ice a night, while veterans Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza have accepted minimal roles of 10-12 minutes per game, and have still combined for 11 goals and 22 points.

Tavares excluded, that group of seven skaters has 77 points this season (with only two coming from the injured Mikheyev).

Now the Oilers:

OK, Zach Hyman, Kyle Turris, Derek Ryan, Devin Shore, Colton Sceviour, and Brendan Perlini. (Note the above forward group is missing a regular in Zack Kassian, who was acquired via trade.)

Hyman has been great, and a part of what you’d consider the Oilers core. But with him excluded, none of the Oilers' other top eight scorers are in the blue “signed” boxes above.

Ryan McLeod has been effective of late, and is their second-highest offensive producing signing with … six points.

But none of Sceviour, Shore, Turris, Perlini, or Ryan have more than three points, which brings the total of those six forwards to 19 total points. It’s not all about offence, but I think you’d argue there’s more in defending forwards and special teams contributors on the Leafs' side, too.

The difference is less stark after that. To the back-end, for the Leafs:

TJ Brodie, Justin Holl, and Alex Biega who doesn’t play.

The Leafs have two of their top-four as “signed” guys. Brodie has been a phenomenal stabilizer for the Leafs' top-pair, and Holl on his cheap extension (whoops I mentioned contracts) has at least provided value (20 minutes per game at $2 million) for a cap-squeezed team. If Holl can move closer to last year’s form, he’s been an excellent signing. You’ll take both names as “signed” guys.

For the Oilers:

Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Slater Koekkoek.

Leafs fans certainly have thoughts on the first two names on this list. They’re polarizing players who can do good things, at times, but are prone to the intermittent “brain freeze”-style mistake. They’re guys who were signed to play big roles, who at times make you scratch your head.

Brodie and Holl make $7 million combined, with two and one year left on their respective deals after this season.

Barrie and Ceci make $7.75 million combined, with two and three years left on those deals.

I gotta believe most GMs would prefer the showcase showdown Package A there to Package B.

And in net, the Leafs have…

Petr Mrazek. Leafs fans have no idea what to think of this one I’d imagine, given Mrazek has been hurt and hasn’t played. But I bet a lot of them are concerned, because injuries were a legit issue with Mrazek in the past, and suddenly there’s doubt if this guy’s gonna be durable enough to ever be useful. Things aren’t off to a great start with Mrazek.

But on the other hand, if you look at the Oilers…

I suspect the Leafs wouldn’t prefer to have Mikko Koskinen (and his $4.5 million salary, thanks to Peter Chiarelli on the way out the door). Mike Smith hasn’t been available or great so far this year either.

The NHL today, more than it ever has been before, is about finding efficiency from your fringe players. The salary cap was always an issue, but it’s remained stagnant with COVID-related pressures, and so it’s become increasingly hard to put together a well-rounded team. You look at what Tampa Bay had to do -- greatly exceeding the hypothetical salary cap in the post-season -- weeks after winning their last Cup. They had to move on from their valuable depth guys because no team can really afford to be stacked everywhere.

It’s a new era when you go shopping at the fringes. We have veteran players who can still contribute and willing to take jobs for near league minimum, niche talents looking for the right fit to showcase what they can do, and a host of quadruple-A guys playing musical chairs over the remaining few jobs. The trick for these teams is to not overpay for depth guys and find those who can contribute to your specific needs more than the rest of the league expects from those guys.

In sum here, it isn’t just coaching for the Oilers, and it isn’t just goaltending.

The difference between two teams is never as simple as one thing, but as the Oilers flail for ways to correct course and worry about their roster’s fringes, it’s tough not to think how different they’d look if they’d simply done a better job with a few of their depth signings. Players that used to be second thoughts for GMs are making or breaking them in the era of intense parity, and right now in Edmonton, it's part of what has them looking so broken.

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