Not Yet A Playoff Team

General Manager Craig MacTavish had a stated goal of making decisive moves this off-season in order to assemble a roster capable of returning to the playoffs in 2013/14. With the biggest opportunities to re-shape the roster now in the rear-view mirror, he's not there yet.

There's a lot of time left in the off-season, but the major dates on the calendar where teams can dramatically alter their line-up in a single day have mostly come and gone. Trades can still happen at any time (as evidenced by yesterday's surprising deal of Magnus Paajarvi and a 2014 2nd round pick for David Perron) and there are still players available on the free agent market, but it only gets tougher from here to add signficant pieces to your organization without having to give up equal value or greater in return.

So, with the understanding that there are still moves that can be made, now is a decent time to gauge the progress Craig MacTavish has made during his first summer as General Manager. A mid-term report card if you will.

There's a lot to look at here, so let me preface this by saying that I'm not necessarily going to critique or comment on each individual move as others have examined those closely already. What we'll look at here is a comparison of last year's roster to today's to see if the changes made have sufficiently upgraded the group to give this team a legitimate chance at the post-season. (SPOILER ALERT: They haven't. At least not yet.)

Goaltending

Beginning between the pipes, I think MacTavish has done a very strong job upgrading the tandem at the NHL level. He correctly identified the need for change from Nikolai Khabibulin and promptly signed one of the top back-up goaltenders on the market to a very reasonable contract. Given Jason Labarbera's age, the fact that the term is only a 1 year deal is also a positive. Labarbera actually posted a better Sv% last season in his limited appearances (.923% v. .920) than Dubnyk did...in fact his percentage was in the top 10 in the league for goaltenders appearing in at least 10 games. Labarbera is a training partner and close friend of Dubnyk, which should also produce the side benefit of smoothing any rough waters after DD watched the team try to replace him during the draft weekend.

MacTavish also attempted to land a European prospect to deepen the propsect pool at the position, but struck out on Antti Raanta and potentially a couple of other netminders the team reportedly courted. Unfortunate, but he deserves credit for trying to find ways to deepen his goaltending depth within the organization. As a fallback option, the team has brought in AHL veteran Richard Bachman to hold down the starters' job in OKC. I'm mildly underwhelmed by this signing, but as a depth option, it is unlikely to make or break the season next year. All things being equal, I'd have preferred a third-string goalie with less risk, but on the whole, MacT got the big thing right here and did so affordably.

A strong result for MacTavish here and the team is almost certainly better off now than they were at the end of the season.

Defense

The blueline has seen a great deal of change thus far and deservedly so. Last season saw a top four of Smid/Petry and Schultz/Schultz and then a colossal mess behind them. In this sense, the group has undoubtedly been upgraded. There is greater NHL depth and even some NHL experience that should be available via call-up as well in the form of Philip Larsen or Corey Potter (whichever does not make the team out of camp), to go along with the progression of prospects like Taylor Fedun, Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom. The addition of Andrew Ference is underwhelming but not disastrous. It's a poor contract in that the term is two years too long and the No-Movement Clause was highly unwarranted, but in the here and now, I think he is an upgrade on Marc Fistric or Ryan Whitney. The thing people can't agree on with regard to Ference is what role he'll play in Edmonton next season. I suspect they'll start him on the second paring with Justin Schultz, but I would be surprised if he's there by the end of the season. Ference's statistics from last season are a bit unusual in that he was not a great possession player, yet he played significant minutes. To be honest, he's never once in his career played a season where he's been a positive possession player as seen in the table below (courtesy somekindofninja.com) FerenceIn the table above, the level of competition is indicated by the vertical axis, the distribution of zone starts on the horizontal. The bubbles represent the various seasons of Ference's career. The size of the bubble indicates the absolute value of Ference's CorsiRel and the colour of the bubble indicates a positive or negative value (blue for positive, red for negative). Do you see any blue? Me neither.

The point here is not to put down Andrew Ference, as he's still an NHL Defenseman. I just think expectations should be managed a bit because I believe expecting him to be a top 4 guy is either a) unrealistic, or b) setting expectations of this team too low for next season. I think Ference can be a decent contributor on a bottom-pairing 5v5 and play significant time on the penalty kill and he'll be just fine, or, they can ask him to do more than that and there's a good chance he's seen as a disappointment by Christmas.

The top 4 from last year remains largely unchanged at this point with the two Schultz's, plus Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry. The remaining issue for Craig MacTavish is to try and push everyone on their depth chart down a notch by adding another top 4 option and either strengthening the lower pairings with added depth, or allowing the team to use one of their blueliners in a trade to address a need at forward. That said, even if nothing else changes, the improved bottom pairing, the continued development of Schultz and Petry, plus a change in tactics from the new head coach should have the revamped blueline significantly better than last year, even if it isn't quite as dramatic an upgrade as some had hoped for.

