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With Thursday’s physicals and fitness testing behind them, Edmonton Oilers training camp moves to the ice on Friday. There likely won’t be a banner hanging over the rink stating UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, but there will be a significant difference in approach.
A year ago Peter Chiarelli buttressed his shallow camp roster with a trio of veterans on Professional Tryouts. Of them, Alex Chiasson and Jason Garrison made the team outright; the third, Scottie Upshall, failed his physical.
There are no PTOs this season. The new man, Ken Holland, prefers the one-year contract option, with enough layers of them to generate plenty of internal competition for NHL jobs. At least that seems to be the recipe up front, which is the subject of this post with a particular focus on what Holland has himself done since taking over four months ago.
By far the greatest asset(s) Holland inherited upon taking the Edmonton job on May 7. Connor McDavid, 22, Leon Draisaitl, 23, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 26, dominated their own team’s scoring log like few other trios in league history. That’s a double-edged sword of course, with the blunt edge of the blade being the stunning futility of the rest of the team to chip in much at all. The detail of both the glory and the gory are in the linked post, which underscores Holland’s pressing need to find effective role players.
The good news for Oil fans is that this trio is locked up for a collective 15 years, nicely split at 7, 6, and 2 years respectively. The combined cap hit of $27 million is steep, but the trio are apt to cover the bet.
The new GM inherited four returning Oilers entering the last year of their deals. One has already been ruled out. As reported here and elsewhere last week Kyle Brodziak will not return, having been unable to pass his physical exam with a back issue. He continues to occupy a spot on the 50-man list while Holland will have to figure how best to deal with the remaining year of his cap hit, given the two-year deal Chiarelli signed with the then 34-year-old in the summer of 2018. His NHL career ends where it started, in Edmonton, after 917 NHL games. That’s the 15th most of any Oiler draft pick in franchise history, an impressive feat for a player so lowly regarded as a junior he went undrafted in his first year of eligibility and went a lowly #214 overall in his second go-round. Can you say “over-achiever”?
Sam Gagner, now 30 (!), is another who returned to Edmonton last season after a number of years elsewhere. He represented interim GM Keith Gretzky’s attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, moving on from Chiarelli acquisition Ryan Spooner. Gagner is expensive and flawed, but carries a talented right-handed stick which has found a more natural home on the wing. he could move up and down the line-up and find a role on the powerplay as well.
Zack Kassian, 28, had a strong run in the second half and enters the season as the early favourite to ride shotgun with McDavid and Draisaitl. Whether he’ll retain his spot on the top two units on the penalty kill is another question, there is plenty of room for improvement on that unit and plenty of new, and experienced, competition for the role.
Colby Cave, 24, is on the bubble. Last year he lost his waiver exemption and it worked in his favour, as he was claimed by the Oilers when the Bruins tried to send him down, and remained in the NHL for the duration. He’s cheap ($25k belowleague minimum due to his cap hit being a two-year average), and the Oilers pushed the play to a surprising degree while he was out there. On the con side of the ledger, he scored barely at all and his ties are to Chiarelli, not Holland.
Now we enter the realm of Ken Holland’s influence. The new GM’s signature move to this point was dealing expensive, under-performing Milan Lucic to Calgary in return for expensive, under-performing James Neal. The bet being that Neal, 32, has a long history as a top-6 forward, who for a variety of reasons found his ice time and role slashed during his lone year in Calgary, where he played under 15 minutes a night after a decade-long history of being both an 18-minute man and a 20+ goal scorer. In Edmonton, let’s just say there’s no roster overload of high-scoring wingers. It’s hard to think of a circumstance other than injury where Neal won’t get an extended look on the top two lines.
Of the eight players on the NHL roster becoming free agents, Holland re-upped just two, both at forward.
Alex Chiasson, 28, hit it big on that PTO and signed the richest pact of the entire summer, both in term (2 whole years) and cap hit ($2.15 million per). The pending UFA was the only Oiler outside of the Big Three to hit 20 goals indeed he was the only one with more than 15. Not coincidentally, he was the fourth forward on the first-unit powerplay. Neal might push him for that role; that said Chiasson is a nice fit in the net front role with his size, demonstrated screening ability, and right-shot stick all contributing to an improved Oilers’ PP unit in 2018-19. At 5v5 he’ll be in the mix for a Middle 6 role.
Jujhar Khaira, 25, also signed a 2-year extension with an AAV of $1.2 million. That represented a tidy raise for a man who scored just 3 goals last season, however he does have a wide range of skills including decent playmaking ability, penalty-killing, toughness, and the versatility to slide into centre in a pinch. The 25 year old is almost exactly where Kyle Brodziak was when the Oilers dumped him to Minnesota ten years ago. The right play then and now was to keep the player.
The other three players whose contracts expired on June 30 aren’t back, despite the club having RFA rights in all three cases. Toby Rieder and Ty Rattie were both discarded outright. In the case of Jesse Puljujarvi, a qualifying offer was tendered by the team but rejected by the player, who for now at least has returned to his home town of Oulu, Finland to play for Karpat. This remains a volatile situation with every possibility that the player could get dealt by Dec 01 for a more immediate asset. But Holland has acquired enough depth at the wing position that he’s in a position of relative strength, and can afford to wait it out for the pot to sweeten. It’s been a difficult negotiation to say the least, but the GM’s experience has shone through as he plays the waiting game and keeps a civil tongue while doing so.
