Thoughts on the Oilers off-season

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At the end of the 2018/19 season, it was fairly obvious the Edmonton Oilers were in a dire situation. The problems badly outweighed their potential solutions. Resources in terms of cap space and prospects were bleak, and it was clear that the franchise needed more than a summer to become a legitimate championship contender.

And for me, that’s what made the pre-season so much more compelling. Setting aside the fact that the Oilers were heading into a transition period (the length of which is to be determined), training camp and the exhibition games were all about prospects developing and following the progress of a group of unknown, replacement-level players. While vacant positions and line combinations are still largely undecided, this is a group of forwards and defencemen with some good traits and flaws that should make for a fun transition season. They might be good enough to find chemistry, contribute in different game-states and break-even in terms of goal-differential. Or they just might be a worse group of depth players than last season and be out of the league by December. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

As Bruce McCurdy pointed out on the podcast, Holland did do a nice job bringing in players on single-year contracts who are also in an age range when NHL players are still productive. Little risk as there’s no long term commitment. If these players emerge as NHL regulars and take on roles and positions that the coaching staff values, great. Negotiate from a position of strength as bottom six options are readily available and sign them to team-friendly deals. And if they don’t sign and have shown value,  flip them for a potential long term asset.

The hope of course is that at least some of these guys grab hold of a spot and give the Oilers some reliable productivity. We don’t have much information or enough to even garner a guess as to who might do what after this pre-season, leaving the Oilers with a lot of uncertainty and the coaching staff with a lot of line juggling to do.

What’s worth considering as we see more and more of guys like Nygard, Haas, Sheahan, Granlund, Jurco and Archibald is just how much better this group is compared to the prospects developing in Bakersfield. I don’t think the difference if far off, as we’ve seen some good things from players like Benson and Marody over the last twelve months. And while I agree that players should spend time in the American league to develop their skills and prepare for NHL competition, teams need to promote players to the National league as soon as they’re ready – and that can be determined by your scouts, underlying data/comparative analysis, and general risk assessments. It’s just imperative that teams leverage as much productivity as they can while a player is on their entry-level deal, and both Marody and Benson have two seasons left before they’re due for new contracts.

In order to get ahead in identifying the talent they have, and finding potential solutions for when the team is actually good, the Oilers should leverage the transition-season they are currently in and get both Benson and Marody in as many NHL games as possible. Ideally, they both get regular minutes this coming season, perhaps in a sheltered, offensive role, and also get some reps on special teams. The end goal is to get as much information on the player as possible to inform your evaluation and risk analysis, extending the assessment over two seasons (targeting 100 NHL games), instead of one. By the summer of 2021, the team would have a good read on both players, and if the players can fill roles, the team has a chance to sign them to long-term, team-friendly deals.

The same issue is happening on the blue line. The coaching staff made their intentions very clear in pre-season, with the coach being quite open about the fact that he wanted Larsson paired with Nurse, and then pairing Klefbom with Persson as often as possible. Russell, Benning and Manning were going to round out spots 5-7. Even if Bouchard, Bear, Lagesson or Jones dominated, management seemed pretty bent on sending them all to the minors for over-ripening – again something that doesn’t make sense if the  management group can determine that the player is ready for NHL competition.

If the team can accept the fact that they’re in a transition period and unlikely to compete for a playoff spot, it’s imperative that they use this time to gather as much information on their prospects as possible. The competition on the Oilers NHL roster isn’t that great, so management might as well use these games to help determine their future plans and start building for a future playoff run.

Data: Cap Friendly

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