NHL’s 30 in 30: Edmonton Oilers

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team; The Edmonton Oilers. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Edmonton Oilers

Dating back to the 2008-09 season, the Edmonton Oilers have finished in the bottom-10 of the NHL and that tradition continued in the 2014-15 campaign. For the second consecutive year, the Oilers finished 28th overall, posting a 24-44-14 record to end up with just 62 points. The team struggled on the road, managing just nine wins and their team +/- was a lousy -85. Going 4-5-1 in their final ten games, the Oilers prepared for another off-season of searching for answers.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

Oilers fans were once again forced to digest another season of failure, as their team plummeted faster and harder than any meteor. The team struggled to find ways to win games and outside of a four-game winning streak in the month of October, they only won seven games in the first three months of the season, while getting shutout in four contests. Despite another season of rubble, winger Jordan Eberle managed 63 points (24 goals, 39 assists) in 81 games. Tied for the lead in goals and leading the team in assists and points, Eberle also scored a quarter of his goals on the powerplay.

After Ryan Nugent-Hopkins‘ 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 76 games, there was a major drop-off in point production among the team’s forwards. Taylor Hall (38) and Benoit Pouliot (34) come closest, although they both played under 60 games, while Teddy Purcell‘s 34-point season was in 82 games, making him the only player on the team to play in every game of the 2014-15 season. Nail Yakupov‘s 33-point season was eclipsed by his -35, which was the team-worst in that statistic, although we find it hard to blame anyone’s +/- while playing in Edmonton. Justin Schultz led all defenseman on the team in scoring, putting up 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) in 81 games.

Hired in June of 2013, coach Dallas Eakins was brought in to replace Ralph Krueger and was believed to be an upgrade. He cited his influences for strategic coaching were Roger Neilson and Paul Maurice. Eakins signed a four-year contract but unfortunately for him, his tenure lasted just a year and a half, as he was fired in mid-December after the Oilers had managed only seven wins in their first 31 games. The team was simply a disaster in front of Eakins, failing to grasp the new system and becoming a black hole in puck possession. Their inability to produce quality shots was hard at times to watch, especially considering the amount of high-end talent. Todd Nelson, the coach of Edmonton’s AHL affiliate in Oklaholma City, was promoted to interim head coach for the rest of the season.

Leon Draisaitl, drafted 3rd overall in the 2014 draft, appeared in 37 games with the Oilers but after putting up five points in his first 23 games, the 19-year-old German center was sent back to his junior team, the Kelowna Rockets. It was a marriage doomed to fail, as Draisaitl was not yet ready to be in the NHL and the Oilers were not ready to be an NHL-caliber team either. Draisaitl was trusted with the second-line center role, and it was evident quickly that it was one much bigger than he was ready for. The writing was on the wall when he saw his ice-time reduced to 10-11 minutes soon before he was sent down. Draisaitl did make up for his slow NHL start however, as he led the Kelowna Rockets to a WHL Championship and one goal from winning the Memorial Cup. He was named the WHL playoff and Memorial Cup MVP, as well as leading the tournament in points with seven in four games. (For more on Draisaitl and his run at the Memorial Cup, click here.)

Later into the season, general manager Craig MacTavish added some veteran experience to his depth down the middle when he made a one-for-one trade, sending Mark Arcobello to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Derek Roy. Three days later, he sent David Perron to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Rob Klinkhammer and a 2015 1st round pick. At the deadline, in an attempt to gather some resources in time for their re-tooling, defenseman Jeff Petry was sent to the Montreal Canadiens for a 2015 2nd round pick and a conditional 5th round pick. Due to the Canadiens performance, their single series win bumped up the 5th rounder to a 4th rounder.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Oilers have a total of nine free agents to decide on. Of the nine free agents, six of them are restricted to the team, including forwards Tyler Pitlick, Andrew Miller and Matt Fraser, and defensemen Justin Schultz, Keith Aulie and Martin Marincin. Roy and goaltenders Viktor Fasth and Richard Bachman are the upcoming unrestricted free agents.

The players in need of a new contract will need to do some convincing to a new sheriff in town, as Craig MacTavish gave up the role of general manager to former Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Following the Bruins failure to make the playoffs, Chiarelli was the first casualty of the bunch but it wasn’t long before he ended up finding more work, also being added as the Oilers’ president of hockey operations. With a proven track record in an salary cap era and a Stanley Cup ring from 2011, Chiarelli knows how to construct a winning team.

