Jesse Puljujärvi showing he belongs after bumpy start to NHL career

Jesse Puljujärvi’s first few seasons with the Oilers didn’t go as planned. He was disappointing on the ice and the team was disappointed in the No. 4 overall pick from 2016.

Maybe another year to develop and mature in Finland would have been the right route, but that’s now all in the past. After three seasons spent between Edmonton and AHL Bakersfield, then a year-and-a-half back in Finland with Kärpät, the 23-year-old Puljujärvi has established himself as a bonafide NHLer and a key piece to the Oilers’ hopes.

“He was a young kid, thrown into the fire, and didn’t really know what he was doing out there,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid of Puljujärvi’s early days in Edmonton. “Good for him for taking some time, and trying to figure out the game. You can just see his confidence rising each and every day.”

Look at Puljujärvi’s impact during Saturday’s 5-2 win in the Battle of Alberta over the Flames. McDavid got the headlines with his 10th career hat trick, but the Finnish forward made an impact with a goal and two assists. The goal was his second in as many games and gave Edmonton a two-goal cushion early in the third period.

One noticeable change is Puljujärvi using his 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame more in a vital part of the ice — in front of opposing goalies. The Oilers coaching staff encouraged him to make that area his home as Draisaitl and McDavid work their magic in the offensive zone. That strategy worked well last season if you take a peek at his goals-for heat map via Icy Data:

via Icy Data

A resurgence at home

When Puljujärvi went back to Kärpät for the 2019-20 season he scored 24 goals and recorded 53 points in 56 games. Those numbers led the team and put him top five overall in Liiga. After putting up seven goals and 12 points in 16 games last season in Finland, he rejoined the Oilers as they prepared for a January start to the 2020-21 NHL season.

Playing with McDavid as his center, Puljujärvi posted 15 goals and 25 points during the shortened season. The difference in his game and his growth was noticed early on in his return to Edmonton.

“Ever since the start of camp last year he’s started building himself to be a good NHL player and his confidence continues to grow and his game continues to grow,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s playing in a lot of situations, playing with those big guys and he puts a lot of work in the game. He can shoot the puck well, as you’ve seen. His skill set is really strong.”

It didn’t take long for Puljujärvi to show that last season wasn’t a false start. He scored four times during the preseason and has two goals and four points through two games for the Oilers this season.

Puljujärvi is scheduled to become a restricted free agent next summer, which should land nim a nice increase from his current $1.45 million salary. Playing alongside superstars like Draisaitl and McDavid can’t be easy, but he’s found his role on the Oilers’ top line.

“He just feels like he belongs,” Tippett said. “He feels like he belongs in the league. He feels like he could be a good player in the league.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

Maple Leafs, Rangers, Oilers among teams facing most pressure to win this season

The start of a new season always brings optimism for most fan bases.

Maybe this is your team’s year. Maybe that free agent addition or offseason trade will bring your team that Stanley Cup you have been waiting for. Or perhaps your team going through a perpetual rebuild finally breaks through and makes the playoffs. It is a clean slate and new season for everybody.

Some teams, though, enter the season facing immense pressure where a certain level needs to be reached for the season to be a success.

Here we are going to look at seven teams around the NHL that are facing the most pressure to win this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

No team has the spotlight on it more this this season than the Maple Leafs. They are six years into this thing with this core and all they have to show for it is one North Division championship and five consecutive first-round exits.

Do you know who that is good enough for? Nobody. Not ownership. Not the fans. Definitely not the Toronto media. Certainly not the players. Through all of those postseason disappointments the Maple Leafs have kept their core together and not made dramatic changes, outside of swapping Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe behind the bench.

That will almost certainly not continue through a sixth consecutive First Round exit. There is certainly pressure for Auston Matthew and John Tavares to be the duo that finally brings the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, but before they can do that they have to get through the First Round of the playoffs. There is no way another First Round exit results in anything other than wholesale changes to the team.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are a fascinating situation because they have been wildly successful during their first four years in the NHL, reaching the semifinals three times already.

It is the most incredible start to a franchise in the modern NHL.

It has also raised the bar to a nearly unreachable level. There is already pressure for this team to win it all, especially after back-to-back losses in the Conference Finals to teams that they were favorites against. The Golden Knights are ruthless in their quest for a championship and will make whatever change they need to make. Fire the coach that took you to the Stanley Cup Final in year one? Done. Toss aside the face of your franchise and reigning Vezina Trophy winner? No problem! There is not a blockbuster move that this team is not interested in, and they will do whatever it takes to make it happen. If they do not make another deep playoff run there could be another round of dramatic changes on the way.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are still highly regarded as one of the league’s best teams and Stanley Cup favorites. But they have hit the Second Round ceiling. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point there is going to be pressure on this group to do something more. We saw what happened with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals every time they lost in the Second Round. Heck, we saw what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning for losing in the Conference Final every year (same is true with Vegas). Eventually people want to see those teams and superstar players win, and doubt starts to creep in when they do not. If the Avalanche want to avoid that criticism, a trip to the Western Conference Final would be a good place to start.

