July 1st has come and gone once again. For long suffering Oilers fans in years past, this day would be looked toward with great anticipation, and looked back on with great frustration. Every year the Oilers would need some UFA help to plug some serious holes and help complement the young core, and every year those impact players would sign somewhere else, leaving Edmonton to search high and low for guys like Steve MacIntyre and Luke Gazdic to fill out the roster. The Oilers have been considered undesirable by MSM types and NHL players alike for some time now, and based on their recent performance it’s not hard to see why.
This year though, things felt different. For the first time in a long time, the Oilers were being linked to high-end UFA targets by people with straight faces – like they could actually see it happening. Even the cynics were paying attention. But still, the most skeptical of us couldn’t believe it. It’s just so different. It’s not what we’re used to.
But all of that changed in just over two months. With McDavid came Nicholson. With Nicholson came Chiarelli. With Chiarelli came McLellan, and with all of them combined came a wee bit of respect. A curiousity if you will. An idea that, with some successful hockey men in charge, things might actually turn around in Edmonton.
And wouldn’t you know it? It’s actually happening. The Oilers were pretty big players over the last couple of days, managing to land one of the most coveted free agents on the market. This is significant. For the first time in a long time, the Oilers identified the right player, and then they got him. Crazy. So with all that said, it’s time for us at the Copper and Blue to take a look at the Oilers’ activity over the last couple of days, and to weigh in with our take on how they fared.
Following the template from my 2015 NHL Draft Review, I’m going to take a look at the moves individually and then grade the Oilers’ work as a whole, and this time I’ll include an in-progress grade that combines their work from Draft Day to UFA Day and grade their offseason to date.
Trade – C Boyd Gordon for LW Lauri Korpikoski
First thing’s first: I’m not a huge fan of this deal. Yes, the Oilers got younger and they did shave a bit of salary for this season – to the tune of $500k – but they did so at the expense of a very capable defensive centre. Having Boyd Gordon around to chew up the ugly minutes and handle the tough assignments is a nice luxury to have, and the Oilers chose to rid themselves of said luxury for a player who has struggled over the last three seasons. Jonathan Willis had this to say:
On one level, this is a highly explainable trade. Gordon was just one year away from free agency and was certainly not in the Oilers’ long-term plans, particularly with the emergence of the much cheaper Anton Lander at centre. Moving Gordon to Arizona for a physical winger who can kill penalties, is younger and has more term on his contract makes a certain amount of sense from that standpoint.
The difficulty arises from the fact that Korpikoski has regressed significantly as a player. In his mid-20’s he was a useful secondary scorer for the Coyotes; it’s the reason the team was willing to sign him to a long-term deal. No more. Over the last three seasons, Korpikoski has averaged just 1.1 points/hour at even-strength; of the 375 forwards to record more than 1,000 NHL minutes over that span he ranks 317th, which basically makes him an average fourth-liner in terms of offensive talent.
Another concern I have is that Korpikoski is billed to slide onto the wing of the third line, but he’s only produced like a third-liner once in the last three seasons. It’s very Oilers to acquire players and play them higher up than they probably deserve. In fact, Boyd Gordon actually had a higher P/60 than Korpikoski did last year. Boyd. Gordon. Given what we know about Gordon’s offense, or lack thereof, this is troubling.
A quick look at Korpikoski’s HERO chart leaves much to be desired, and it’s quite obvious just by looking at Gordon’s that the Oilers appear to have, yet again, dealt the more capable NHL player.
But while we can all agree that Gordon was effective in his role, we can also see that he’s probably overpaid as a 4C at $3MM per. Because of this, I can understand the Oilers wanting to move him out for a cheaper option. Of course, they didn’t accomplish that in a one-to-one swap, and attached themselves to a fairly rich contract for a fairly pedestrian player for an extra season. As we look at these moves in isolation, for better or for worse, it’s hard to give the Oilers full marks for this deal.
UFA Signing – D Andrej Sekera
The Oilers did something very not Oilers and signed arguably the best defenseman available on the UFA market. Andrej Sekera will be an Oiler for the next six years, and will likely feature prominently in the top 4 of the Oilers defense for most of that contract. This is a great deal, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see the Oilers not only identify the right guy, but to get him too. An excellent signing that brought me out of my seat when the news came through. See Sekera's HERO chart below. I've included Jeff Petry's for comparison sake, but also because I miss that guy and he deserves some shine.
