An Optimistic Look at the 2015/16 Edmonton Oilers Opening Night Roster
So, Edmonton Oilers fans, I was away on Saturday night. Did I miss anything?
In what can only be described as the type of swerve you’d find in a Hollywood movie, the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery once again and will have the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft for the fourth time in six seasons. At this point, when it comes to the Blue and Orange, 11.5% may as well be 100%. General Manager Craig MacTavish commented that the result was “a game-changer for the franchise,” which is an early favorite for understatement of the year. Connor McDavid brings new hope to a land and a fanbase that has endured nine years of grim failures, botched signings, and pathetic efforts.
McDavid is the catalyst of change, the spark that was needed to ignite a dying rebuild. A “bold” addition, if you will. By landing McJesus, the Oilers and their fans are that much closer to clawing their way out of the basement and making a legitimate push towards contender status.
With the off-season right around the corner, many fans and analysts have begun to ponder what might be. How can the Oilers fix their wretched defensive unit? Who will play goal? Where does Connor McDavid fit? Who will take the reins behind the bench? And most importantly, what will the Oilers lineup look like in October of 2015?
Below you’ll find my personal projections of what the Edmonton Oilers lineup will look like at the start of 2015/2016. I tried to take an optimistic, yet realistic look at what options might be out there, and which players the Oilers could (and should) target in both free agency and through trade. Most of these ideas won’t come to fruition, and many of you will probably disagree with some of them; however, if the Opening Night roster looks anything like this one, Edmonton sports fans might see playoff hockey sooner rather than later.
(Note: Players listed in BOLD represent holes that will need to be filled prior to puck drop in 2015/16)
Most fans would agree that the Oilers needed to find an upgrade at center for next year, but thanks to the lottery gods, the position has been filled. The rest of the forward corps has a solid foundation, although it definitely needs an upgrade or two. The biggest hole sits on the right wing of the (potential) Hall and McDavid tandem. Ideally, the Oilers will want to fill that spot with a veteran, skilled winger who won’t be afraid to throw his weight around and get in on the forecheck. There aren’t many of those players available (don’t even think about prying Wayne Simmonds out of Philly), but a couple nice options exist on both the free agent and trade markets.
If the Oilers want to make a splash on July 1st, Winnipeg’s Michael Frolik is an intriguing option. The 6’1”, 200-pound Czech is a versatile forward who plays with a bit of an edge, and possesses the skill and the speed required to keep up with Hall and McJesus. He has put together back-to-back 42-point seasons with the ‘Peg, and would no doubt build on those numbers playing with #4 and #97. He made $3.3 million this past season and will be looking for a raise, but a 3-year contract at $4 to $4.5 million wouldn’t be unreasonable.
On the trade front, a few names should be available that would look nice in that second-line right wing spot. Boston is in serious salary cap hell, and one of the likely casualties will be former Dallas Stars sniper Loui Eriksson. The 6’2” Eriksson had three straight 70+ point seasons between 2009 and 2012, along with a 36-goal outburst in 2008. He was the main piece in the Tyler Seguin trade, but never managed to find his game in Boston. He has one more season at $4.5 million remaining on his deal, and while there’s a risk associated with his concussion history, it’s a gamble worth taking for only one season. He looked strong over the last half of the season, and his solid two-way play would be a nice complement to Hall and McDavid.
The other name on Boston’s roster that has some people salivating is that of Milan Lucic. The Cult of Hockey had an article regarding a “Taylor Hall for Milan Lucic” rumour that originated out of Boston, and does a nice job of explaining why this idea is ludicrous (on the off-chance that you don’t already know why). A Jordan Eberle for Lucic swap would make more sense, but there’s still no way I’d make that trade today. If this was the summer of 2014, I’d probably consider it.
A long-shot option that should interest the Oil is Brayden Schenn out of Philadelphia. He’s young, gritty, and seems to have fallen out of favor with the Flyers, although that may change now that head coach Craig Berube has been let go. He has one year at $2.5 million left before becoming a restricted free agent, and has the ability to play all three forward positions. The price would no doubt be high, but the Oilers very well could have the pieces to get something done.
Some other players the Oilers might look at include Carl Hagelin from New York (RFA), Boston’s Carl Soderberg (UFA), or Vancouver’s Shawn Matthias (UFA).
It’s no secret that the defence needs a major overhaul, and whether that can be accomplished in one off-season remains to be seen. The best-case scenario for the Oilers is to attack the teams who will find themselves in Cap trouble, such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, or Los Angeles. Of those teams, the one player whose name is constantly mentioned by Oiler fans is Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, but he’s not going anywhere. The Hawks will deal Patrick Sharp and possibly try to dump Corey Crawford before they even consider dealing Seabrook. The Bruins don’t have much that should interest the Oil on the backend – other than Dougie Hamilton – but dream on if you think that’s going to happen.