Personally, I'd like to see the Oilers add one more piece without subtracting from this group, but I don't think that is reasonable at this point in the off-season. If the team does add another body, I believe it may be because they feel that one of Smid and N. Schultz may need to be leveraged to acquire help on the forward lines. Losing one of those two is tolerable provided they are replaced with a reasonable top 4 option (like for example, Toni Lydman). Either way, the likely result is that the top 4 won't have improved dramatically year over year, but the third pairing should be able to perform at a much higher level. As it stands now, unless Oscar Klefbom blows the doors off of everyone in training camp (which is possible but can't be expected) I'd say Oiler fans can expect a more competent blueline corps, but still a relatively unspectacular one.

Top Six Forwards

The big addition here is the newly acquired David Perron. Scott made some great points in his post yesterday (linked to above) in that Perron's placement here likely prevents the Oilers from making any big mistakes like chasing next year's David Clarkson. That's not to undersell Perron himself, who is a legitimate contributor on offense and whose history of pushing the puck up ice should help support a 2nd line that struggled in that capacity last season. The top line should remain unchanged as expected. The group is still a bit undersized, but there is some improved balance here and the top two lines appear to be set going forward assuming the team eventually comes to terms with Sam Gagner. Overall, I'm very sad to see Magnus Paajarvi go (more on that in a minute) but you can't argue with what MacTavish has done here. This group is certainly a viable top six in terms of putting the team in a position to contend for a playoff spot.

Bottom Six Forwards

I wish I could say I've saved the best for last, but this is where the wheels fall off. Looking back on everything listed above, you can argue that in those three areas, the Oilers are strong enough to legitimately contend for a playoff spot. The blueline would need some things to go right, but you can certainly make the case...with the bottom six, at this point, you can't.

To start things off with a positive, Craig MacTavish was able to get out from under the contract of Shawn Horcoff without retaining any salary and giving a great long-serving Oiler a fresh start that is probably best for both parties. MacTavish has done a strong job replacing Horcoff with likely the best tough minutes centre on the market in Boyd Gordon. Gordon won't bring the offense that Horcoff showed on occasion, but he's near-elite in his ability to shut down opposing players. As long as fans don't expect too much offensively due to his contract, he'll be very popular in Edmonton. Keeping with the positives, the 4th line wings appear set with Ryan Smyth set to return for what is likely his swan song season in Edmonton on the left side and there is plenty of competition on the right-side with Ryan Jones, Jesse Joensuu, Mike Brown, as well as AHL depth signings like Ryan Hamilton.

The remaining three spots are where there is some major work to do. As of now, the 4th line Centre for the team is Anton Lander, who has not yet established himself as an NHL player. Lander certainly progressed in the second half of last season, but I think expecting him to step into this role and be a significant improvement from Eric Belanger last year is asking too much. Beyond that, you leave very little depth in the AHL for the team to leverage in the event of an injury (such as the one Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is rehabbing from). The addition of an inexpensive veteran centre here to add some depth to the roster would be very helpful and would allow Lander to continue his development in a featured role in OKC with occasional call-ups due to injury concerns. A potential nice fit here could be someone like Scott Gomez, who only made $700k last season and is still looking for a job for next year.

The biggest hole on the team is now the two wings on either side of Boyd Gordon. The team had one spot filled with Magnus Paajarvi, but in filling the need for a LW on the second line, the team created a new hole on line 3. As it stands, there is nobody on the roster or in the system who can legitimately be placed on this line and be expected to succeed. Craig MacTavish stated that he liked the idea of Ryan Jones in this role, but, in my opinion, that is a disaster waiting to happen. Jones contributes some nice offense from the bottom part of the roster, but does so by cheating for offense out of the defensive zone. With the difficult minutes that will likely be assigned to Gordon, I can't think of much worse of a fit for a linemate than Jones here. The other wing right now looks to be Jesse Joensuu's spot to lose until some new assets are acquired and with less than a full season of NHL experience to his resume, asking him to handle the tough minutes with Gordon is once again ill-advised.

The X-Factor

The x-factor here is Ales Hemsky. Hemsky is still a part of the team and while not ideally suited for the defensive responsibilities of a checking line, he is the one guy in the organization that could do the job. The more likely scenario though is that the team tries to bring in somebody more well-suited for a defensive shut-down line by dealing #83.

