Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Edmonton Oilers.
2021-22 Edmonton Oilers
As of just a few short years ago, the mere idea of playoffs would have been enough to stir Oilers’ fans into pure exhilaration. However, after two straight years of making it to the ever-desired dance, the 2020-21 Oilers’ season left many Oilers’ observers wanting more.
Edmonton followed up on a rather impressive 2019-20 regular season performance with an equally impressive sequel in 2020-21. Facing off in the all-Canadian North Division, the Oilers finished in second place behind only Toronto. They tallied 35 wins, tied for the division lead in that category, and were looked at as one of the favourites to fight its way out of the division.
Unfortunately, as was the case in 2019-20, the Oilers season came to a crushing end. This time, it was the Winnipeg Jets who thwarted the young Oilers, sweeping them in four straight games of the first round. Edmonton was outmatched in net, and unlike the regular season, couldn’t score enough goals to cover their mistakes.
With that being said, there were still more than a few positives for the Oilers last year.
Connor McDavid: Perfection Personified
The best story of the Oilers’ 2020-21 season was Connor McDavid‘s exceptional performance. He put up an unfathomable 105 points in only 56 games (a 21-point lead on second place Leon Draisaitl) which earned himself a Ted Lindsay and Hart Trophy for his efforts. It was, without question, the finest season of his NHL career and quite frankly, one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game.
Mike Smith’s Comeback Season
Mike Smith‘s season wasn’t on McDavid’s level, but it was very impressive nonetheless. The 39-year-old overcame an injury early on in camp to steal the net from Mikko Koskinen, and in the process, had a major revival. He finished the season with 21 wins in 32 games, spotted a sparkling .923 save percentage with a 2.31 goals-against average, and was near the top in several advanced goaltending metrics. He was a rock for Edmonton.
One of the biggest question marks heading into last year was the absence of long-time Oiler, Oscar Klefbom. In his place, Darnell Nurse assumed the controls on the top-pair and made the most of the situation. Averaging over 25 minutes of ice-time in tandem with newcomer Tyson Barrie, Nurse was able to score 36 points and help lead the Oilers to their second-place performance in the division. His outstanding season earned him a whopping raise in the offseason, a $74 million, eight-year contract that takes effect in 2022-23.
Needless to say, general manager Ken Holland wasn’t satisfied with Edmonton’s playoff sweep. He quickly went to work reshaping the roster, vividly painting the 2021-22 Oilers in his image. Holland was able to address holes within his forward group and almost completely restructure his defence core. Despite his best efforts, Edmonton remained stagnant in net.
- Zach Hyman, Left Wing (Free Agent)
- Warren Foegele, Left Wing (Trade)
- Duncan Keith, Defence (Trade)
- Cody Ceci, Defence (Free Agent)
- Derek Ryan, Centre (Free Agent)
- Brendan Perlini, Left Wing (Free Agent)
- Colton Sceviour, Right Wing, (Professional Tryout)
- Adam Larsson, Defence (Free Agent)
- Ethan Bear, Defence (Trade)
- Jujhar Khaira, Centre (Free Agent)
- Dmitry Kulikov, Defence (Free Agent)
- Caleb Jones, Defence (Trade)
- Joakim Nygard, Left Wing (Free Agent)
- Gaetan Haas, Centre (Free Agent)
- Dominik Kahun, Left Wing (Free Agent)
- James Neal, Left Wing (Buyout)
Holland didn’t so much go to work with a scalpel, as he did a chainsaw and a flamethrower. Exiting the Oilers’ system from a year ago are as follows: four defencemen who played top-four minutes, two centremen who served as third and fourth line options, and three left-wingers who – although never completely flourished – all spent time up and down the lineup over the past two seasons.
In their place, Holland brought in a stable of replacements, including a top-line left-winger, another middle-six left-winger, two defencemen that will be counted on for top-four minutes, a promising solution at third-line centre, and a sprinkling of competition for the last few forward spots.
The deck is shuffled, with several key players shifting in and out of key positions.
Zach Hyman – Connor McDavid – Jesse Puljujarvi
Warren Foegele – Derek Ryan – Zack Kassian
Extras: Tyler Benson & Brendan Perlini
The addition of Zach Hyman instantly improves the top-six in a dramatic fashion. The Oilers, as testified by the terrific seasons of McDavid and Draisaitl, weren’t necessarily starving for improvement at the top of their lineup; however, when push came to shove in the playoffs, Dominik Kahun and James Neal weren’t viable options.
The Oilers now have a player in Hyman who is known for a steady forecheck, a knack for scoring goals, and an ability to mesh with star players. He will most likely form a duo with McDavid, and it’s reasonable to suggest that Puljujarvi will round out that trio. Puljujarvi made a big impact in his return to North America last season and will be looking to mature his game even further in a feature role.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, fresh off of an eight-year contract extension, will likely slot back in on left-wing. It’s a position he has grown comfortable with over the previous two years. The always-great Leon Draisaitl will centre the second-line, which should be criminal to write given his consistent MVP-calibre playing level. Kailer Yamamoto will spend time with this duo but will need to find greater consistency to remain in a prominent scoring role.