The one name that has started to float around in the rumour mill is Marc-Edouard Vlasic out of San Jose. The Sharks are a team in turmoil, and there’s no telling what their plan is for the future. If they’re truly set on a rebuild, Vlasic might be available. It’s unlikely, but the Oilers have some pieces that might be of interest. A package that includes the first round pick acquired from Pittsburgh, plus Martin Marincin, would be a start, and the Oilers would probably need to add. Whether the Sharks would feel comfortable dealing Vlasic to a division rival remains to be seen.
On the free agent front, there are a few names that should capture the interest of the Oilers brass. LA’s Andrej Sekera or Nashville’s Cody Franson fit the mold of the strong puck-mover who can play 22-24 minutes a night, while the more defensive Johnny Oduya of the Blackhawks would add some stability to the Top 4. Another trade option that might be available and would only cost a prospect or draft pick is Tampa Bay’s Jason Garrison. Tampa Bay has a logjam on defence, and Garrison would bring the big shot the Oilers have sorely been lacking on the power play.
The most important area that absolutely needs to be addressed this summer is the goaltending. The Oilers ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every major goaltending category, and this team won’t be going anywhere unless those numbers improve substantially. Ben Scrivens is signed for another year and is a very capable backup, but he made it clear this year that he’s not capable of carrying the load. An upgrade at this position is a must, and there are plenty of options that should entice the Oilers.
A quick look at the free agent market shows three names that jump out: Antti Niemi, Michael Neuvirth, and Jhonas Enroth. Of these three, the guy that most Oiler fans want to see in blue and orange next year is Antti Niemi, but I’m not so sure that’s a great idea. He’s obviously an upgrade on anything the Oilers have had in net over the past decade, but the idea of Antti Niemi is much better than what Antti Niemi really is. As a starter, he has posted four seasons (out of six) with a save percentage of .914 or lower, which is below-average to average compared to other NHL seasons, and his career high mark is .924. He has also played behind a very solid San Jose Sharks team, so who knows what’ll happen when he looks up and sees Nikitin and Schultz “defending” in front of him. It’s well-documented that the Sharks can’t handle the pressure when the games get tough, and Niemi is part of that problem. Plus, since he’s the marquee free agent, it might cost a boat load to get him here.
Luckily, there’s a younger, cheaper, and potentially better goalie available: Michael Neuvirth. The 27 year-old is currently backing up Jaroslav Halak on Long Island, but is coming off two seasons in Buffalo where he posted a save percentage of .918. A .918 in Buffalo is like a .930 anywhere else, and for half the price of Niemi, would be an excellent option for the next couple years in a 50-30 split with Scrivens, until Laurent Brossoit is ready to take over. Some might argue that bringing in Neuvirth would be another gamble, which is fair, but at least this time the Oilers will be making a bet with the odds in their favor.
On the trade front, a couple more established names should be available for the short-term, and while their cap hits are high, the price to acquire one of them would be reasonable. Carolina’s Cam Ward is no stranger to Oilers fans, and the Sherwood Park native finished off the season on a high note thanks to finally being healthy. He has one year at $6 million remaining on his deal, and with Anton Khudobin sharing the net with him, he should be available. Another team with a goaltending logjam appears to be the Ottawa Senators, thanks to the success of “the Hamburgler” Andrew Hammond. Logic tells us that one of Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner will be dealt this summer, and if I’m the Senators I’m holding on to the younger guy. Anderson battled injuries at times over the past couple seasons, but has put up solid numbers as a number one guy in both Ottawa and Colorado, and carries a cap hit of $4.2 million over the next three seasons. Depending on Ottawa’s asking price, Anderson would be an excellent option to carry the load for the Oilers in the near future.
Behind the bench, Edmonton appears to have their hearts set on former San Jose Sharks bench boss Todd McLellan, which is fine with me as long as Todd Nelson stays on in the associate role. McLellan has been a successful head coach or assistant coach everywhere he’s been, and is highly regarded throughout the hockey world. Todd Nelson may (or may not) be ready to guide an NHL team on his own, but he’s a player’s coach who seems to be very well liked by everyone in the organization, and the young guys all played the best hockey of the season under his watch. It would be a shame if he didn’t return next season.
Some of you may be wondering about prospects Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse, who I project will begin the season in the American Hockey League, and should stay there. The Oilers have no reason to rush either guy, and Nurse will benefit from some proper seasoning at the pro level. In Draisaitl’s case, there’s no spot for him in the NHL lineup yet, and he will most likely be used as a trade bait to try and land a top pairing defenceman. If he remains Oilers property, he might slot in on the wing, but for now there’s no harm in allowing him to excel in the AHL. The Oilers have enough youth in their lineup as it is, and the losing environment can be toxic for a player (but hopefully that will change). Additionally, if the Oilers manage to sign college free agent goaltender Matt O’Connor, they’ll be set with two solid prospect goaltenders who can battle it out in Bakersfield for the next season or two.
2015 represents a new hope for the Edmonton Oilers and their community, and it all gets started on June 26th at the NHL Entry Draft. Exhale, Oilers fans: a new beginning is just around the corner.