Blue-Skying

A quick look around the league doesn't produce many options that may be willing to take Hemsky's $5M salary for next season, but one possibility could be the Phoenix Coyotes. On twitter last night, I floated out the notion that if the Coyotes were looking for a scoring winger to play with newly signed Mike Ribeiro, Hemsky could fit the bill, and Phoenix GM Don Maloney has a player ideally suited to Edmonton's needs available to send in return in the form of David Moss. Moss played with Boyd Gordon on one of the best shut-down lines in hockey last year and at 6'4" 210 lbs, he would provide some of the size that the Oilers have been after. Beyond that, he's an exceptional possession player in a defensive capacity and even produced at a near 40p pace (over 82g) during the lockout shortened year last season.

Of course, bringing in a guy like Moss would only address one of Gordon's flanks. To address the other spot, the team may have to deal from their blueline depth, and, as previously stated, I suspect that either Nick Schultz or Ladislav Smid may be the most likely players Craig MacTavish might make available. (This possibility is why I'm advocating for MacTavish to sign Toni Lydman and give him some additional resources to draw from). Should the team make such a move, an obvious target might be Nikolai Kulemin in Toronto. The Leafs blueline lacks depth and the team has already moved out both of Kulemin's former linemates in Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovsky. It's certainly possible they'd consider moving him as well to help their defense. Kulemin brings an impressive tough minutes resume, another good sized frame (6'1", 225 lbs) and is an underrated offensive contributor considering his assignments in recent seasons. He even had a 30 goal season a few years ago, though admittedly he has not come close to repeating it.

In both cases, the Oilers may need to sweeten the deals to acquire these players, but if I'm Craig MacTavish, these are the exact moves I'm trying to make before training camp because as it stands now, the bottom six is not strong enough to contend for the post-season.

I've been a believer in Craig MacTavish and have said since the day he was hired that I thought he would excel as General Manager. I haven't loved everything he's done with the roster in the last few weeks, but I can still see a path for him to address the remaining issues on the roster and turn the Oilers into a legitimate contender for the post-season next year. The question is, will he continue to push forward, or will he sit back and believe he's done enough to improve his hockey club. If he wants to end the playoff drought in Edmonton, he's still got some work to do.

Craig MacTavish can make the Oilers a playoff-calibre team before next season starts, but he's not there yet.

The Possibilities

To end with a brief visual...This could be a playoff team: (per capgeek's cap calculator tool)

CAPGEEK.COM USER GENERATED ROSTER
FORWARDS
Taylor Hall ($6.000m) / Ryan N.-Hopkins ($3.775m) / Jordan Eberle ($6.000m)
David Perron ($3.813m) / Sam Gagner ($5.000m) / Nail Yakupov ($3.775m)
Nikolai Kulemin ($2.800m) / Boyd Gordon ($3.000m) / David Moss ($2.100m)
Ryan Smyth ($2.250m) / Scott Gomez ($0.850m) / Ryan Jones ($1.500m)
Jesse Joensuu ($0.950m) / Mike Brown ($0.737m)
DEFENSEMEN
Ladislav Smid ($3.500m) / Jeff Petry ($1.750m)
Toni Lydman ($2.750m) / Justin Schultz ($3.775m)
Andrew Ference ($3.250m) / Anton Belov ($1.525m)
Corey Potter ($0.775m)
GOALTENDERS
Devan Dubnyk ($3.500m)
Jason Labarbera ($1.000m)
OTHER
Buried: Ben Eager ($0.175m)
Buried: Philip Larsen ($0.100m)
------
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled with the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $64,649,167; BONUSES: $9,150,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $4,473,333

Reality

But this, is most likely not:

CAPGEEK.COM USER GENERATED ROSTER
FORWARDS
Taylor Hall ($6.000m) / Ryan N.-Hopkins ($3.775m) / Jordan Eberle ($6.000m)
David Perron ($3.813m) / Sam Gagner ($5.000m) / Nail Yakupov ($3.775m)
Jesse Joensuu ($0.950m) / Boyd Gordon ($3.000m) / Ryan Jones ($1.500m)
Ryan Smyth ($2.250m) / Anton Lander ($0.900m) / Mike Brown ($0.737m)
Ben Eager ($1.100m)

(Pending a return from an Ales Hemsky trade)
DEFENSEMEN
Ladislav Smid ($3.500m) / Jeff Petry ($1.750m)
Andrew Ference ($3.250m) / Justin Schultz ($3.775m)
Nick Schultz ($3.500m) / Anton Belov ($1.525m)
Philip Larsen ($1.025m) / Corey Potter ($0.775m)
GOALTENDERS
Devan Dubnyk ($3.500m)
Jason Labarbera ($1.000m)
------
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled with the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $62,399,167; BONUSES: $9,150,000
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): $6,723,333

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