Edmonton missed the playoffs for the 8th straight season after losing the Stanley Cup to the Canes in 2006. They have been in the rebuilding phase the last few seasons, but have started to really take advantage of free agency.
Rebuilding started when for three straight seasons they had the first overall pick, drafting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. It seems like they stopped there, thinking these three along with Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, and Shawn Horcoff would help them compete for the playoffs. There were a couple problems with that. There was no depth, no defense, and not good enough goaltending. While they are young, strong offensive forces, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and especially Yakupov and Gagner are not good defensively. There wasn’t much in the way of defensemen, either. Dubnyk is a good backup goaltender, as well as Khabibulin at this point in his career, but that goaltending tandem wouldn’t help them compete for the Cup.
That all changed last year when Craig McTavish, the coach that lead them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, took over as GM. He has made some very good decisions. When he took over, one of the first things he thought about was acquiring a solid starting goaltender. He tried trading for Cory Schneider, but of course, as a rival, Vancouver asked for too much. There was also the rumor of Cam Ward heading to Edmonton, which would’ve sent Yakupov to Carolina. That ended up going nowhere. McTavish had to go half the season without that goaltender until he signed Ilya Bryzgolov, who held down the fort for awhile. Scrivens started to take over, though, as he was playing very well. Due to that, McTavish gave up Bryzgolov and acquired Viktor Fasth, who was a backup in Anaheim. I’m guessing he and Scrivens will have to battle it out for the starting job.
In giving up Dubnyk midway through the season, they acquired Matt Hendricks, who is a solid bottom six centerman and will help depth wise. They also acquired Mark Fraser mid-season. He is big and a very good defenseman. At 6’4″, 235 lbs, he can knock some bodies to the ice. He isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, either, recording 6 fights last season.
This offseason was very successful for them. On the first day, during free agent frenzy, they signed three players. First one is Mark Fayne, who is becoming a very solid defenseman. The Oilers have him for 4 years at $3.5 million per year. Another defenseman they signed that I believe will contribute well was Kieth Aulie. He is a great physical presence with his 6’6″, 217lbs. frame. He also is sound defensively. They have him for at least a year. Nikita Nikitin was also acquired; Columbus allowed Edmonton to talk with him, where they agreed to a 2 year, $9 million contract. His rights were traded shortly after to Edmonton. At least on paper, their defense is much stronger than before.
Moving on, they also signed Benoit Pouliot, and even though I believe they overpaid him with his 5 year, $20 million contract, this was a very smart move. He is a great bottom six forward, able to give 15 goals and 30+ points. Looking further into the scoring, he has a career 12.8% shooting percentage, which is very good. The career +45 isn’t bad to look at, also.
I think the acquisition for Teddy Purcell was a good move. It seemed like Gagner’s time there was up. Plus, to become a stronger defensive team, they had to grab some defensive minded players. Purcell will bring some very nice depth. Now he is a -1 for his career, but Gagner is a -77. A -1 isn’t too bad, anyway, especially compared to Gagner’s.
I don’t think the Oilers are a playoff team yet, but they are making very good progress, more than others. They have stronger goaltending with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, and with the overhaul defensively starting in January and continuing this offseason, the back end looks much stronger. The depth is a lot better with Pouliot, Purcell, and Hendricks. I believe they will be a playoff team in the next couple years; they could even be an underdog this season, although I doubt that. They will be in a better position, though.