The Edmonton Oilers experienced a winding season that saw them make a coaching change, take a chance on an elite free agent, and win two rounds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The season was a success on many levels, but the weaknesses within the roster were ultimately exposed by a superior opponent in the Colorado Avalanche.
Here is a review of the year that was in Oil country and what lies ahead this off-season:
Executives at the NHL level are judged by how they revive struggling franchises, build through the draft, add to their teams via free agency, manage the salary cap and win playoff rounds.
The Edmonton Oilers took a massive step forward this season with their core group of players. Ken Holland and his staff are blessed with two of the most dynamic offensive players in the entire world. Any executive would salivate at the opportunity to build a roster around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
With that in mind, Holland and his staff deserve credit for taking some risks by adding Duncan Keith in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer and signing free agent Evander Kane mid-season.
The on-ice version of Keith is not the same for the Oilers as he was for the Blackhawks in his prime. When Edmonton added Keith to their group they knew they were getting a grizzled veteran of over 1,200 NHL games who had some long, hard, miles on his skates. He’s a winner who is respected and has a presence in the locker room, in addition to his role on the ice.
The addition of Kane was one of the boldest, potentially risky, moves by an NHL executive this season. This isn’t the forum to go into Kane's history and how he is working through a multitude of off-ice issues. The bottom line is Holland valued Kane the power forward and knew the team needed what he could provide. The acquisition was a clear win for Holland and his staff. He could not have asked for more when he signed Kane mid-season.
The other move Holland made that clearly impacted the group was moving on from Dave Tippett and bringing in Jay Woodcroft as the interim head coach of the Oilers. Holland doesn’t have a history of firing his head coach in-season, so he stepped outside his comfort zone and made a change his group responded too. And now Woodcroft has been kept on as head coach in a full-time role.
With all the positives from this past season it became abundantly clear the Oilers' goaltending wasn’t, and isn’t, good enough to get the team over the hump. I’m not suggesting they would have won the series versus Colorado, but I do feel they needed better goaltending and it just wasn’t there. The team's lack of a true No. 1 goalie was, and is, an issue.
2021-22 OILERS ROSTER ANALYSIS
Cody Ceci: His average TOI hovered right around 20 minutes this season. He’s not elite in any one category. Ceci can be used on the second power play unit and match up against middle of the lineup opponents. He’s not overly physical or hard to play against, and has been a bit of a lightning rod the past few seasons. This year, though, he gave the Oilers steady minutes and produced five goals and 28 points. The most telling stat was the fact he was a plus-8. He played to his identity and pulled his weight. He’s signed through 2024-25, doesn’t have trade protection, and an AAV of $3.25 million.
Tyson Barrie: Barrie brings an element to any team he plays for. He’s a transitional defender who can distribute/QB the power play. He had a nice season for the Oilers offensively producing seven goals and 41 points, and averaged around 19 minutes of ice time per game. Barrie doesn’t have trade protection and carries an AAV of $4.5 million through 2023-24. With Evan Bouchard evolving and the fact the Oilers need to fill other voids in their lineup, Barrie could be a name to watch on the trade market this summer.
Darnell Nurse: Nurse is the heart and soul of the D core in Edmonton. He played through a hip injury in the playoffs that slowed him down, but the fact he gutted it out speaks to his character and compete. He logs big minutes, with an average ice time per game that ended up being over 24 minutes for the year. Nurse takes on all key matchups against top opponents and contributes better than secondary offence. He scored nine goals and 35 points in 71 games, and added two goals and six points in the playoffs. The Oilers are all in on Nurse being the cornerstone of their back end for years to come, as his new contract kicks in next year and carries an AAV of $9.25 million through 2029-30, with a no-move until 2026-27 that becomes a modified no-move clause in the last three years of the deal. The contract is front loaded. Nurse will be paid $44 million in the first four years, while the final four years are structured with signing bonuses being paid on July 1 of every summer worth $6 million. I personally believe this contract is an overpayment compared to others in the league, but also understand the value of having Nurse in the lineup long term.