New York Rangers

The Rangers’ rebuild seemed to be going along smoothly. They have accumulate a ton of young talent in the form of high draft picks, they have an MVP candidate in Artemi Panarin, they have a Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox, and a young franchise goalie in Igor Shesterkin. They have not yet established themselves as a playoff team, but they are on the right track. That still was not enough — or fast enough — for ownership. They fired coach David Quinn, changed general managers, and made some pretty significant changes to the roster by bringing in players like Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow this offseason. It is clear what ownership wants to see this season: The playoffs. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago’s only playoff appearance over the past four years was the 2019-20 bubble season when they snuck in as the 23rd ranked team. Their drop off from Stanley Cup contender to bottom-tier team has been sudden and unforgiving.

They spent the offseason spending a ton of money to build the team back up, acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, and Seth Jones, spending a huge amount of money in the process. It is pretty clear they abandoned the whole idea of a long-term rebuild with those moves and are back focussed on trying to make the playoffs right now.

Trying to salvage what is left of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane‘s careers with the team? Trying to distract from the sexual assault lawsuits the team is facing? Maybe a little of both? Whatever it is, any team that spend the amount of money the Blackhawks spend this offseason in acquiring the veterans it acquired is going to be expected to win. If they do not make the playoffs does Stan Bowman stay on board through that?

(Some might ask how he has stayed on board to this point.)

Edmonton Oilers

Perhaps the only team that is facing pressure that is even somewhat comparable to Toronto’s.

The Oilers have the two best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom are in the prime of their careers. They have combined to win three of the past five MVP awards and the type of players you should be building a championship contender around. Especially by this point in their careers.

The Oilers, though, have mostly done nothing with them. They have just two playoff appearances to show for them, only one playoff series win, and this past year they could not even get a single playoff win against a good, but not great Winnipeg Jets team. That is just not good enough, and there is reason to be skeptical of their chances this season given their offseason moves, the makeup of their defense, and the question marks in goal.

Most teams never get one player like McDavid or Draisaitl, let alone two at the same time in their primes. It is maddening to see them go to waste. Every year they do not take a step forward seems like a wasted year.

Florida Panthers

This is definitely not a Stanley Cup or bust type of season, but here is a somewhat wild fact about the Panthers — they have never made the Stanley Cup playoffs two years in a row. Ever. Not ever in their entire existence of more nearly three decades. That is stunning. They have a legitimate chance to make that happen this season. The 2020-21 season was arguably the best single season in the history of the franchise, and this year’s version looks even better following the offseason additions of Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton, as well as the possible emergence of Spencer Knight in goal.

The biggest reason the Panthers have struggled to develop a consistent following in South Florida is they have never given the fan base a reason to be excited. This group has a chance to do that. Aleksander Barkov is signed long-term, the roster is outstanding, they have a chance to become a steady playoff team with this core. They can not lose that progress they started a year ago. They have to keep moving forward.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

Edmonton Oilers: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Edmonton Oilers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 35-19-2 (72 points); second place in North Division
• Postseason: Swept by Jets in First Round
• Offensive leader: Connor McDavid (56 games, 33 goals, 72 assists, Art Ross Trophy winner).

• Free Agent Additions: Zach Hyman, Duncan Keith (trade from Blackhawks), Cody Ceci, Warren Foegele (trade from Hurricanes), Slater Koekkoek, Brendan Perlini, Derek Ryan, Colton Sceviour (PTO).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Adam Larsson (Kraken expansion draft), Ethan Bear (trade to Hurricanes), Caleb Jones (trade to Blackhawks), James Neal (buyout, then Blues), Dmitry Kulikov (Wild), Jujhar Khaira (Blackhawks).

Edmonton’s biggest question

• Did they get McDavid and Draisaitl enough help?

At this point, anyone arguing against Connor McDavid being the best hockey player in the world is really straining the limits of logic. Last season, McDavid scored an absurd 105 points in 56 games, and even cleaned up a lot of the defensive lapses that raised some mild criticisms.

Between McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and a shockingly effective Mike Smith, the Oilers put together a reasonably promising 2020-21 season. And then they got swept by the generally mediocre Winnipeg Jets.

If you look at the additions and subtractions above, you’ll note that Ken Holland was busy this offseason. Even so, did he really change the big-picture view for the 2021-22 Oilers?

With all due respect to useful winger Zach Hyman, the larger answer looks like a firm “No.”

