In a way, this period of time is unusual for the Edmonton Oilers.
A team built on (mostly) drafting and astute trades has been sending away precious picks and young prospects six at a time in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s mug.
The idea of management tweaking here and there has merit. Edmonton’s prospect depth is poor, possibly the worst in team history. Keeping the powder dry and using those valuable picks this summer to restock the prospect pool is an idea worth defending.
On the other hand, this edition of the Oilers has some very strong arrows heading in a good direction.
Making the case for spending assets at the deadline in a big way this year is an easy one.
For at least seven reasons.
This summer the Oilers and Leon Draisaitl can negotiate a contract extension.
Based on his brilliant career in Oilers colours, fans should expect a long-term offer at big cap dollars for the power forward with soft hands. If the negotiations stall, or there’s a preference to delay discussions, management will have to make a decision.
A trade over the summer or near the 2024-25 trade deadline isn’t likely, but the organization can’t afford to lose such an impact player for nothing. As has been discussed previously, the template for a Draisaitl trade might be the return for Jack Eichel when the Buffalo Sabres dealt him to the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sabres received Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and a first- and second-round selection.
This will be the final chance for the Oilers to win the Stanley Cup before the Draisaitl negotiations take place, and therefore there’s potential for 2024 to be the final playoff run for this incarnation of the team.
2. Good health means better depth
The Oilers’ defence has been healthy for most of two seasons now, and that kind of continuity is rare for such a demanding position.
Four Oilers blue (Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard, Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak) have played in all 45 games. Mattias Ekholm has missed one game and Vincent Desharnais two contests. During the playoffs last spring, the defence was completely healthy and the only game missed by any member of the top six came with the Nurse suspension versus the Golden Knights.
There are some aging veterans, the Oilers would be wise to push now with names like Ekholm, Ceci and Kulak playing at a high level. All are over 30 years old. Up front, Evander Kane, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are also 30-plus, so the time is now for the older portion of the current Edmonton roster.
Currently, the team has some nice depth behind these names. Chief among them are young players like Philip Broberg and Dylan Holloway. Depth has been an issue for this team since 2006, so the current depth chart is a luxury few coaches have had over the last decade-plus.
Lack of injuries combined with depth (so far) means some bona fide players are biding their time in the minors. If the Oilers enjoy a long run, and injuries hit, some of that depth might be key.
A current example is in net. The NHL tandem (Stuart Skinner, Calvin Pickard) is playing well, and the AHL duo (Jack Campbell, Olivier Rodrigue) offers quality recall options based on recent performance.
3. New manager will mean change
For the first 20 years the Oilers played in the NHL, managerial consistency allowed the team to win five Stanley Cups, experience a downhill run that lasted five years and then build toward a strong run from 1996-2006.
Since then, managerial changes have been a constant. Here are the men who have held the position, the length of their run, and postseason success.
20 yrs, 25 days
5 SC wins, 6 finals appearances
8 years, 52 days
1 SC final, one conference title
4 years, 8.5 mos
2 years, 9 days
3 years, 9 mos
1 playoffs, 1 series win
4 years, 8.5 mos
4 playoffs, 3 series wins
This is as close to Stanley as the Oilers have been in almost 20 seasons, and it’s almost guaranteed a new general manager will be shaping the team in his own image this summer.
There is no doubt president of hockey operations Jeff Jackson and owner Daryl Katz will have control of the choice, but each manager evaluates talent and handles caps and contracts in a different way.
How will the new manager handle the Draisaitl negotiations? Is the new GM more effective in the trade market than his predecessors? Ken Holland was quality in acquiring free-agent targets, partly due to spending big dollars for long-term and no-movement clauses. Will the new man follow that path, or will he trade off some of the current high-end roster players in order to reshape the team?
New managers mean change. The Holland Oilers may have zero Stanley Cups, but the course was laid in and has been followed.
4. New coach bounce
The Oilers enjoyed great success after a coaching change in 2022. Jay Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippett, and the team scorched opponents and won two playoff rounds before bowing out to the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche.
History tells us several coaches, fairly often in recent history, have guided a team that hired them midseason and won it all.
Coach Kris Knoblauch has enjoyed a great run with Edmonton, and the Oilers players have benefitted from Knoblauch and his coaching staff.
It is counterintuitive, but the fresh air delivered by a new coach has been part of the Cup-winning formula often enough in recent history to suggest it might be a reason to load up at the deadline.
5. ‘Win today, and we walk together forever’
The famous Fred Shero quote, written on a blackboard for Philadelphia Flyers players in the 1974 Stanley Cup Final, was true then and is true now.
The heart of the order, the group who arrived at the summer 2015 orientation camp, has pushed for a championship for almost a decade now.
Contracts and changes in management are coming soon, and there are roster pressures (does the organization keep Nurse and Bouchard, even though it might cost most of $20 million on the cap?) that will end the dream if the Stanley Cup doesn’t arrive.
Fans are (correctly) intensely interested in McDavid, Draisaitl and the current roster winning as Oilers. By all accounts, the players are too. Nothing lasts forever, but as the Shero quote implies, the group could pass into hockey lore with a Stanley Cup win this spring.
6. Signing Vincent Desharnais
Desharnais is a third-pairing defender but also a unique talent. He is effective in shot and goal suppression at even strength and owns a valuable mean streak on the ice.
Edmonton values him, but signing Desharnais before free agency may be difficult. NHL teams love this kind of shutdown defender, and this player type is increasingly rare. If it gets to a bidding war, the club might lose him.
The good news is he’s available for a long run this year.
The Oilers have depth, as mentioned above. For the first time in years, the team also has outscoring up and down the lineup.
Exiting the All-Star break, Natural Stat Trick shows almost the entire roster over 50 percent in five-on-five goal share since Nov. 24.
This kind of balance is elusive. The Oilers as a team have a five-on-five goal share of 54 percent. Edmonton leads the league in five-on-five expected goals (57 percent).
Things are clicking at an incredible rate for the Oilers. There will be a downbeat or two, and several playoff challenges, but this looks like a grand opportunity. The NHL looks fairly even, this team could bring Stanley back for a long-awaited visit this spring.
There’s no guarantee this will be the case a year from now.
The coaching staff, the good health, the five-on-five outscoring, improved penalty killing and goaltending that is suddenly four men deep on the organizational depth chart.
Keeping your powder dry is the play in most seasons.
Not this one.
(Photo of Leon Draisaitl and Warren Foegele: Eric Bolte / USA Today)