Duncan Keith: Keith averaged around 19:30 of ice time this season. The veteran defenceman has many miles on his tires and has seen it all over his career. Keith is a proven winner who added more than just on-ice value to the Oilers group this year. The presence of this kind of player off the ice is impossible to underestimate. In 64 games played Keith contributed one goal and 21 points and added another goal and four assists in the playoffs. He has a full NMC and carries an AAV of $5.4 million into the final year of his contract. There are rumblings Keith is weighing his options for next season and not sure if his body and mind can perform at the level he has come to expect of himself. If he is healthy and ready to go next September he still has enough game to contribute, though perhaps getting 2-3 minutes less per game would benefit his game over the course of the season.
NOTE: If Keith does decide to retire the Chicago Blackhawks will have a recapture penalty added to their cap for the next two seasons. The Hawks would have a $5.5 million penalty in 2022-23 and $2 million in 2023-24. The Blackhawks are keeping a close eye on how things play out with this scenario.
Evan Bouchard: Bouchard continues to evolve and next season will be the last year of his entry-level contract. Bouchard brings an element on the power play, more as a shooter than a distributor. He produced 12 goals and 43 points in the regular season, and added three goals and nine points in the playoffs. In my opinion Bouchard will never be a defender who can be consistently relied upon in key defensive matchups. He has always been a deliberate player, and his read and react game ranges. Having said that, he is a top-four candidate at even strength when he is pushing his urgency and taking away space. He is still maturing though, and I recognize he could potentially prove me wrong in the long run. Bouchard is a marginal defender in my opinion, but his offensive upside is a valuable element.
Brett Kulak: In the 18 regular season games Kulak played in Edmonton after being acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline, he contributed two goals and eight points and then added five assists in 16 playoff games and was a positive defensively. If there is a way the Oilers can keep Kulak I would definitely look to sign him to an extension. He’s a UFA who made $1.85 million last season. A two-way defenceman who plays with pace, Kulak is quick to space and reliable. I expect him to get a raise this off-season. If the Oilers can get him under contract for around $3 million I would bring him back in a heartbeat.
Kris Russell: He has had a nice career and he’s a good pro. Shot blocking defenders are necessary at the NHL level. Russell has always taken pride in his defending and getting in lanes to disrupt opponents. He’s a UFA this summer and it’s time for the Oilers to spend his $1.25 million somewhere else in the lineup. I envision Russell having a role in player development after his playing career ends.
Battling for NHL jobs...
Philip Broberg: To date, Broberg has not shown he is capable of playing full time at the NHL level. He’s a perplexing prospect. On the surface he looks like an NHL ready player. Broberg brings size, moves very well and has shown he can contribute offensively at the AHL level. His read/react game has been an issue at the NHL level, though. He’s signed through 2023-24, with an affordable $864,000 cap hit, but his AAV spikes to $1.7 million if he meets his performance bonuses. It’s time for the player to show he is ready for full time NHL duty. The team is waiting for one, or two, of their young defence prospects to step up.
Dmitri Samorukov: A two-way defenceman and a solid skater, Samorukov has always looked capable of bringing more offence than he actually creates. He can add a layer off the rush or lead the breakout with the puck on his stick. His timing and detail ranges in his zone. And now there are NHL job openings in Edmonton. He’s 23 years old and entering the last year of his ELC that comes with an $825,000 cap hit that makes sense within Edmonton's contract structure. It’s getting close to “make it or cut bait” time for Samorukov and the Oilers.
Markus Niemelainen: In my opinion Niemelainen is the prospect most likely to earn a job out of training camp next season. He’s a big body defender (6-foot-6, 205 pounds) and though he isn’t overly physical, when you are this size you take away time and space with your reach and stature. He knows his limitations and doesn’t stray too far outside his comfort zone. He won’t bring much offence, but he can provide two-way and defensive defenceman minutes. He is signed for two more seasons at a very affordable $762,500 cap hit.
Michael Kesselring: He skated at the AHL level in Bakersfield this past season and is another big body defender in the Oilers pipeline (6-foot-4, 190 pounds). He will have to have a big summer in the gym and hopefully continue to add more strength to his frame. Kesselring was projected to produce better than secondary offence at the NCAA and pro levels. He’s capable with the puck, but not a prospect who will move the needle offensively in the NHL. I see him as a two-way defenceman who could bring some simple minutes to the group. He’s signed through 2023-24 on his ELC with an AAV of $925,000.