The lower half of the forward group has been the kryptonite for this Oilers’ team for quite some time. Their inability to tread water while McDavid and Draisaitl are off the ice has lead to extreme goal differential results in the recent past. This has left the Oilers in a hole, where their top guns have been consistently put in a position to outscore their teammate’s mistakes.
In Holland’s effort to curb this problem, he has brought in veteran centre Derek Ryan to pilot one of the two bottom lines. Ryan will be looking to use his veteran savvy to improve off of Jujhar Khaira’s sub-40 percent possession totals from last season.
He also cashed in valuable trade-chip Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele. Foegele, who has a reputation for dogged forechecking, will be looked to help win the possession battle and get the puck heading north.
Tyler Benson is expected to finally receive a real chance at making the roster and Ryan McLeod should be able to use his speed to lock down a spot at centre. McLeod’s ability to convert on scoring chances will be his biggest test. Zack Kassian may make a play for the top six if Yamamoto struggles, and Shore, Perlini, and Archibald will carve out specialty roles.
Darnell Nurse – Tyson Barrie
Duncan Keith – Cody Ceci
Perhaps no bigger question mark exists on the 2021-22 team than the newly rebuilt defence. On top, Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie both showed well in their debut as a pair last year. Nurse had a statement season, while Barrie lead all defencemen in scoring. This pairing should remain more or less intact. Beyond that, things get far murkier.
Duncan Keith enters the mix fresh out of Chicago, where he will be relied on to bring leadership and roughly 18-20 minutes of ice-time a night. Talks of his demise have been surfacing for some time, but the Oilers will desperately need a rejuvenated Keith if they have any hopes of winning the division. His partner to start is likely Cody Ceci, who will look to replace Adam Larsson on the right-side second pair. Ceci won’t deliver the same shutdown minutes as Larsson but should provide better puck-moving and skating abilities.
Look for significant changes to happen with the second pairing if the goal differential starts to head south early.
Pencilled into the bottom-pair as of this writing is star prospect Evan Bouchard. Last year, it was a struggle for Bouchard to earn playing time behind the likes of Larsson, Bear, and Barrie. The Oilers ensured that wouldn’t be the case this year by trading away Bear and blasting open several miles of highway for Bouchard to skate through. Bouchard has regularly been touted as one of Edmonton’s top prospects since his 10th overall selection in 2018 and will get a significant opportunity to showcase his potential.
Veteran Kris Russell likely has the edge as Bouchard’s partner, following an adequate season in a depth role.
Slater Koekkoek returns after an injury-shortened season, and will likely serve as the team’s seventh defenceman. The Oilers also value William Lagesson who is coming off of an uneven rookie year. One or two of the Oilers’ young defencemen in Bakersfield could earn an audition here as well.
Possible Taxi Squad: Alex Stalock
This is an area where the Oilers were not able to improve, despite their rumoured interest in Darcy Kuemper and others.
Even with the stagnation, this is still a duo that has helped the Oilers reach the postseason in two consecutive years. Smith will look to build off of last year’s surprise performance, but age remains a worry. He simply can’t start 60 games in a season anymore, which is where Koskinen will come in.
Simply said, Koskinen needs to be more consistent if the Oilers are to be considered in the upper echelon of contenders. His penchant for untimely goals, many of which come on the first shot of the game, is a major Achilles heel. It is worth noting that Koskinen is in the final year of his three-year contract.
In the event of an injury or faltered play, Alex Stalock could emerge as a solution. Youngsters Stuart Skinner and Ilya Konovalov remain significant longshots to make the team but strong preseason showings from either could pique the interest of a general manager hungry for better options in goal.
Players to Watch
His impressive season last year got better with each passing game. Puljujarvi started to use his substantial frame to maul defenders while finding and creating space for his teammates and demonstrating an ability to create chances off the rush. With another offseason of growth under his belt, Puljujarvi could be a major force for Edmonton.
The Oilers paid a hefty price to acquire the three-time Stanley Cup champion, and with that comes large expectations. Keith is not the same player that he was a decade ago. The Oilers don’t need that level of Keith, either. What they do need is a motivated defenceman who can provide stable top-four minutes, unlike either Caleb Jones or Dmitry Kulikov were capable of.
Keith’s ability – or inability – to settle in as a top-four defenceman will likely go a long way in authoring the type of season the Oilers have.
Predictions For the 2021-22 Edmonton Oilers
Despite the question marks from the blue-line back, the Oilers substantially improved their forward group. The greater depth up-front will help establish longer periods of possession, which should prevent the Oilers from leaning as heavily on their defence and goaltending.
The Oilers’ special teams, a long-time strength, show no signs of slowing down either.
The Oilers should be serious contenders for second place in a weak Pacific division. The team likely isn’t deep enough on the back-end to make a serious run at Vegas for first place, but could surprise if their young, depth players deliver.
Should the Oilers struggle, expect Holland to be active. The 2022 first-round draft pick and several prospects are not out of the realm of trading possibility.
In the eyes of McDavid, the time to win is now. The rebuilt Oilers will certainly put that goal to the test.