Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue our way through the Pacific division with a look at the Edmonton Oilers. 

Last Season:

2013-14 started with something that few observers of the Edmonton Oilers had felt for some time: optimism. The team had made some pretty significant changes over the previous summer, none more notable than the appointment (in April 2014) of Craig MacTavish as general manager, followed by Dallas Eakins as head coach.

MacTavish made promises of sweeping changes to the organization that would jump-start a stagnant rebuild and Eakins came into the club with a sterling pedigree as one of the top coaches in the AHL and as one of the most sought-after coaches during the offseason.

For all that optimism, the team was essentially out of playoff contention before Christmas. The Oilers had just two regulation wins in their first 21 games, and sported a putrid 11-24-3 record by December 21st. The team was already looking to turn the page and make some changes with the goal for being competitive in 2014-15.

MacTavish got busy making trades, giving up on young forwards Linus Omark and Teemu Hartikainen before making a huge statement at the trade deadline when they shipped winger Ales Hemsky off to Ottawa after an 11-year tenure in Edmonton.

The team also decided to go in a different direction with their goaltenders when they traded starter Devan Dubnyk who, despite steadily improving his numbers since his rookie season, had completely fallen off the cliff to the tune of a 3.36 goals-against average and a .894 save percentage through 32 games.

Goaltending in general was a problem all season long for Edmonton, as the team finished 30th in goals against and used no less than seven (!) different goaltenders over the course of the year. After trying out Dubnyk, Jason Labarbera, Richard Bachman and Ilya Bryzgalov of all people, MacTavish did eventually stabilize the position when he brought in Ben Scrivens from Los Angeles in January to replace Dubnyk and Viktor Fasth from Anaheim at the trade deadline.

The team was not without its problems up front either. Expected to be a high-octane team that would have to outscore its opposition most nights in order to win, the Oilers actually ended up finishing in a tie for 24th with only 199 goals scored.

Most of the blame was pointed at Nail Yakupov, and rightfully so. The 2012 first overall pick had a great rookie season, scoring 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games and looked on the verge of breaking out.

Instead, Yakupov hit a huge sophomore slump, scoring just 11 goals and 24 points in 68 games. Whether it was Yakupov being either unwilling or unable to adapt to Eakins (which we’ll discuss more in a minute) doesn’t matter, the team needed more out of their Russian sniper and they just didn’t get it.

There were some bright spots, however. Fellow first overall pick Taylor Hall took his offensive game to a new level, when he tied a career-high in goals with 27 and set a new career-high in points with 80, good enough to finish 7th in NHL scoring. Jordan Eberle had a solid season, netting 65 points and tying for the team lead in goals with 28. The man he tied, David Perron, set career-highs across the board in his first season in Edmonton since coming over from the St. Louis Blues. Not to be outdone, 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also set new highs in goals (19), assists (37), and points (56).

Aside from that foursome, however, the offense was practically non-existent. The team knew it was going to have problems in goal (which were eventually rectified) and on the blueline (which saw 14 different defensemen shuffle in and out of the lineup), but it was that lack of offense that saw the Oilers miss the playoffs for an 8th-straight season and earn yet another lottery pick in the NHL draft.

Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers

Offseason Changes:

MacTavish and company may have been relatively quiet this summer, actually making fewer moves than they did in-season last year, but the tinkering seems to have put the Oilers in better position to compete in 2014-15.

First came the draft and choosing hulking German center Leon Draisaitl with the 3rd overall pick. While some criticized the Oilers for using yet another high draft pick on a forward, this choice makes a lot of sense.

The Edmonton organization is somewhat diminutive down the middle and in a Pacific division dominated by big centers such as Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton, and Henrik Sedin, the Oilers finally have someone that could potentially compete with those players in the form of the 6’3″, 210 pound Draisaitl. With no high-end defenseman (which should have been preferable) available at the 3rd pick, Draisaitl’s size and offense was a wonderful consolation prize for missing out on Aaron Ekblad.

