What an eventful week it has been for the Edmonton Oilers. The summer of change continues as the new management team tries to overhaul the Oiler roster to help the team finally take the step forward they have been trying to take for the last few seasons.
Along the way, there's been some good and some not so good, but I think it's fair to say that the "good column" has a lot more checks in it so far.
I'm not going to examine each move one by one in this post, some of the other writers here have done an excellent job over the last week of capturing the news as it occurred and offering their analysis. What I will do is have a look at where things stand today and offer my thoughts on what kind of difference these most recent changes can make.
@OilersNation Bergenheim/Comeau, Sekera, Letestu, trade for one more D like Spurgeon.— Alan Hull (@alanhull) June 30, 2015
The tweet above was my list of targets I wanted the Oilers to look at as of yesterday slightly before the Boyd Gordon trade. As you can see, if you slot Korpikoski in for the Bergenheim spot, they've done a lot of the things on my list.
Let's have a look at the depth chart as it stands tonight:
*Note: Connor McDavid, Tyler Pitlick and Justin Schultz are not signed to those deals. I've approximated amounts based on their estimated ELC (including bonuses) and QOs just to get them on the roster for the purposes of discussion.
Starting with the forwards, it's fairly apparent that not a lot needed to be done beyond the obvious incoming addition of Connor McDavid. Barring a trade, the Oilers were fairly set in their top 6, while Letestu slots in to replace Gordon as the 4th line centre, which I think he will do quite well.
If I did have an issue with this group, it's the 3rd line. Korpikoski is coming off a couple of bad seasons, which even Pete Chiarelli has publicly acknowledged. Anton Lander appeared to take a significant step forward last season, but still has a fairly limited NHL resume, and Teddy Purcell has never really sold me on being as consistent of a contributor as some thought he would be, not to mention the fact that he's very expensive. All of that said, my issues with the third line are relatively minor compared to some of the frustrations of years past and I think there is a chance the group can perform well. If Leon Draisaitl forces his way onto the team somewhere on this line, that just makes it all the better.
The Oilers needed to improve their goaltending, and it appears Pete Chiarellii has done exactly that by landing one of the most attractive options available in Cam Talbot. For now it appears Talbot will get the chance to establish himself as an unquestioned #1 goaltender with Ben Scrivens returning to function in the back-up role. I'm quite happy with both of those decisions, though would also have liked to see Michael Neuvirth come to town to serve as back-up for Talbot as Pierre Lebrun indicated was possible at one point yesterday before Neuvirth signed in Philadelphia. Regardless, the position appears to be significantly improved which is excellent news.
I've saved the blueline for last because it has been the position subject to the most controversy over the last few days. The week began with the Oilers opting not to buyout the contract of Nikita Nikitin and then making the draft weekend trades to send out draft picks and Martin Marincin while acquiring Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba. I've had a number of fairly heated discussions with other members of the Oilogosphere due to my stated opinion of not liking any of those three decisions. I stand by those opinions but would like to make a few clarifications here that I'm not able to do through social media given the format is limited to 140 characters...
1) The Nikitin decision speaks for itself, I thought the Oilers would regret it and if they are not able to open a 2nd buyout window (which is currently unclear) then I think they will regret the decision almost immediately. If they can provide themselves a 2nd opportunity to rid themselves of this player, I suspect they take it.
2) I've been very critical of the Griffin Reinhart acquisition which has led to some people telling me that I'm writing off the player unfairly. To clarify my position, my two primary issues with this move are a) the cost of acquisition and b) the belief that expecting Reinhart to be NHL ready immediately in the fall is unwise. That is not to say I think Reinhart is a bust. I don't. I happen to think he'll have an NHL career, though I'd be fairly surprised to see him advance beyond being a good to very good bottom pairing player. I hope I'm wrong and he becomes much more for the Oilers, but I don't see it yet. In fact I'll be shocked if he is deservedly ahead of Darnell Nurse on the depth chart by the end of camp next fall. I don't see that as being unfairly critical of Reinhart. His skating is an issue, though it's not terrible and Sekera, Klefbom and Nurse are all excellent players. I don't see saying he's behind them as harsh.
3) The Eric Gryba deal is one that I just think was a mistake. I think Marincin was a superior player and that even if the team wanted to move him, there were numerous better targets than Gryba, or they could simply have acquired a pick and signed one of numerous quality depth Dmen on the UFA market. I've taken some flack for saying I don't believe Gryba is an every day NHL calibre Dman, but I don't. People think that's me being harsh again, and I admit to having high standards, but I don't see him cracking the top 6 (or even the top 7D in a number of cases) on a number of teams around the league and to me, that should be the level the Oilers are striving for. I think he's an AHL call-up level player and I think his role is made completely redundant by the presence of Mark Fayne, who fulfills Gryba's role and does so at a much higher level. I really don't see that as being as insulting as some make it out to be.