What we see is that in Sekera the Oilers get an established, #2-#3 defenseman who really does make a difference. Sekera is a strong skater who pushes the play in the right direction, can eat 20+ minutes a night, and is versatile enough that he can play on either side of a top 4 pairing. The Oilers had to replace Jeff Petry after inexplicably trading him for a few A&W coupons and they actually did. Sekera got Petry’s money, but he’s arguably a more established presence on the back end than Petry is today. Sekera is a couple of years older though so the term is somewhat longer than I’d like, but as Curtis LeBlanc noted earlier:
At 29 years of age, the six year term is lengthy but necessary in unrestricted free agency. As far as the money goes, it's a palatable amount at a time of year when teams always overpay for the best assets available.
I love this deal for the Oilers, it’s so refreshing in so many ways, and is a step in the right direction for the Oilers defesnse. It’s like the Emma Stone of UFA deals. Easy A.
UFA Signing – C Mark Letestu
In dealing Boyd Gordon for Lauri Korpikoski, the Oilers created a hole at centre. In signing UFA Mark Letestu, the Oilers managed to fill that hole with a competent NHL player, albeit one who is coming off a slightly underwhelming season. Letestu is an all-situations guy who has excellent faceoff skills and can chip in a bit offensively to boot. He’s also a right shot, which provides coach Todd McLellan with more options for key draws in all three zones.
Letestu has outscored Gordon in terms of P/60 in each of the last five seasons, although he did struggle from a CF% perspective last year. The biggest upside for this deal for me is that the Oilers managed to get a similarly, if not more capable player in Letestu for just over half of what Boyd Gordon was making. That he’s a year younger is simply icing on the cake. Delicious cream cheese icing. This is the type of move you want to see your team make to free up cap dollars and plug holes in the lineup. Letestu will play an important enough role here for the next couple of years at a relative discount compared to the man he’s replacing, with a bit more offensive ability. His HERO chart for a guy who averaged less than 10 minutes of time at evens last year is pretty impressive:
This deal works. It’s not a blockbuster by any stretch, but it’s the type of competent move that good NHL teams make to shore up their depth down the middle. I’m a fan.
The last couple of days have to be considered a success for the Oilers, even if the Gordon for Korpikoski deal is a bit underwhelming. The Oilers managed to fill holes in three positions, and even with Korpikoski’s warts I think there’s enough of a skill set there that he could see a bit of a revival in Edmonton. I don’t expect it to be the case, as expecting for the best-case scenario is foolish, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
That said, the other two deals were both wins in my books. Letestu may be a bit player, but having competent bit players is half the battle in today’s NHL, and something we Oilers fans can attest to by watching incompetent ones toil up and down Rexall ice for what feels like forever. Sekera is a stud. A blue chip UFA if there was such a thing. Not in the highest echelon of defenders in the league, but comfortably above average, and still in his peak years at 29. The Sekera signing also symbolizes a bit of a shift in the perception of the Oilers across the league. Are the days of being the league’s least desirable place to play behind the Oilers? Only time will tell, but this is definitely a step in the right direction – and that’s all we can ask for right now.
UFA Day Grade: B+
The acquisitions of Sekera and Letestu are more than enough to mitigate any damage done by dealing Gordon. I can confidently say the Oilers are a better team than they were yesterday, and that’s exciting. The Oilers fall just short of an A grade here because there is, at least by my estimation, still a pressing need for another proven top 4 defenseman on the roster.
All we need now is for Cody Franson to sign on the dotted line and the Oilers might actually ice a competitive roster next season, with reasonable enough depth in all positions. Can you imagine?!
Offseason (to date) Grade: B-
I still very much hate the Martin Marincin deal, and still have trouble getting behind the Griffin Reinhart deal despite many in Oil Country singing his praises. I hope he proves me wrong, believe me. Though the damage done at the draft has been mitigated somewhat, if we weight Draft Day and UFA Day equally the Oilers are still in B- territory. Hopefully the rest of the summer sees them continue to pull their average up. We wouldn't want them to lose any scholarships.