Next for MacTavish was a move that many have seen coming for a few years now, when he finally jettisoned center Sam Gagner to Tampa Bay in exchange for winger Teddy Purcell. The 29-year-old Purcell had an excellent season for the Lightning last year, both on the scoresheet (42 points) and by his possession numbers (53.7 Corsi-for%), and should prove a valuable addition to the lineup. They also brought in defenseman Nikita Nikitin from Columbus via trade.

The Oilers didn’t land any big fish in free agency, but they did manage to make a couple of understated moves. They added defenseman Mark Fayne for four years and $14 million, as well as winger Benoit Pouliot for five years and $20 million. Fayne is by no means a flashy defenseman, but he can chew up minutes on the backend and has consistently posted outstanding possession numbers throughout his career.

Pouliot is in a slightly different situation, having been a 4th overall pick who has struggled to find offense in the NHL and seen his role change to primarily a checking line forward. Some my gripe at his $4 million per year salary because of this but, like Fayne, Pouliot is excellent at driving play towards the opponent’s goal, something the Oilers are in desperate need of.

The team also saw the loss of defensemen Taylor Fedun, Philip Larsen, and Denis Grebeshkov, as well as tough forward Ben Eager, but none of those players seem to have been in Edmonton’s long-term plans anyways.

Lineup Projection:

Taylor Hall – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle

David Perron – Leon Draisaitl – Nail Yakupov

Benoit Pouliot – Mark Arcobello – Teddy Purcell

Matt Henrdricks – Boyd Gordon – Tyler Pitlick

(Luke Gazdic – Anton Lander – Jesse Joensuu)

The first line is set in stone at this point, so there is no need to analyze it here. The bottom nine however, especially down the middle, is going to be interesting. The assumption is right now that Draisaitl makes the opening night roster alongside Perron and Yakupov.

If he doesn’t, it seems likely that Boyd Gordon will step up and fill that role with Mark Arcobello (who quietly had a solid season last year) and Anton Lander filling out the bottom two center spots. However, Gordon lacks offensive punch and the allure of Draisaitl beside two dynamic wingers may be just too tempting, even if the team can send him back to junior after 9 games.

There is however a wildcard in the form of Russian center Bogdan Yakimov, who has been turning heads so far in training camp. Yakimov is absolutely huge (6’5″, 232 pounds) and may force himself onto the team, ostensibly to take Draisaitl’s spot.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Oilers if that were to happen and the team were able to delay Draisaitl’s RFA status while simultaneously giving him another year to develop. He may not need it, but not rushing another 18-year-old into the lineup would be a refreshing change of pace.

Andrew Ference – Jeff Petry

Nikita Nikitin – Justin Schultz

Martin Marincin – Mark Fayne

(Oscar Klefbom – Keith Aulie)

Captain Andrew Ference and Jeff Petry are likely to form the team’s primary shut-down pair, leaving Nikitin and Justin Schultz to produce offense from the backend. The team has high hopes for Schultz to evolve into one of the top-scoring defensemen in the NHL, while Nikitin is hoping to get back to his 2011-12 form, when he scored 7 goals and 32 points.

Fayne will likely be used to mentor either the 22-year-old Martin Marincin or the 21-year-old Oscar Klefbom, both of whom had their first taste of NHL action last season and are expected to be big parts of the Oilers defense corps in the future. While many are clamoring to see Darnell Nurse on the blueline for the Oilers, he appears at this point to be headed back to junior.

Ben Scrivens

Viktor Fasth

It seems as though, after the myriad of goaltenders that Oilers cycled through last season, that they finally have a tandem to be happy with in Scrivens and Fasth. While both are light on NHL experience (they have just a little more than 100 games between them), both are veterans that have paid their dues over the years. The starter at this point is not entirely certain, though Scrivens seems to have the inside track for now. Should he falter, Fasth has shown more than enough ability over the last few seasons in Anaheim to take the ball and run with it.