Moving beyond that, the Oiler blueline has been something of a trainwreck for a number of years and Peter Chiarelli deserves some credit for how he's finally begun to address the top of the depth chart.
Looking at the chart above, a left side of Sekera, Klefbom and whoever wins the bottom pairing job in camp would seem to be as solid of a group as the Oilers have had there in years. The Sekera acquisition is like coming up for air after being trapped underwater for too long. He's a legitimate top pairing defender with a well rounded skill-set who pushes Klefbom down to a more reasonable assignment on the 2nd pairing and insulates the entire left side of the blueline with his presence. I believe he can also play the right side in a pinch, which offers excellent versatility, but sadly he can't do both at the same time. (In fact we like Sekera so much here at C&B that we've been suggesting the Oilers try and acquire him for nearly 3 years.)
If there was one more acquisition to come this off-season, as was indicated in my tweet shown earlier in this post, I'd like the team to add another top 4 option on the right side (or conversely, a lefty option with Sekera committing to the right side full-time). Ideally the player would be someone who could serve as a #1 powerplay option while also managing to defend well against significant opposition 5v5. Cody Franson is still available as of this writing, and while I'd love to see it, I don't know that the Oilers can add another contract without alleviating some money from their cap situation first. Kevin Shattenkirk's name made the rounds as well, who would also be an excellent fit. Ultimately, I don't know if they can swing it, but if they could I believe the Oilers would be in a position to contend for a playoff spot.
Failing that the Oilers could have Sekera and Fayne tackle some of the difficult assignments while having Klefbom form a 2nd pairing with Justin Schultz. The bottom pairing appears likely to be headed towards a Reinhart-Gryba duo based on the narrative Chiarelli has been putting out there. I'm reasonably sure I'm going to dislike that idea quite a lot, but at the end of the day, if my biggest complaints about the roster are a slightly below average third line and a sub-par bottom pairing, then I think that would be significant progress. This is made even more palatable by the fact that Gryba and Purcell are both UFAs at the end of next season, so should they not perform up to expectations as I suspect, it shouldn't be difficult for the team to address those issues before long.
The biggest issue left remaining is that it appears (to the surprise of nobody) that Oiler Captain Andrew Ference and Nikitin have potentially lost their jobs in the top 6 and it would behoove Edmonton to try and rid themselves of one or both deals ASAP so that they can potentially add that one final missing piece to the top 4. This will be among the most interesting Oiler stories to follow for the remainder of the summer. I don't know how they'll be able to do it, potentially a buyout for Nikitin if they can open that window or a retained salary deal. Honestly, I've been saying for months that I believe the best role for Ference now is as a retired former Captain serving as the Oilers' ambassador to the community. He's a first class citizen whose value now extends far greater off the ice than it does on it. (Any chance they could offer him an equal salary to fulfill a role like that if he agrees to retire and terminate his contract two years early? Doubt they could do that, but it would be a creative option)
All in all, Pete Chiarelli deserves a great deal of credit for the net positive change he's affected to the Oiler roster within the last few months. That said, I think it's reasonable and fair to assess the quality of each move and point out the ones that are questionable. I think the Korpikoski addition has an element of risk to it, but I don't think it's catastrophic. He's shown ability in the past and I think Chiarelli is entitled to take a gamble on a player he feels can bounce back from a bad year. I think time will tell on the Reinhart move and the only immediate concern is if there are too many immediate expectations placed on Reinhart to contribute at the NHL level. I believe the Gryba move was a mistake and while he's slotted in a bottom-pairing role, I think his limited skill set will cause problems on that pairing throughout the year.
From a positive standpoint, I loved the hiring of Todd McLellan, obviously the McDavid pick is enormous, I think Chiarelli handled himself brilliantly in the Talbot negotiation against a shrewd negotiator in Glenn Sather, the signing of Mark Letestu was excellent for the needs of the team and the Sekera signing, while pricey, was exactly what he had to have and he found a way to get it done. Music.
I've written a number of times about the concept of accepting a roster that isn't good enough when there was an opportunity to do more, and I hope Chiarelli doesn't make the same mistake his predecessors did in that regard (he's shown to be far more capable thus far). I think this is likely already the best roster the Oilers have had in the last 5 years, but if they can find a way to add one more established top 4 Dman before September then I believe it would be reasonable for fans to enter the season with legitimate hope for the Oilers to contend for a playoff spot in 2015/16.
Peter Chiarelli met my expectations on July 1st. That's the first time an Oilers GM has done that in a long, long time. It feels great. Now keep going!