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Oilers’ defense looks different. They’re banking on the analytics being wrong about Keith’s decline, Barrie’s flaws, and Ceci’s … (motions at everything).

Losing Larsson, Bear, and Jones may only exasperate those worries. That’s especially true if concerns are true about Oscar Klefbom missing some, or all, of the Oilers’ 2021-22 season.

For all of the changes on the fringes, the biggest takeaway about the 2021-22 Oilers is how similar they look compared to recent versions.

It’s one thing for one of Nugent-Hopkins, Barrie, and Smith to return. It’s surprising that all three are back, though.

Overall, it sure feels like the 2021-22 Oilers are asking the usual: for McDavid and Draisaitl to paint over the many holes up and down this roster. That seems dicey. Yet … it’s also dangerous to tell McDavid he can’t do something. (Like, say, that he can’t score 100+ points in a 56-game season. You know, as a hypothetical.)

What’s the salary cap situation?

It would be convenient to blame the Oilers’ salary cap woes on the McDavid – Draisaitl combo. After all, they cost a combined $21M in cap space. That translates to slightly more than 25-percent of the $81.5M salary cap.

Instead of shackling Edmonton to mediocrity, McDavid – Draisaitl are more like hockey’s answer to a “get out of jail for free” card. Frankly, McDavid’s worth around $21M by himself.

Now, that $21M commitment does require a front office to be agile to make things work. Unfortunately, the Oilers have instead stumbled time and time again. This offseason only adds to the worries.

  • In the shaky trio of Keith, Ceci, and Barrie, the Oilers have $13.5M in cap commitments. The 2021-22 Oilers get Nurse for a reasonable $5.6M, but that explodes to $9.25M from 2022-23 through 2029-30.
  • Despite those additions, the Oilers defense might actually be worse in 2021-22. If it’s more or less the same as last season, that’s a big (and expensive) problem.
  • Long-term, the Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman contracts could become headaches. In 2021-22, they’re probably nice bargains for the Oilers. Hey, at least there’s that.
  • Mike Smith didn’t break the bank at $2.2M, but it’s still puzzling that the 39-year received a two-year deal. At least the 2021-22 season is the last one where the Oilers pay Mikko Koskinen that comical $4.5M.
  • Paying Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian about $6M combined isn’t ideal for a hopeful contender. The Oilers get to do that for three seasons.

No, the Oilers don’t have a mammoth, Sergei Bobrovsky-style albatross weighing them down. Instead, the Oilers keep stacking up medium-sized mistakes; they’ve rolled up a katamari of questionable contracts.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Even Oilers apologists probably aren’t overly thrilled that the 2021-22 team is essentially spending to the salary cap ceiling. The Oilers’ greatest pain might come after the 2021-22 season, though.

According to Cap Friendly, the Oilers only have about $7M in projected cap space for 2022-23, with a mere 16 roster spots covered. Yes, there’s wiggle room. For better or worse, Oscar Klefbom might be LTIR material. And the 2022-23 cap might bump up a bit.

In the grand scheme of things, however, it just doesn’t look good. At least McDavid and Draisaitl are still around.

Breakout Candidate

Evan Bouchard

The Oilers’ three first-round picks following Connor McDavid (first overall in 2015) all might be capable of bigger and better things in 2021-22.

Both Jesse Puljujarvi (fourth in 2016) and Kailer Yamamoto (22nd in 2017) have shown flashes of brilliance in the NHL. Each have also experienced ups and downs, which seems customary for young Oilers not named McDavid or Draisaitl.

Bouchard (10th in 2018) may be the most intriguing of the three.

He’s been knocking on the door for a while now, with the Oilers preferring a “slow-cook method” of development. Coach Dave Tippett’s been hesitant to unleash young players lately, and that’s where things get intriguing.

Chances are, Bouchard will begin the season as a third-pairing option as a right-handed defenseman. It’s not outlandish to picture Bouchard performing better than Barrie and Ceci, however. If Bouchard shows that potential, and the Oilers embrace that evolution, his breakthrough could end up absolutely crucial.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid remains an unrelenting scoring cyborg. Once again, he dominates alongside Draisaitl — and they do so by carrying their own lines. Instead of sputtering out, Mike Smith repeats his not-that-far-from-Vezina work from last season. Those changes on defense exceed expectations. It all comes together, and McDavid finally goes on a deep playoff run.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid fails to be superhuman, or worse, gets injured. Mike Smith slips in a big way, and Mikko Koskinen can’t make up the difference. An already shabby Oilers defense gets even worse, and they end up delusional about Keith. The Oilers miss the playoffs, even in the pathetic Pacific Division. Rumors start to swirl about McDavid wanting out.

