The Edmonton Oilers ended a long drought last year, after a 10-year post-season absence was their big encore to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2006.
It’s been a long decade for Oilers fans.
Getting to game seven of the Stanley Cup final as a complete underdog was awesome. I was twelve years old then, watching most games with my Oilers-fan-friend and playing hockey on the driveway during intermissions. It was an incredible run.
But Chris Pronger couldn’t make it work in Edmonton. And while the squad was still decent after he left, posting 88 points in 2007-08 and 85 points in 2008-09, it was just a matter of time until the wheels fell off.
It’s safe to say they’ve only been reinstalled recently. Edmonton, now with the likes of McDavid, Draisatl, Nuge, Talbot, and Klefbom, have an obvious opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. It’s possible that generational players are destined to win Cups, as Gretzky, Lemieux, and Crosby have all done it multiple times. But they’ve also had great talent around them: Gretzky had Kurri and Messier. Lemieux had Jagr and Francis. Crosby had Malkin and Kessel.
There is certainly still work for the Oilers to be done. They’ve had Connor McDavid for two years now, and have made obvious improvement. What’s next on the to do list?
This team’s composition is ridiculously similar to Pittsburgh. Not just because of the Crosby-McDavid parallel, but because of their next best pieces: Evgeni Malkin and Leon Draisatl. Players with incredible reach, world-class playmaking skills, and the ability to score goals. They need to take what Pittsburgh has done and combine it with Chicago’s excellent scouting record. Their drafting ability won them those Stanley Cups.
So let’s figure out how Pittsburgh won Cups with a talent like Crosby, how Chicago won Cups through drafting, and then see if we can meld them together to form a hybrid plan on how to capitalize on generational talent such as Connor McDavid.
Pittsburgh and Chicago won Cups similarly, but Pittsburgh got a different wrinkle. They got the GameShark cheat code. They’d been god-awful for 5 years, accumulated a wealth of young talent, and then right when things were finally looking up, they looked way into the sky as they waltzed to the draft podium and selected Sidney Crosby.
They added Crosby after they had already drafted Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, Ryan Malone, Tom Kostopolous, and Rob Scuderi.
Every asset matters.
Chicago, however, had built a much more complete roster internally before adding elite players; though not by ‘cheating’ with a player like Crosby.
They got completely non generational players in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
But one happened to be a two-way dynamo who led by example and the other resulted in a shifty, elite winger.
Since the Blackhawks had drafted so well, had developed so well, and continued to draft and develop as Kane and Toews played in their early 20s, they were able to win three Stanley Cups in six years with that duo.
Edmonton clearly doesn’t have the drafting record of the ‘Hawks or Taylor Hall and The Nuge would have been all they needed to make the playoffs. But luckily for them, they did get the hacks. They received the cheat code few franchises ever get to experience:
So what do they do?
It starts with their draft record
Edmonton is downright lucky to have cashed in on McDavid, as their draft record since 2004 is pitiful. They’ve only added talent through first round draft picks, and have almost nothing to show for beyond the first round. Tobias Rieder (114th in 2011) and Brandon Davidson (162nd in 2010) were both good late picks, but were traded for players that made no lasting impact on the organization. Anton Lander might be a decent second round pick, but is 26 years old and playing on another continent.
After 74 post-first round draft selections from 2004 to 2013, Anton Slepyshev and Jujhar Khaira are the pride of the Edmonton Oilers’ scouting staff. No disrespect to those two, but that is pathetic.
That will not be good enough moving forward. Not a single Oilers post-first rounder has played over 400 games in the NHL since 2003 (when they selected Kyle Brodziak and traded him for late round draft picks that turned into nothing). That’s every single player over an eleven year span.
Plain and simple, the Oilers have to improve at the draft and development level. An elite trio of centermen with McDavid, Draisatl, and Nugent-Hopkins means enough is in place to win a Stanley Cup, they just need to find another winger. On the back end, Nurse, Klefbom, Larsson, and Sekera can at least hold the fort down for three years, and ideally they add another top-4 player. Their goaltending is just fine.
The pressure then mounts on the draft crop the Oilers have accumulated since 2012. It would be massive if they could generate some assets organically. That’s the group that will help the Oilers win a Stanley Cup within three years. If not? The window won’t be closed for a while. But they’ll have to postpone their championship aspirations if they’re going to require draft selections from 2018 and beyond to push them over the hump.
