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After a Playoff Sweep, Where Do the Oilers Go From Here?

The Edmonton Oilers came into the 2021 NHL Postseason with high expectations. Their roster included this year’s Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid, who amassed an incredible 105 points in 56 games, the league’s second leading scorer Leon Draisaitl (84 points in 56 games), and the top offensive defenseman of 2020-21, Tyson Barrie (48 points in 56 games). They’d also dominated their first round opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, in the regular season (7-2-0 record against), and had seen a resurgent year from their starting goaltender, Mike Smith (.923 SV%, 2.31 GAA).

What happened in their playoff series was nothing short of disastrous, however. They lost all four games in the series en route to the first ever playoff sweep by the Winnipeg Jets. They scored just one goal in their first two games and McDavid and Draisaitl were both held pointless in those contests. Although the last three games of the series did go to overtime, and McDavid and Draisaitl found their scoring touch in Games 3 and 4, it was too little, too late. The Oilers were swept, and another season of Connor McDavid had been wasted.

McDavid’s absurd scoring rate had gotten Edmonton to the second best record in the North Division, but many soon realized that the Oilers did not have the forward depth to compete in the playoffs. Head Coach Dave Tippett put McDavid and Draisaitl on a line together, something he had done many times before. The Winnipeg Jets, though, were prepared. Their line of Andrew Copp, Mason Appleton, and Adam Lowry neutralized the McDavid line for much of the series, and the Oilers couldn’t find the depth to overcome that.

Edmonton’s depth problems became very apparent during the overtime of Game 4. Top defenseman Darnell Nurse played a near NHL record of 62:07; the record, set by Columbus’ Seth Jones last year (65:06), was recorded during a five overtime game, whereas the Oilers and Jets played three and a half overtimes. Nurse’s incredible ice time numbers go even deeper: he played a nearly five minute shift at one point and over fifteen minutes in the first overtime, 75% of the period.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s ice time was more of the same. Both played around forty-five minutes of the triple overtime game; McDavid played nearly half the period during the first overtime at just under ten minutes.

All this shows that while a team might be able to rely on its superstars and top heavy lineup during the regular season, come playoff time, they can’t afford to have those stars shut down for a game or two. The lack of production led to a 0-2 hole going into Game 3 for the Oilers; it proved too much to overcome.

The Round 1 exit represents a bigger problem for the Edmonton Oilers: a failure to surround Connor McDavid, the best player in the world and perhaps one of the best young offensive players in league history, with a competitive core. Other than Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers third leading scorer amongst forwards (35 points in 52 games), Edmonton hasn’t been able to find a winger to play alongside McDavid. It’s not just the lack of quality linemates for McDavid, however. Nugent-Hopkins, who can play both center and wing, found himself in Game 4 between Ryan McCleod, a 21 year old with just 10 games of NHL experience (1 assist) and Zach Kassian, a grinder who put up 5 points in 27 regular season games. Previously, Nugent-Hopkins had centered a second line with Kassian and Devin Shore, another bottom six forward who posted 9 points in 38 games this season.

Going into the off-season, General Manager Ken Holland has his work cut out for him. Arguably the most important is re-signing Nugent-Hopkins. Top defensemen Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie are also unrestricted free agents this offseason, as is starting goalie Mike Smith. In addition to signings within the organization, Edmonton clearly needs to make moves to improve their top six forward group. They’ll have nearly $30 million in cap space, not including the players mentioned above. Here are some potential options for them:

Tomas Tatar, Left Wing

Tatar is an established top six winger who has a history with Ken Holland, who drafted him to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. He’s a slick winger who turns 31 in December and likely wouldn’t break the bank in terms of cap hit. With 30 points in 50 games for the Montreal Canadiens, he certainly has the offense to shore up the Oilers’ top six.

Anthony Duclair, Left/Right Wing

Duclair has bounced around teams the past few years but found success with both the Ottawa Senators last year (23 goals in 66 games) and the Florida Panthers this season (32 points in 43 games). He’ll be just 26 years old at the start of the season and could be looking for a contract with longer term after playing for five teams the past four seasons.

Mike Hoffman, Left/Right Wing

Hoffman had two very successful seasons with the Florida Panthers before signing a one year deal with the St. Louis Blues last offseason. Despite playing more of a depth role this season, Hoffman still scored 17 goals in 52 games, which would be a 27 goal pace over the course of an 82 game season. At 31, he can still provide high level offense but could also be looking for a long term deal, something that might be worrisome for a forward with his style of play. If the Oilers can nab him on a short term, low risk deal, it might be worth it.

In addition to adding at least one top six winger to play with McDavid, Draisaitl, or Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers may also be looking to clear out some of the bad contracts on their team, namely either forward James Neal or goaltender Mikko Koskinen. Neal has three more years left on his contract at $5.75 million per year, but it would likely take at least a first round pick to incentivize a team to take on his cap hit. A Neal buyout would cost just over $1.9 million a year in dead cap space for four years, but might be worth it if the Oilers can’t find a taker for his contract. Koskinen is probably easier to move, with two years left on his deal at $4.5 million per year (a $1.5 million cap hit for two years if they buy him out). If Edmonton does move or buy out Koskinen, they’ll likely be in the market for a goalie; even if they re-sign Mike Smith, they’ll want a reliable 1B netminder to tandem alongside the 39 year old.

While it’s not clear how the Oilers intend to move forward from this playoff disaster, it is clear that they’ll need some big offseason moves to build their team around the best player in the league. Edmonton has made the playoffs just three times in McDavid’s six seasons, and just one of those times did they make it past the first round. Many hockey fans have begun to compare McDavid to baseball’s Mike Trout: a superstar player who produces otherworldly stats, but who’s organization cannot find team success. At just 24, Connor McDavid still has plenty of his prime ahead of him, but if the Oilers don’t fix their problems, his career could go the way of the Angel’s Trout: a potential all time great wasted on a floundering organization.

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