Connor McDavid: The purpose of this organizational analysis article is to forecast the roster going forward based on past performance and contractual fit. He fits!
Leon Draisaitl: Ummm…He fits too! And we learned he is willing to push through injury at the hardest time of the year. Draisaitl basically scored seven goals and 32 points on one leg in playoffs.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Signed through 2028-29 with a full no-move clause in his contract, RNH has an affordable $5.125 million cap hit. I’m not sure how this deal will age but there is no question he plays a valuable role for the Oilers. His offence isn’t elite. He contributed 11 goals and 50 points in the regular season. He did, however, spike offensively in the playoffs scoring six goals and 14 points in 16 games. He will likely be an Oiler for life. Nugent-Hopkins continues to play a key role in the face-off circle and on the penalty kill. Hopefully his body holds up.
Zach Hyman: It’s safe to say the Oilers got a solid return on investment in year one of Hyman’s seven-year deal that he signed last summer. In the regular season Hyman produced career high numbers with 27 goals and 54 points and in the playoffs he added to his successful campaign with 11 goals and 16 points. A contract that, on the surface, looked like it could be a potential overpayment, looks like a savvy investment now. Hyman brings grit, determination, and better than secondary offence. His AAV is $5.5 million which is, honestly, a great contract if he continues to do what he did this past season in Edmonton.
Warren Foegele: I don’t love the cap hit in relation to the contract. Foegele has two years remaining on a deal that pays him $2.75 million per year. There are elements of Foegele's game that I value. He plays quick and he isn’t shy about getting involved. He produced 12 goals and 26 points while skating in all 82 regular season games. I don’t mind the player but he logged below third line minutes with an average of just over 12 minutes of ice time per game. If his contract started with a one instead of a two I would feel better.
Derek Ryan: Ryan has one year left on his contract paying $1.25 million. The 35-year-old is a character depth player who brings pace and energy, and who produced 10 goals and 22 points while averaging just under 13 minutes of ice time in the regular season. In the playoffs he contributed one goal and three points in 15 games. Scoring 10 goals while skating limited minutes, on average, is a win for the Oilers in terms of return on investment.
Zack Kassian: There are teams that value the role Kassian plays for the Oilers. He’s a heavy player who isn’t shy about dropping the gloves when required. He’s a character player with, unfortunately, diminishing value. The issue is he has two years left on a contract that pays him far too much money ($3.2 million AAV). He produced six goals and 19 points in the regular season and added two goals and four points in the playoffs. His average ice time hovered slightly above 10 minutes per game for the year, but against Colorado in the playoffs he was sheltered with games of 8:38, 6:43, and 9:09 before the team ran into injuries. In the final game of the year he skated 13:54 due to the short bench. The Oilers have some dead cap issues remaining from the past. The best thing they can do is shop Kassian to a team and offer to absorb up to 50 per cent of his salary. It won’t give them buyout relief (that would be their second option) but it would provide an extra $1.6 million in cap space they desperately require.
NOTE: If they do decide to buy out Kassian, the Oilers save $2.53 million next season and $1.33 million in 2023-24 before absorbing penalties of $966,667 in 2024-25 and 2025-26.
Ryan McLeod: His ice time spiked towards the end of the season and so Woodcroft has shown he trusts McLeod in a variety of roles. A speedy player who is both quick out of the gate and fast through the neutral zone with the puck, McLeod scored nine goals and 21 points in the regular season and added three goals and an assist in the playoffs. I’m forecasting even more of a role next season and beyond. McLeod is the kind of player who is showing he can be deployed at even strength, the secondary power play and primary penalty kill unit. He’s an RFA who needs to be qualified and his salary has the potential to land around $875,000.
Kailer Yamamoto: His contract negotiation has the potential to get interesting. Yamamoto signed a one-year extension last summer that paid him $1.175 million this past season, and then his stats nearly doubled from the previous year. He ended the regular season with 20 goals and 41 points. He’s an undersize skill player who is due a decent raise and has arbitration rights. I feel like his contract should approach someone like Alex Kerfoot in Toronto, who makes $3.5 million. The team will be hoping for less, obviously, but 20 goals in the NHL buys you extra poker chips in arbitration.
Jesse Puljujarvi: It was a tale of two seasons in one for Puljujarvi. When he is playing up in the lineup he has enough skill to produce offence alongside the Oilers' top players (McDavid and Draisaitl). When he is skating on the third line exclusively, he isn’t a forward who drives the play and his impact drops off significantly. Puljujarvi scored a grand total of six goals after Christmas for the Oilers. Edmonton might have to go with what they know and extend him for a year. He has arbitration rights so hopefully the negotiation is reasonable.
Devin Shore: A role player who is signed for one more season at a cap hit of $850,000, Shore contributed five goals and 11 points in 49 games for Edmonton this past season. He is the kind of player who can be sent to the minors and likely pass through waivers in the process. His NHL and AHL (cash) salaries are identical at $950,000 next season. It is what it is with Shore and his contract. The bottom line is he doesn’t make the Oilers a better team next season, but they are stuck with him for one more year.
Evander Kane: Kane was excellent for the Oilers. The power forward filled a void for the team and produced at a high level, ending the regular season with 22 goals and 39 points in 43 games. But it was in the playoffs that his style of play most benefited the team. Kane scored 13 goals and 17 points in 15 payoff games and there is no question the team would love to have him back next season and beyond. I don’t see any way the Oilers can afford to sign him, though. They are desperate for a goaltender and there is only so much money to go around in a salary cap system. Kane is a pending UFA.
Going UFA and not likely to return...
Colton Sceviour, Derek Brassard, Josh Archibald and Kyle Turris.
In the system...
Dylan Holloway: Expect Holloway to compete for an NHL roster spot at training camp. He produced decent numbers in his first pro season at the AHL level (eight goals, 22 points in regular season and two goals, four points in the playoffs). Woodcroft has worked with him in the AHL and has an understanding of what Holloway can potentially bring at the NHL level. The team needs to promote some affordable prospects from within and Holloway could fit the bill. He is a competitive player with good size. He plays with speed and could slide into a middle-six role and contribute secondary offence in time. His salary cap comes in at $925,000, but he does have bonuses in his contract that could push his AAV to $1.4 million if attained.
Carter Savoie: He turned pro at the end of his college season and played a couple of AHL games. He scored 23 goals and 45 points at the University of Denver in 2021-22. There is potential for Savoie to bring offence at the NHL level, but his all-around game needs time to develop. He'll be entering the second year of his entry-level contract that carries a cap hit of $925,000 at the NHL level.
Raphael Lavoie: Yes? No? Maybe? I have never warmed to Lavoie. He has potential to be a power forward type who scores goals, but seems indifferent to competing and producing consistently. Hopefully, for the player and the organization, he is motivated and comes to camp prepared. Lavoie is entering the last year of his entry-level contract and scored 13 goals and 26 points in Bakersfield this season.
Mike Smith: It’s unclear whether or not Smith is healthy or suffering from injury that could take him out of the equation for 2022-23. He’s under contract for one more year with a cap hit of $2.2 million. What is clear, though, is the Oilers need an upgrade in net. Smith has been breaking down physically and cannot be relied upon to take the team to another level. If he returns it will have to be in a backup role, which the Oilers would have to accept only due to the fact they are stuck with the contract if Smith is healthy.
Mikko Koskinen: At this stage of the summer there is no need to over analyze the year that was for Koskinen. I get the feeling he couldn’t wait for his contract to expire. He has signed a two-year deal with Lugano in the Swiss league beginning next season.
In the system …
Stuart Skinner: The time has come for the Oilers to give Skinner the net, as a backup at worst, with the NHL team. His stats at the minor league level have been sound. In 35 games with Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4, 207-pound goalie produced a 2.21 GAA and .921 save percentage, and in 13 NHL games he contributed six wins, six losses, 2.62 GAA, and .913 save percentage. I don’t think he’s the answer, and a lot will depend on what happens with Smith, but Skinner can’t be any worse than what the Oilers endured for stretches this past season. He’s entering the last year of his current contract, which carries an AAV of $750,000.
Ryan Fanti: Fanti was signed out of college hockey and Minnesota-Duluth. He will benefit from a full year in the AHL next season. He’s 6-foot-3 goalie with sound mechanics. His rebound control does tend to be an issue at times, though, and that's something he will need to clean up so he’s not exposed by more efficient pro shooters. He does have quick pads and sound low-net coverage moving laterally. He has a chance to open some eyes at training camp in the fall.
END OF SEASON ROSTER 2021-2022
POTENTIAL ROSTER FOR 2022-23 (including buyouts and dead cap)
Zach Hyman ($5.5M)
Connor McDavid ($12.5M)
Kailer Yamamoto ($3.5M)
Rickard Rakell ($3.8M)
Leon Draisaitl ($8.5M)
Jesse Puljujarvi ($2M)
Ryan McLeod ($925K)
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($5.125M)
Carter Savoie ($925K)
Warren Foegele ($2.75M)
Dylan Holloway ($925K)
Derek Ryan ($1.25M)
Darnell Nurse ($9.25M)
Cody Ceci ($3.25M)
Ville Husso ($3M)
Duncan Keith ($5.5M)
Evan Bouchard ($863K)
Stuart Skinner ($750K)
Brett Kulak ($2.8M)
Ilya Lyubushkin ($1.35M)
Mike Smith ($2.2M, TBD)
Note that If Mike Smith is uninjured and retires his $2.2 million will still count towards the cap due to the fact he was signed after the age of 35.
Already on the books for next season is a $3,416,667 cap charge from past buyouts on James Neal and Andrej Sekera, and a $750,000 charge from retained cap on Milan Lucic's contract. For our 2022-23 roster build, we're also making the following cap-related trades:
Tyson Barrie to Buffalo Sabres for a third-round pick in 2022. No salary retained.
Zack Kassian to Ottawa Senators for a sixth-round pick in 2022. Fifty per cent salary retained ($1.6 million).
And we're making the following additions through free agency:
Rickard Rakell: Three years, $3.8M AAV
Brett Kulak: Three years, $2.8M AAV
Ville Husso: Four years, $3M AAV
Ilya Lyubushkin: Three years, $1.35M AAV
Total roster charge: $76.663 million
Buyout charges: $3.416 million
Dead cap space: $2.35 million
Total cap charge: $82.429 million
FINAL CONCLUSION/LINEUP STRATEGY
The Oilers are fortunate to have two of the most prolific offensive players in the world on their roster. When games are on the line, or the team wants to bulk up at the top of the lineup, I have assembled the group so the following adjustments become an option:
On balance the argument can be made this forward alignment is every bit as good as the first one I proposed. The bottom line, for me, was to achieve depth and threat to score from all four forward lines, and allow for McDavid and Draisaitl to be able to share a line without sacrificing the other units.
There is no indication that Keith is set to retire yet. If the Oilers feel he is better suited for fewer minutes he can slot in with Lyubushkin. Kulak, and his ability to play fast and recover space quickly, is a nice option to pair with Bouchard who plays with less pace.
The free agent market on the back end is relatively thin this summer. Adding a physical player like Lyubushkin takes some of the heavy lifting off Nurse (who has been their most physical defender).
The recall group speaks for itself. They are all eligible for the AHL without waivers and can get looks at certain moments during the season.
The Oilers need an upgrade in goal, but they have limited resources to make it happen. The Smith contract is holding them up from shopping for the next level of free agent puck stoppers.
I’ve attempted to come up with the best case scenario based on what I know today.
For now, Smith is set to return. And unless he's injured and placed on LTIR, his cap hit will still count even in retirement. It’s obviously not an ideal situation.
In my model I have signed Husso from St.Louis. He wasn’t my first choice, but he has potential to fit the model.
Skinner is ready to play games at the NHL level. The team will need 25-30 starts from him next season. In my opinion, if the Oilers get 15-20 per cent better goaltending than they received last season overall they will, on balance, have a better chance to win key games more consistently in 2022-23. The team won some games this year despite below average goaltending.
The position needed to be addressed and will be the Holland's biggest challenge this summer.