The Edmonton Oilers have had their ups and down in 2021. They started the year off with a mostly stellar 2021 regular season, but were surprisingly swept in the first round of the playoffs by a Winnipeg Jets team that they had handled easily in the regular season. Finally, they capped off they year with a mediocre first half of the 2021-22 season. There is certainly a lot to improve upon for a team with the two best players in the world. In this piece, I’ll be listing off some goals for the organization in 2022 to get things going in the right direction.
Win a Playoff Series
The Oilers have not won a playoff series in five years and have only advanced to the second round once in the McDavid era. With Draisaitl and McDavid reaching a new level to their games in the last two years, they have still only posted a record of 1-7 in the playoffs. Ken Holland vowed to improve the depth that had undone the Oilers in those recent series. The depth additions have had mixed results so far, and rumours are swirling that Holland will be active at the deadline looking to buy assets to help the Oilers go deeper in the playoffs. Another factor to keep an eye on is whether or not the Keith deal works as it was intended to. The acquisition was made on the basis that his playoff experience could help prepare this group for postseason battles. Whether or not the trade (or Ken Holland’s entire off-season, for that matter) is deemed a success will hinge on the results this spring.
Sort Out the Goaltending
The Oilers have had question marks surrounding goaltending for the past few years. While Smith has been solid at times, he is 40 years old, and with the injury issues he has been dealing with over the past two seasons, it isn’t feasible to rely on him as the starting goalie at this point in his career. The Oilers need a strong duo in the event Smith’s injuries continue. Mikko Koskinen started the season 11-2, which was a bit misleading since his underlying numbers were just ok. Lately, his numbers have started to sink well below average, with his Goals Saved Above Expected Per 60 (GSAx/60) dipping to -0.234, which is 37th in the NHL for goalies that have played over ten games. His tendency to allow questionable goals early in games has also hurt the Oilers, as the team has allowed the first goal in 18 of their last 22 games. They have been starting behind the 8-ball far too often, and while Koskinen is far from the only reason this is occurring, he is definitely a part of the issue there. On the other hand, Stuart Skinner has a positive GSAx/60 of 0.054, which is good for 24th in the league. Skinner’s numbers are just slightly above average in the NHL this year, so it’s hard to tell if he’s ready just yet to be relied on as a starter if Smith goes down. The Oilers likely need to find help outside of the organization to bolster their goaltending. Skinner’s development appears to be on track to make him an effective NHL goalie soon, but for the short term, they could certainly use someone with NHL experience other than Mikko Koskinen.
Get Far Better Production From the Bottom 6
Depth has been the main reason the Oilers have not had playoff success, and it is responsible for a substantial amount of the losses this season. In 2021, from January 1st – December 14th, the Oilers were outscored 68-33 without McDavid, Draisaitl, or Nugent-Hopkins on the ice. That is simply not good enough if you want to compete for a Stanley Cup. Lately, the bottom six forwards have started to wake up, and Ken Holland has hinted that he will be active this year in trying to get help for this group. Getting more out of the bottom 6 is an absolute must in 2022.
Lock up Jesse Puljujarvi Long-Term
Jesse Puljujarvi becomes a free agent at the end of the season, and the Oilers will be looking to lock him up for as long as possible. They could offer him a short-term bridge deal at a more reasonable cap hit, but this has come back to bite the Oilers in the past. They gave Nurse two bridge deals in a row and ended up paying a massive price when Nurse had a breakout season on a contract year. Puljujarvi has 23 points in 30 games this season, and the underlying numbers are also solid. Travis Konecny’s six-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers at a $5.5 million AAV is a decent comparable for Puljujarvi. When the contract was signed, Konecny was 22 years old, and he had just posted back-to-back 45+ point seasons, not far off Puljujarvi’s production. Assuming the Oilers go this route, they may have to move out a contract such as Zack Kassian’s $3.2 million in order to get a $5-6 million deal done with Puljujarvi. In the end, it would be well worth it. Puljujarvi is still just 23 years old and has room to grow. Since coming back to the NHL from Finland, his game has developed nicely, and the fanbase has really embraced him. With Jesse being not only one of the most productive forwards on the team but also a fan favourite, I think there is no question Holland signs him for as long as possible in 2022.
Get Dylan Holloway on the Roster
In my 2021 prospect review, I raved about Holloway’s game, and for a good reason. He is the best two-way player in the system. He has the speed and skill to play in the top 6, but the commitment to defence and penalty killing experience will make him effective in a bottom-six role. The Oilers’ depth lines have struggled to keep the puck out of the net, and the team as a whole needs to play better defensively. Holloway could provide some depth scoring and help with the defensive side of the game. Even if he isn’t ready for a top 6 role for another couple of seasons, he can bring things to the table that 4th line forwards like Devin Shore and Kyle Turris just aren’t capable of.