Players To Watch:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:

 The 21-year-old native of Burnaby, British Columbia has a lot to prove in this, his fourth NHL season. Expectations were justifiably high when Nugent-Hopkins was drafted out of Red Deer back in 2011 and he didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, tying for the scoring lead among NHL rookies with 52 points, earning a nomination for the Calder trophy.

However, injuries struck Nugent-Hopkins early when he missed 20 games that year and reared their head again in 2013 when he underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason to treat a problem that had been bothering him for some time. Back healthy, “RNH” hit new career highs last season.

The question now is whether Nugent-Hopkins can be the true #1 center the team is hoping he can become. Playing alongside a burgeoning offensive force and team leader like Hall, as well as the yet to be fully tapped potential of Eberle, should give Nugent-Hopkins the ideal situation in which to finally fully blossom.

All three are making $6 million against the cap for at least the next five years, but Nugent-Hopkins is the one who really needs to step up to the plate and prove he’s worth the money, not to mention his status as a former first overall draft pick.

Nail Yakupov: 

Speaking of first overall picks, is there any top pick in recent memory who has caused as much consternation as Yakupov?

A rookie season that had so much hope was quickly dashed by a disastrous sophomore year that saw the sniper criticized for lazy defensive play that caused a rift with his coach, an infamous -33 rating, multiple benchings, and ultimately led to trade rumors that dogged him for most of the off-season.

While it’s clear the Yakupov and Eakins didn’t always see eye to eye, it looks like those fences have been mended. Regarding Eakins, Yakupov said:

“We spent more time on the phone and seeing each other this summer than we did all of last year. It’s a good thing. Now it seems much different than last year and much better.” (Edmonton Sun)

Yakupov returned to Edmonton early this summer to train, has added 11 pounds of muscle, has improved his English and, most importantly, seems to have a focus and determination that was sorely lacking last season. By being better integrated into the group, by being on the same page as his coach, and by putting in the effort to train this offseason, Yakupov is in a great situation to potentially break out big-time this season.

Justin Schultz: 

With a new 1-year, $3.675 million contract in his pocket, Schultz is out to prove that his GM’s words from earlier this offseason weren’t completely out of line. Shortly after signing the deal, MacTavish said:

I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think there are too many people who disagree with me in that regard… What Justin brings, everybody’s looking for, and we’re thankful we have him. (Edmonton Journal)

MacTavish has played with the likes of Kevin Lowe, Brian Leetch, and Chris Pronger, so when he speaks of Schultz as having Norris trophy potential, he certainly seems to know what he’s talking about. It’s up to Schultz now to launch himself into that conversation.

The 24-year-old has produced well offensively through his first two NHL seasons, netting 8 goals and 27 points as a rookie and upping his numbers to 11 goals and 33 points last season as a sophomore.

However, the problem with Schultz is in his own end where his is, as much as MacTavish tries to defend him, not great. His -22 and 43.2 Corsi-For% in 2013-14 are just not good enough for a defenseman trusted with as many minutes (23:21 last year) as he is.

How Schultz improves in this area is going to say more about his status among the elite defensemen in the NHL than the number of pucks he puts in the back of the net.

Players On The Rise:

  • David Perron
  • Mark Arcobello

Perron has been around for a while now (he is 26 after all), but looks to finally be emerging as a top-line offensive threat in the NHL. After a strong start to his career in St. Louis, Perron saw his offensive production decline over his last five seasons with the club (though that was largely due to injuries) and got lost in the shuffle of forwards on a deep, young Blues roster. A fresh start was needed.

In Edmonton he got that chance, and he ran with it. As previously mentioned, Perron set a new career high in goals, including 19 goals at 5-on-5 and eight power play goals – all while shooting at below his career average shooting percentage. While his Corsi took a huge hit coming over to the Oilers from the Blues (as could be expected), he posted a good Corsi-for% relative to his teammates of 2.5%, meaning he was instrumental in helping his teammates drive the puck forward.

