Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, 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 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Edmonton Oilers.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Edmonton Oilers
There might have been just the tiniest touch of optimism for Oilers fans heading into last season. The club had revamped its goaltending, and a full season of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth between the pipes sounded like a good idea at the time. Plus, the “kids” were all another year older, and presumably ready to take the next step, right?
The Oilers once again floundered at the bottom of the league, finishing the season with just 24 wins and 62 points, good for 28th overall, while the duo of Scrivens and Fasth helped the Oilers lead the league in goals against, at a woeful 276. One particularly awful stretch of the season from mid-November to late December saw the Oilers win just once in regulation over 21 games, which would cost head coach Dallas Eakins his job.
Most frustrating at all was the Oilers finishing outside of the playoff picture for the 9th consecutive season, proving that while the club has some nice pieces, they were still far from completing their “rebuild.”
Given the state of the club, this offseason may well have been the most crucial in franchise history. It all started with the hiring of Peter Chiarelli as general manager and Todd McLellan as the club’s new head coach. Both men come from a winning pedigree and instantly signaled a culture change for the franchise.
Then came the draft lottery, where the Oilers managed to move from 3rd overall to 1st overall and a chance to draft Connor McDavid, which they did on June 26th.
With his franchise center secured, Chiarelli set to work augmenting his roster at the draft, adding Cam Talbot to compete with Scrivens in goal, and trading for defensemen Eric Gryba and 21-year-old Griffin Reinhart.
In free agency, the Oilers landed coveted d-man Andrej Sekera, signing the 29-year-old to a six-year, $33 million deal, as well as adding 30-year-old center Mark Letestu to compete for a bottom-six role.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Taylor Hall – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle
Benoit Pouliot – Connor McDavid – Nail Yakupov
Leon Draisaitl – Anton Lander – Teddy Purcell
Rob Klinkhammer – Mark Letestu – Matt Hendricks
Lauri Korpikoski, Luke Gazdic
The question of where McDavid slots in is an interesting one, as he is likely already the team’s #1 center, but sheltering him in a second line role to start would be wise, plus he could jump-start Yakupov. Where Draisaitl fits is also a question. Assuming he makes the opening day roster, it’s likely on the wing, unless he’s taking the place of an injured center.
Andrej Sekera – Mark Fayne
Oscar Klefbom – Justin Schultz
Andrew Ference – Eric Gryba
Nikita Nikitin, Griffin Reinhart
The defense will likely be anchored by Sekera and Fayne as a shutdown pair, while Klefbom and Schultz are a good mix of stay-at-home defense with puck-moving ability. The bottom pair will be a huge question mark. Ference and Gryba have the potential to make a successful pair, but it might not be long before Nikitin and Reinhart are pushing for more ice time.
Talbot’s play over the last couple of seasons likely makes him the de facto starter over Scrivens, allowing the latter to fall into a more suitable role, while Nilsson is expected to be an injury call-up.
Players to Watch
Just a reminder for people who may have forgotten just how good this kid is, he put up 44 goals and 120 points in only 47 games with the Erie Otters last season, and then added a whopping 21 goals and 49 points in just 20 post-season games. Given the years of hype, it’s going to be absolutely fascinating watching McDavid’s rookie season unfold. While he may not hit the 100-point plateau (as Sidney Crosby did in his rookie season) due to lower overall scoring league-wide, a point-per-game isn’t out of the question, nor is a Calder Trophy.
With all the moves made over the summer, none will be more crucial on the ice than Talbot. At 28 years old he’s had a long apprenticeship on the road to finally assuming a starting role in the NHL, and some are wondering if he has what it takes. He’s been absolutely brilliant in parts of the last two seasons for the New York Rangers while playing back-up to Henrik Lundqvist, posting a 2.00 GAA and a .931 SV% in 57 games. Can he replicate or even come close to those numbers while taking on a heavier workload and behind a (to put it nicely) more porous defense corps? The Oilers are certainly hoping so, if they want to be in a battle for a playoff position at the end of the year.
On the Rise
With eight defensemen under contract, we may be waiting yet another season for Nurse to truly be given a chance in the NHL. However, the big, tough, solid, two-way defender is certainly on his way up, and will play his first full professional season this year. It’s just a matter of time until he jumps into the Oilers top-four, and a strong showing by Nurse this year may force Chiarelli’s to make room for him.
On the Decline
Simply put, if Ference weren’t the Oilers captain, he likely wouldn’t see much (if any) ice time this season. By both possession metrics and the old eye test, the 36-year-old defenseman simply hasn’t been the same since coming over from Boston during the summer of 2013, and with the number of talented young blueliners coming up through the Oilers system, Ference is obviously on his way out. He may be an outstanding human being off the ice with his charitable work, and he has a strong, veteran voice to lead a young locker room, but he’s clearly lost a step on the ice.
At what point does saying the Oilers are ready to take the next step become foolhardy? Year after year, high draft pick after high draft pick, there’s been absolutely no forward momentum when it comes to results on the ice, so how can we expect any this year?
For one, there’s the kid from Richmond Hill, Ontario, as McDavid instantly gives the Oilers one of the most formidable top-six forward groups in the Western Conference. Add in the quality depth moves Chiarelli has made at all positions, particularly his work to revamp the team’s blueline, and an outstanding coach behind the bench who brings a new voice, and it’s hard to see how the Oilers can’t take the next step this year. For real this time.
Will it be enough for a playoff position? In a Pacific Division featuring the Anaheim Ducks (a powerhouse), the Los Angeles Kings (too good not to rebound) the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks (veteran teams who know how to win) and a maturing Calgary Flames squad, probably not. They will certainly finish above the Arizona Coyotes (who are a compete tire fire at this point) again, and will likely be in the playoff race until the very end (a welcome sight for Oilers fans) but ultimately fall short, one last time, before their big breakthrough.