One thing Chiarelli has discussed improving is the physical and mental toughness of the team and getting bigger. Things got off to a great start regarding that philosophy, as they were able to come to terms with Anton Slepyshev, signing the 6’2 forward to a three-year entry level contract. The 3rd round, 88th overall pick from the 2013 draft has spent time in Russia, playing for the Ufa Salavat Yulayev of the KHL. Last season, Slepyshev set career highs in goals (15), assists (10) and points (25).

Speaking of the 2013 draft, the Oilers have decided to release both Marco Roy (drafted 56th overall) and Jackson Houck (94th overall), allowing both prospects to enter the 2015 draft. Roy, 20, has suffered through wrist and concussion problems, but has seen his progress regress reasons beyond injuries. Houck has also regressed, scoring just 51 points last season.

The big name heading into free agency is Schultz. Entering his third season this past year, Schultz has seen his ice time stay at roughly the same average and his point total and shots on goal stay roughly the same, however the defensive side of his game has been average-to-poor and has shown no sign of improving. In his second and third seasons, Schultz led all defenseman in ice time, but the price to pay for a 30-point defenseman could be dangerous if he continues to allow just as many goals behind him while he’s on the ice. Fortunately for him, with the departure of Petry, there isn’t a whole lot of 30-point defenseman on the team right now.

The Draft Table

The Oilers struck gold for a fourth time in six years when their card was revealed as the golden ticket at this year’s draft lottery. The team went in holding onto the 3rd overall pick but thanks to the lottery and the law of averages, the Oilers pulled the bunny out of the hat once again. It’s no secret that Connor McDavid is the consensus number-one pick this year and the Oilers will be taking him. We feel that comfortable making this prediction.

McDavid, a center, will provide even more depth down the middle that already features Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl, and it’s about to get a lot more talented. This has left doubt surrounding the future of Draisaitl, whether it’s with the Oilers or his future at the center position. The coaching staff could easily move him over to wing, allowing McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins to play on the top two lines, with Draisaitl playing on the wing, or they could end up moving him out to fill out some of their other needs.

The Oilers also hold onto the 16th, 33rd and 57th picks in the first two rounds and six picks in the last five. The main priorities that Chiarelli and the scouting team will need to look for are size and grit down the middle, someone that can quarterback a powerplay and an elite goaltending prospect. With the 16th pick, you’re almost guaranteed an NHL-caliber prospect. Paul Bittner is a perfect candidate for the 16th pick, as he is big (standing at 6’4), has a scoring touch, can be physical and he plays good defensively, plus he can skate well for a big man too. If the Oilers are pressed to pick a goaltender early with their 33rd, they’ll have a chance at one of Ilya Samsonov, Mackenzie Blackwood or Matej Tomek still available at that point.

After that, the Oilers will need to rely on some good scouting and pull a couple of diamonds out of the rough. Fortunately for them, their first three picks have a very high chance of turning out to be good-to-great NHL players, strengthening their prospect pool even more.

A New Coach, A New Hope

Todd McLellan was hired as the Edmonton Oilers 14th head coach in franchise history, replacing Eakins. McLellan, 47, had coached the San Jose Sharks for seven seasons, making the playoffs in six of those years and appearing in the conference finals twice. After failing to make the playoffs last year, McLellan and the Sharks mutually parted ways.

McLellan brings the experience and leadership required to teach and develop the young kids at the NHL level. He warns fans however that the playoffs shouldn’t be in the hopes for next season. “We’re not going to talk about playoffs here,” said McLellan, in the press conference following his hiring. “We’re going to talk about foundation. We’re going to talk about creating an identity and building towards it.”

“The playoff part of it exists after you accomplish those regular-season things, and we’ve got work to do there.”

The Oilers still have a lot to accomplish. Their young forwards and defense still need ample time to develop their game and learn the play regarding both sides of the puck at the NHL level. Part of that will require some veteran leadership and they’ve gotten off to a real good start by bringing in McLellan to coach. There are also rumors circulating that Nelson could be back behind the Oilers bench to serve as assistant coach, however he is still weighing some options to be a head coach in the American Hockey League.

The Edmonton Oilers are still young and it’s to be expected that there are still a year or two of hard times before things get better, but with the team loading up on highly-talented prospects every year, it’s only a matter of time before euphoria is re-instated in the city of Edmonton.

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