To be honest, there is improvement of late. Anton Slepyshev and Jujhar Khaira both represent players who could be “hits” beyond the first round. They would add cheap, home grown depth to the table – the final Stanley Cup ingredient escaping Edmonton.
So they need to draft better. But what about their NHL squad beyond the elite; is what’s in place good enough?
Players under contract until 2020 are a playoff threat
Of course, two of those nineteen are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl. The depth chart of Oilers under contract until 2020 is nearly identical to the one that’s already made the 2nd round. It’s mighty fine:
Lucic – McDavid – Strome (2018 RFA)
Khaira – Draisatl – Puljujarvi
Slepyshev – Nuge – Kassian
Caggiula – Benson* – Yamamoto
Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Sekera
Russell – Benning
(Talbot is a UFA in 2019, so they have two years at least with him)
*denotes player in junior
If Benson and Yamamoto develop into any type of top-9 forward, the Oilers could be looking preposterously dangerous. Should Jesse Puljujarvi live up to his 4th overall draft projection, he could turn out to be a potentially massive piece for Oil Country. What if he becomes the Oilers’ first elite winger? Pittsburgh made the Stanley Cup finals three times when they’ve had elite wingers: in 2008 with Hossa, and consecutively in 2016 and 2017 with Phil Kessel. Their 2009 Cup win didn’t need wingers, because Crosby and Malkin combined for 29 goals and 67 points so… yeah.
The addition of that type of piece could catapult Edmonton over the hump they’ve recently set as a second round playoff team.
On the back end, the top-five group of Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, Sekera, and Russell means the Oilers already possess five top-four defensemen, which is precisely where you want to be. It’ll be up to Klefbom and maybe Nurse to develop into elite defenders and elevate this group to the next level, but if not, it’s still a quality ensemble.
Cam Talbot is obviously up to the task in net, posting .917 and .919 save percentages in two seasons as an Oiler.
If it’s all lookin’ so peachy at the NHL level, what’s left to do?
1. Be aggressive landing a top winger
If the Oilers can find even one top winger before their Pulju-egg hatches they will be significantly further along. It could end up being Ryan Strome – though I’ll need some proof first. Puljujarvi might bring it too, as alluded earlier. If not, the Oilers will need to package an asset and a draft pick for a top winger as soon as they can. Even if it’s just for two years, that’s the piece that could have the largest impact; they’re one of the best teams up the middle.
2. Find a right-handed top-four defender, but don’t force it
Adam Larsson is the Oilers best right hand defender, and I’m not entirely sure Matthew Benning is the best choice for second-in-command. The Oilers don’t necessarily need to rush this acquisition, since their current top four of Klefbom-Larsson-Nurse-Sekera should be able to do the trick, and long-term Benning may become more than a bottom pair defender.
But this acquisition would create two positive things:
- Their left side is excellent so the addition of a righty balances out their top-4
- They’d have at least six quality defensemen, and they only needed five to get them to the second round last year
Injuries unfortunately need to be prepared for, especially with the number of blocked shots these days. Five top-four defenders is almost completely necessary for teams that haven’t found a star to anchor the blueline yet, which fits the Oilers’ current description. Can Klefbom eventually fill that role? I’d say it’s lookin’ that way. Offensively, there are no doubts. Will he be an excellent offensive defenseman, or can he round out the rest of his game to become a true franchise defender?
3. Become a team that develops well
This is another opportunity to highlight that teams do not win multiple Stanley Cups – or any Stanley Cups – if they do not find top-9 forwards, top-4 defensemen, or starting goaltenders beyond the first round. The Oilers have McDavid and Draisatl for at least 7 years, and it has to be considered failure if they do not make the Cup Finals at least twice over that span. Many teams have elite cores and promising teams on paper. But only teams that complement top caliber cores with homegrown talent win Stanley Cups.
The Oilers will need to get there as soon as possible, or Connor McDavid could be “wasted”. Then again, maybe players like McDavid are just so good that the Oilers will win a Cup regardless. I guess we’ll find out.
Until then, Oilers fans have plenty to be excited about. By our model their offense ranks fourth in the league, their defense is 14th, and their goaltending is 11th. They have no real weakness, are well coached, and have two superstars to spearhead the offense.
It’s been 10 years, but the Oilers are finally qualifying for the Stanley Cup circuit again.
They just need to find the finish line.