If he plays on a line with an improved Yakupov and a big center like Draisaitl or Yakimov, there’s a great chance that Perron could reach the 30-goal, 60-point plateaus.

Arcobello hasn’t been noticed by many outside of Edmonton, and it’s not hard to see why. The diminutive center (he’s just 5’9″ and 172 pounds) isn’t easy to see on the ice, nor has he made much of an impact on the scoresheet in the NHL. However, Arcobello produced well after taking over from Gagner last season, and finished the year with a respectable 18 points in 41 games as a rookie (though he scored just four goals).

What people may not know however, is that Arcobello has been absolutely tearing up the AHL lately, including 68 points in 74 games for the Oklahoma City Barons in 2012-13, and an amazing 28 points in only 15 games last year. Yes, he’s not the greatest skater and his size is never going to intimidate anyone, but he’s steadily been climbing the ladder and will look to make a larger impact in the NHL this season.

Players On The Decline:

  • Andrew Ference
  • Matt Hendricks

It’s hard to say anything bad about Ference. In addition to keeping the captaincy warm for Hall, he’s done an admirable job after just one season on the Oilers blueline.

Sure, his possession numbers took a huge hit after coming over from Boston (no surprise there) and sure, he doesn’t produce much offensively, but Ference quietly had a solid season and finished with more than 100 hits and blocks. Add in his humanitarian contributions that garnered him the King Clancy trophy in 2014 and it’s not hard to see why the hometown boy is so admired in Edmonton.

That being said, Ference is also 35 years old and it’s clear that his reliability as an every-day NHL defenseman is beginning to wane. This season Ference will still be a top option at even strength, as well as anchoring the penalty kill, but with prospects such as Marincin, Klefbom, and Nurse (among others) looking to make an NHL impact soon, it seems Ference’s days are numbered.

Somehow Hendricks managed to parlay eight points in 48 games in 2012-13 into a 4-year, $7.4 million deal with the Nashville Predators last summer. Even more inexplicably, after a terrible start to his second stint in Nashville that saw him score just two goals and two assists in 44 games, Edmonton saw him as worthy value in trade for their starting goaltender Dubnyk. He added three more goals with the Oilers to finish the season with 7 points in 77 games (that’s more than $260,000 per point, for those keeping track).

At this point, the 33-year-old Hendricks is nothing more than warm body to fill a roster spot on the fourth line until a better, younger, and most importantly cheaper player is ready to take his place. While you have to admire the long road Hendricks took to get to the NHL, his offense and possession numbers (a horrible 40.9 Corsi-for% last season while with the Oilers), just aren’t worth the money he’s being paid. Whether through trade or buyout, he can’t be long for the Edmonton organization.

Season Expectations:

Everyone was saying it last year, but this might actually be the year when the Oilers take the next step forward and show at least a passing threat at capturing a wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The top six forwards are an enviable group that will only get stronger, particularly if Yakupov is truly able to turn his play around and if Draisaitl is able to make the roster. In fact, Draisaitl is a great bet to win the Calder trophy this year if he stays up in the NHL, a rare trophy that is yet to get an Oilers name inscribed upon it.

Adding Pouliot and Purcell, as well as a number of developing depth players ready to make an impact, gives the team more quality depth up front than has been seen during the rebuild.

While some doubt the sensibility of a platoon-style goaltending situation, the Oilers are being smart to hedge their bets between two quality goaltenders. Certainly Scrivens and Fasth provide a huge upgrade over the seven-headed monster the team suffered through last season.

Where the team will suffer the most, and where they weren’t able to make significant improvement, is on defense. This is still essentially the same blueline group that allowed a whopping 267 goals against last season, but the hope is that the addition of Fayne, as well as better defensive forwards and more stable goaltending, will be able to improve that number somewhat.

In the end though, the Pacific is going to prove too difficult for the Oilers to realistically compete – yet. However, if the team takes at least a moderate step forward and finishes somewhere closer to the playoff picture than the bottom of the pile, say around 10th in the West or so, this season could be considered a success.

 

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