Now we come to the heart of Holland’s summer acquisition program:
LW/C Markus Granlund, 26, 1 year, $1.3 million. He scored 12-10-22 in 77 games for Vancouver in 2018-19. In 301 career NHL games, he has averaged 15-11-26 per 82 games played.
C Riley Sheahan, 27, 1 year, $900,000. Sheahan mustered 9-10-19 in 82 games split between Pittsburgh and Florida. Over 447 NHL games, he has averaged 11-16-27 per 82.
RW Josh Archibald, 26, 1 year, $1 million. Established himself as an NHL regular over the last season and a half in Arizona, with 121 games to his credit. Matched Granlund exactly in 2018-19 with 12-10-22 (68 GP), with a very similar career per-82 output of 14-11-25.
These are fairly proven players, even as they all have questions to answer in Edmonton. Among them they have more than 10 full seasons of NHL experience with a history of scoring at third-line rates. Importantly, all three were regulars on the penalty kill for their various teams a year ago, and will be looked upon to help improve Edmonton’s 30th-ranked not-so-special team.
I have seen more than one pundit’s depth chart projecting Granlund-Sheahan-Archibald as an actual tough-minutes line combination, and it does seem a natural fit. The wingers might have other ideas, however, given the openings in the top two lines.
LW Joakim Nygard, 26, a burner whose 21 goals ranked second in the Swedish League last season.
C Gaetan Haas, 27, another speedster, a right shot centre who excelled on both special teams in the less-highly-regarded Swiss League.
Both are complete wild cards at this point with zero NHL history. Both signed a 1-year ELC at the maximum $925,000, affordable if they make the grade, fully buriable at the AHL level if they don’t. In theory, smart depth hires, although the proof of how “smart” will be in the pudding. Can they actually play? These two along with D Joel Persson will be among the most highly-scrutinized newcomers at camp.
LW Tomas Jurco, 26, has played parts of five NHL seasons, accumulating 201 GP with a per-82 average of 9-11-20. He spent all of 2018-19 in the AHL as he battled back from injury, and had a stellar stretch and playoff run with the Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers. Holland signed him to a 1-year, $750,000 deal.
Among these last three groups, six newcomers to the Oilers forward group, all aged 26 or 27, all signed for 1 year in the $1 million range (total commitment $5.8 mil). Is there enough quality there to lift Edmonton’s bottom 6 closer to competitiveness?
Among Holland’s more underappreciated moves in my opinion were the extensions offered to three AHL vets who formed a strong all-round line in Bakersfield and who all got a chance with the big club over the course of the season. Both Joe Gambardella, 25, and Patrick Russell, 26, had excellent seasons as team-first players who showed individual growth. Brad Malone, 30, is the greybeard. Gambardella signed for 2 years, the others for 1 each, all 2-way pacts at the NHL minimum of $700,000 but with a solid AHL component well into the six figures.
They rejoin returning vet RW JoshCurrie, 26, who will play out the second of a two-year deal signed by Chiarelli in 2018. The three wingers in particular form yet another layer of competition for youngsters trying to break through.
Finally we get to those younger prospects, mostly players with ongoing contracts inherited by Ken Holland, no executive action required. On the vanguard of this group are LW Tyler Benson, 21, C Cooper Marody, 22, and RW Kailer Yamamoto, 20, all of whom enter their second year of professional hockey on a mission. But such are the layers of competition that have been stacked above them that any of the three will likely have to hit it out of the park in preseason to make the opening night roster. If they’re ready, great. If not, there’s cover.
The extended group of second-year pros also includes RW Cameron Hebig, 22, and LW Nolan Vesey, 24, both long shots for an NHL future.
Then there’s the group who are turning pro this year, LW Ostap Safin, C Ryan McLeod, and RW Kirill Maksimov, all of whom will be 20 by the end of this month. A full year in the AHL beckons for all three, with no pressure from above to call them up before they’re ready. It would take an extraordinary surge by any of them and/or an extraordinary injury bug in Edmonton for an NHL recall to be in the works in 2019-20.
RW Raphael Lavoie, 18, is the only such player in the entire camp at any position. No sign of the usual training camp fodder of late-drafted juniors as Edmonton has spent the majority of the last two drafts acquiring players from Europe and/or in the NCAA stream. Lavoie, a second-round pick in 2019, will be playing for a contract at camp, but even if he gets one is a certainty to return to the junior ranks.
C Luke Esposito, C/LW Beau Starrett, and RW Anthony Pelusofill out the training camp contingent Soon enough they will join the likes of Jakob Stukel and Steven Iacobellis, both of whom were assigned directly to Condors camp on Wednesday after participating in rookie camp. None of them factors into the NHL equation this season or likely ever, though they can look to Josh Currie as an example of how to get there.
The Oilers’ lack of depth of proven top-6 forwards remains an issue, which could be resolved neither easily nor quickly given the skimpy cap space at Holland’s disposal when he inherited the team. He did, however, invest heavily in depth players, almost entirely at pay rates that can be fully buried in the AHL for those who don’t make the grade.
Among the desirable outcomes of this low-level signing spree up front: an improvement of team speed, an (expected) improvement in penalty kill capability, and surely what will be a highly competitive training camp and preseason as a bunch of mid-20s players with plenty to prove and not a lot of time to prove it battle for a spot somewhere on the big-league depth chart. It should make for a fascinating camp.
Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy
Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy