The last few months have been among the most interesting in the last decade for fans of the Edmonton Oilers with all of the change and the arrival of Connor McDavid.
New GM Peter Chiarelli has already begun the process of reforming his roster, and, to nobody's surprise, he's working from the back-end outward.
I've been a fan of some of Chiarelli's efforts while openly critical of others and I stand by those opinions. That said, I certainly believe that the man deserves a full summer to affect the kind of change he wants to make to the Oilers roster before judgement should be passed.
So, while we wait to see what the remaining changes will bring in terms of both arrivals and departures, here are some of the questions I have in mind that I look forward to having answered in the coming days and weeks.
1. Are the Oilers done in goal?
With Cam Talbot on board and Ben Scrivens set to return, it would appear the Oilers are finished with the changes in between the pipes. Would they consider taking a run at a UFA like Jhonas Enroth or Michael Neuvirth who might be a stronger form of insurance for Cam Talbot? If so, what would happen to Ben Scrivens? I suspect it's Talbot and Scrivens in camp, but would like to see another move here as it would prove an aggressive mindset to improving immediately.
2. How many more forwards will the Oilers add?
McDavid will almost assuredly be signed, but will the Oilers add anyone else to the mix up front? I've been a proponent of moving Teddy Purcell if the team had a need for the cap room, but if they don't intend to use it, I have no issue with him riding out the final year. My only problem with it would be if he stayed and other moves were not made due to cap concerns.
With McDavid the Oilers would appear set down the middle and likely on the right side as well, although there is the potential we could see Anton Lander or Boyd Gordon offered up in a trade to address the blueline, which could open the door to an acquisition or to Leon Draisaitl playing centre in Edmonton again next season.
On the left side, I think adding a strong 3rd line winger would be smart and would force Draisaitl to win his way onto the team rather being handed a position as he was last year. I also wouldn't hate an addition of a depth C/W to potentially challenge for playing time on the 4th line, but that's more of a luxury than a necessity. I prefer at least one of my 13/14 forwards to have the ability to play centre.
3. How many Top 4 Dmen can the Oilers acquire?
This is the big one and, in my mind, will be the thing that far and away determines how big of a step forward this team takes next season from where they are right now, which is likely still in the bottom 5-6 in the league unless McDavid sets the world on fire.
If Chiarelli is able to land two top 4Dmen (notice I'm saying top 4, not top 2. I think a competitive blueline can be built by committee if you can't land a star right away) then this team could be poised to take a significant jump ahead in regard to their record next year. Whether they come via UFA signing, trade, or both, the Oilers need a minumum of two additional bodies that can handle some heavy lifting next season as they currently only have two. Oscar Klefbom and Mark Fayne.
If the Oilers aren't able to make this happen, I don't know how Chiarelli's off-season can be viewed as a significant success. (I don't count McDavid, as really, a GM's role in a case like that is essentially just calling his name at the draft)
4. Who goes and how do the pieces fit on the blueline?
This will be the item that provides the most intrigue for me throughout the summer. Obviously it is tough to project very much right now without knowing the pieces involved, but looking ahead to the degree that we can, it's already easy to foresee a few items that I'm curious to see play out. for example:
- Who leaves town?
With Nikitin, Ference, Klefbom, Fayne, Schultz, Gryba, Reinhart & Nurse all with realistic shots in camp (and Brandon Davidson waiver eligible), plus the potential for adding up to two additional bodies, it's obvious that someone is unlikely to be here come the fall. Smart money would be on Nikitin as a first option, but if the team wants to use a buyout on the final year of his contract, they are quickly running out of time to begin the process.
- Would any Dmen play their off-side?
The team has got lots of bodies on both sides right now and a lot of young players still developing. I have no issue with players playing their off-side, but would prefer it not be during their rookie pro season as in the case of Reinhart or Nurse.
- How many "Defense-first" Dmen can the team accomodate?
Particularly on the same side of the ice as is currently the case with Fayne and Eric Gryba. Griffin Reinhart would also fall into this group if he's on the roster. Puck movement and production from the back-end was an issue last season, and while I'm sure some of the guys Chiarelli may be looking to add (like maybe a Cody Franson or Mike Green perhaps?) would help tremendously in that area, good teams can move the puck from their defense to their forwards on all three pairings. A few of these guys aren't as bad as some of the previous years, but nobody in this group is going to be skating the puck up ice consistently. Can you really have 3 or 4 (I'd count Ference as well) guys like that on one blueline? I'd prefer not.
- How many young players can reasonably play in the top six at a time?
I know that the impact of quality of competition has been shown to not be as impactful as the quality of the teammates a player plays with, but I would imagine that Todd McLellan would still want to have the option of playing a line matching game in certain situations throughout the season. Oscar Klefbom is becoming a pretty versatile option though he's had favourable zone deployments thus far. Mark Fayne can handle heavy assignments in his own zone. You could say Gryba could as well, as he's been exposed to them before, but he doesn't handle them very well.
What about Reinhart and Nurse? Can you conceivably keep both guys? I can't see it happening. While I can't account for roster decisions, I'm pretty comfortable in saying I believe Nurse will be demonstrably ahead of Reinhart on the depth chart by the end of camp. Can you play both? Even if that is an option, shouldn't they have to beat out someone pretty qualified if they want that opportunity? What happens when you add Schultz to that mix and his inability to play difficult minutes? It's unlikely they'd be able to protect all three. And they shouldn't want to have to.
As a final wrinkle in that situation, a few of their current veterans (Ference, Nikitin, Gryba) aren't really in a position to protect the younger players anyway, which once again shows that some moves will need to be made if they want to arrive at a top six that works.
However it plays out, I suspect they'll be better. The question is, how much?
I'm sure to be in the minority as Derek Zona and I have what many consider to be impossibly high standards. I recognize that but still think that the bar should never be lowered from what I believe it takes to have a winning team.
If they can add a piece or two to their top 4 along the blueline in the next little while, I'll be very comfortable in saying this will be the best Oiler roster in a number of years. That's faint praise though.
I suspect the end result lies somewhere better than where they are today but below where I want to see them. I'm almost certain at this point to be quite unhappy with the bottom pairing. However, if they can ice an NHL calibre top 4, then I'm more than happy with that progress and I'll feel comfortable that the team is finally headed upwards.