PointsbetEdmonton Oilers Stanley Cup odds

+2400 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Pressure is on Oilers to contend, but they still seem far away

Connor McDavid is entering his seventh season with the Edmonton Oilers. His career so far has been a non-stop display of individual brilliance that has seen him be the most dynamic and dominant offensive force in the league from pretty much the day he arrived. As long as he is healthy it is almost a given that he will be one of the top-two scorers in the league and a one-man highlight reel every single night.

That individual brilliance, though, has been surrounded by team-wide disappointment and incompetence that has seen the Oilers win just a single playoff round in his first six seasons (five years ago) and qualify for the playoffs just three times. In one of those three appearances, they did not even make it to the actual postseason tournament losing a four-game qualifying round series to the 23rd ranked Chicago Blackhawks. In the most recent playoff appearance this past season they could not even win a single playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

For a team that has the world’s best player, and another in-his-prime superstar in Leon Draisaitl, it is starting to become an unacceptable lack of success, and the pressure is starting to mount for the team to do something.

On Tuesday McDavid said the time is “definitely” now for the Oilers to become Stanley Cup contenders.

“The old excuse that we’re young guys is no longer,” McDavid said, via NHL.com. “For us as a group, I think the time is now to start really pushing this thing.”

If we are being honest here, it is probably past the time for the Oilers to be contenders. And McDavid’s comment is interesting given that came just a few months after general manager Ken Holland defended the team’s inactivity at the trade deadline by saying you can not go all in every year and that you have to pick and choose your spots. The right spot is every year you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Yes, the Oilers were starting from the bottom of the league when they selected McDavid and had to build around him. But there should be more progress by this point, especially given the presence of players like Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also on the roster. Rebuilding takes time. It should not take this much time.

Keep in mind…

  • When Sidney Crosby was entering his seventh season in the NHL his teams had already made the playoffs five times, played in two Stanley Cup Finals, and won one of them.
  • When Alex Ovechkin was entering his seventh season he had been in the playoffs four times in six years and was part of a team that had won a Presidents’ Trophy and already become a Stanley Cup contender.
  • When Patrick Kane entered his seventh season his teams had already made the playoffs five times in six years and won two Stanley Cups.
  • When Steven Stamkos entered his seventh season he had already played in the Conference Final, while his seventh season was a Stanley Cup Final appearance and the start of their current run of dominance.

Those are superstar players taken No. 1 overall, joining what were awful teams at the time, that quickly experienced team success because their teams were able to successfully build around them.

The problem is that even though it is long past time for the Oilers to be at that level, and even though the captain and best player is saying it is now time, they still do not seem ready to make that leap. Even after a busy offseason that saw them make some noteworthy moves.

Duncan Keith checks a lot of nice boxes (veteran, championship experience, future Hall of Famer) except for one that matters the most — is he a positive difference-maker right now? There are a lot of numbers and video to suggest no.

They are banking no a 39-year-old Mike Smith to repeat his 2020-21 performance in goal even though it was by far his best performance in three years. If he doesn’t, that is going to be a problem behind that defense.

They probably lost two of their three best defenders from last year in Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear, and replaced them with a declining Keith and Cody Ceci.

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Zach Hyman is a good player, but is going to be 30 years old and is just starting a seven-year contract after playing what was probably his best hockey for somebody else. Warren Foegele is a fine addition, but it came at the expense of Bear who the Hurricanes seem ecstatic with acquiring.

As recently as this past season the Oilers’ depth was so bad that they were outscored by a 52-29 margin during 5-on-5 play when neither McDavid or Draisaitl was on the ice. They were outscored 5-2 in the playoffs.

That regular season number was actually a worse goal share than the year before in the same situations and the worst mark since McDavid’s rookie season.  Meaning they depth somehow became less productive and was as bad as it has ever been during McDavid’s career. Let me repeat that, because it is worth repeating: The depth performance this season was the worst it has been since McDavid’s rookie year. More than six years into this thing, that is just unacceptable. Given the roster, the goaltending, and the makeup of the defense it is hard to see that dramatically changing this season.

The good news for the Oilers is that even with all of these flaws they should — SHOULD!! — be a playoff team this season.

The Pacific Division is probably the weakest division in the league from top to bottom, and once you get beyond Vegas at the top there is really no other team that seems to be a lock for one of the other two automatic playoff spots. Everybody is flawed to a major degree, and the Oilers do at least have two in-their-prime MVP superstars on their roster. That should be enough to get in the playoffs.

It is still a question though of whether or not they can compete with other playoff teams, let alone actual Stanley Cup contenders. Again, they did not even win a single game against a good, but not great Jets team in the playoffs a year ago.

Most teams never get players as good as McDavid and Draisaitl, let alone two of them at the exact same time. You can not waste them when you do get them.