The Edmonton Oilers are Pieces Away From Being League’s Elite

edmonton oilers elite
EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 11: Alex Chiasson #39 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against Dylan DeMelo #12 of the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place on March 11, 2020, in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

For many years now, pundits have been predicting the ascendency of the Edmonton Oilers. Unfortunately, the promise offered by a run of high picks, including four first overall picks in six years, has produced no such results. That could be about to change if general manager Ken Holland can fix the problems in between the pipes. It’s been a long time coming but fans could soon be calling the Edmonton Oilers elite.

Fans Are A Year And A Goalie Away From Calling Edmonton Oilers Elite

While they are on the verge of greatness, it has been a long and rocky road to get here.

How the Downturn Started

The Oilers have been a team in flux for almost 14 years now. Chris Pronger was the keystone that began the downturn. Immediately following a run to the Stanley Cup in 2006, Pronger demanded out. With little choice or leverage, they moved Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks. Following the trade, the Oilers missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. In 2016-17 they made it in, even advancing to the second round, but that was followed by two more years of missing the postseason.

This streak saw a revolving door of coaches and general managers as ownership flailed desperately for a solution. Predictably, this approach led to a lack of team vision or stability, which bled into the on-ice product.

How The Losing Went On and On and On

As the playoff misses piled up, the Oilers began a run of high draft picks. In this run, there was a spectacular hit in Taylor Hall (first overall – 2010) and a really strong pick in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall – 2011). Some were rushed into the NHL before they were ready in Sam Gagner (sixth overall – 2008) and Magnus Paajarvi (10th overall – 2009). And don’t forget one glaring miss in Nail Yakupov (first overall – 2012).

While the forward group looked dangerous, the Oilers lacked quality on the back end. An inability to trade for or develop higher-end talent on defence handcuffed the ability of players such as Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. There was simply no one able to feed the puck to the incredibly talented forward group. This low quality on the back end also hurt their goaltending. They were unable to develop Devan Dubnyk into the starter they needed him to be, as most nights he was in a shooting gallery.

During this streak, the Oilers, now led by general manager Peter Chiarelli, once again won the lottery to land generational talent, Connor McDavid. This addition seemed to inspire Chiarelli to finally understand that fixing the decade long problem on defence was required. This realization seemed to spur him on to trade Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson. Larsson, while a serviceable defenseman, was nowhere close to value for a player of Hall’s ability. This shellacking at the hands of New Jersey general manager Ray Shero seemed to pay off as the Oilers made the playoffs the next year. However, since that one-year aberration, it became apparent that the loss of Hall was a huge setback.

Light (Finally) At the End of the Tunnel

While Connor McDavid alone is sometimes credited as the salvation, this is not entirely true. McDavid, alongside 2014 third overall pick Leon Draisaitl, was an enormous boost in making them an offensive dynamo. But as shown through the Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle years, offence alone is not enough.

The Oilers, after so many bad years, had begun drafting a number of defensemen who were slowly developing into major league players. Besides McDavid, the 2015 draft provided two more great picks in Caleb Jones (4th round – 117th overall) and Ethan Bear (6th round – 124th overall).

Also, after so many years of futility, owner Daryl Katz cleaned house, bringing in Ken Holland as general manager and Dave Tippett as the head coach. This provided the internal stability that had been lacking for well over a decade. Holland added to the Oilers’ new-found defensive prospect depth with the drafting of Philip Broberg (1st round – 8th overall) in 2019. He also drafted the long-missing piece of a potential true #1 stud defenseman in Evan Bouchard (1st round – 10th overall) in 2018. Both players are ready for the NHL now.

On the Verge

This off-season and next season are crucial for the Oilers. While being a playoff team this year shows they are close, the inconsistency of their goaltending has held them back. Both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen are streaky goalies. They’re able to stand on their heads and steal games. They’re also capable of going on streaks that include multiple weak games in a row.

There’s an abundance of quality goaltending available for both trade and as free agents this summer. If they could manage to sign free agent Jacob Markstrom, his consistency would provide the nightly high-end goaltending that Edmonton has not enjoyed since Nikolai Khabibulin from 2010-2013.

Conversely, a trade for a proven starter like Matt Murray could be a different path to addressing the issue. If either of these options presents themselves, it may behoove Holland to immediately upgrade the position. That’s even at the cost of a buyout of Koskinen.

The Finish Line

The offence up front has solidified, with both McDavid and Draisaitl driving their own lines creating a one-two punch. It’s looking unmatched by any other team in the league. The emergence of Kailer Yamamoto and the acquisition of talented and lightning-fast Andreas Athanasiou added skill and depth to the wing. It remains to be seen if the team can broker a return of Jesse Puljujarvi to further strengthen the right-wing position. His incredible year in the Finnish league has increased his trade value. He can be a strong trade chip should he not return to the team.

The addition of Bouchard and Broberg on the back end will be huge next year. Combined with another year of development for Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, Edmonton will have an enviable D-core. This mobile and offensively talented group will be more than able to move the puck up to their offensively loaded forward group anchored by, arguably, the best one-two punch down the middle in the entire league.

The foundation is in place to allow this group to ascend to the very top of the league. All that is required is one more year and for Holland to acknowledge and address the need in the net.

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