The news broke on Twitter late Saturday evening that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) had been signed by both the NHL and NHLPA, and that normal hockey transactions could legally begin at midnight EST early Sunday. Some of the Oilers faithful stayed up with bated breath, waiting for something (ANYTHING) to satiate our lockout-sanctioned appetites. At the time of this writing, it was not to be — however, I took these final few hours of pre-transaction tranquility to create a structured strategic plan for the Oilers, because I’m fairly certain they haven’t really been bothered to do so themselves, at least without using smelly markers and stencils.
As a former business student, I was exposed to all kinds of theoretical bullcrap strategic frameworks, but without doubt the most famous (cliched) was SWOT analysis, a cool-sounding acronym to represent Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Strengths. The two former attributes describe internal forces, and the latter two describe external forces. You’re supposed to pick an objective, and flesh out all possibilities under all four categories that address this objective.
Perhaps foreign to the Oilers, I’m going to pick WINNING HOCKEY GAMES IN THE 2013 SEASON as our objective. I can already hear Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge clicking away from this page upon reading that least sentence.
- Top Six Forwards – If the default Oilers state of ‘failure at all costs’ has accomplished anything since 2009, it’s to procure high end scoring talent on forward. Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yakupov join veterans Hemsky and Gagner to form a nucleus of both established and very promising young forwards. A common critique has been that this top six lacks in size, even though Hemsky, Hall, and RNH are all over 6’0″ and Taylor Hall’s size is curiously just shy of Mark Messier’s (6’1″ 200 lbs vs 6’2″ 210 lbs). I’d argue that they are all are or will be capable soon of driving play in the right direction to produce offense, which is of course what a top 6 should accomplish before worrying about how much mass they possess.
- In-Prime Top Defense Pairing – Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid are entering their 25 and 26 year old seasons, respectively, and should be able to build upon a very capable season one year ago (when they had the 3rd and 4th best ES Corsi marks among regular defencemen while facing the 1st and 2nd best competition by a wide margin). They are a perfect mix of adept scoring and passing (Petry with D-leading 0.91 ES points per 60 minutes) and defensive acuity (Smid with D-lowest 25.4 on ice shots against per 60 minutes of even strength play) that should only continue to find their games.
- Budget – As much as the Oilers pretend to lose money to help ensure the seizure of taxpayer dollars, it’s no secret that the improvement of the Canadian dollar and the dramatic expansion in the Alberta economy has transformed the Oilers from one of the lower budget teams in the league to one of the (potentially) highest. This advantage lessens as the salary cap declines, but they should be able to have more flexibility than most teams in how they choose to retain, attract, or jettison talent.
- Special Teams – Last year I almost needed to rub my eyes every time I looked at the powerplay standings, but there the Oilers were in the upper statosphere of the league. They ended up 3rd overall at 20.6%, which was an insane improvement from the 27th place 14.5% mark they put up one season earlier. The additions of Yakupov and Justin Schultz should bolster their weaponry with the man advantage even more this season, though power play performance/chemistry can be unpredictable. Their penalty killing also improved last year from 29th to 14th, and I’d hope they would experiment with using their most talented players on the kill this year, as the great Oiler teams of the past always believed in.
- Goaltending – Oilers team management has been incredibly proud (not the good kind) with regards to their goaltending ever since signing Nikolai Khabibulin to a 4 year quadrillion dollar contract. It seems they still have not learned their lesson, with Tambellini as recently as this summer suggesting Khabi could have multiple years left in his career. This notion is plainly absurd, and frankly insults the intelligence of the entire fanbase. Put simply, every game Khabibulin plays loses the Oilers more points in the standings. To me, this is the key barometer for the legitimacy of the entire senior management team — if they continue to play Khabibulin in any role beyond trivialized backup, they are either incompetent or willfully deranged, or both. Dubnyk is a serviceable starting goaltender entering his 4th NHL season with middling numbers. They would secure themselves more wins in the standings if they invested in a long term upgrade in this position, but not at the cost that a marquee-name goaltender demands (see: Luongo).
- 4th Line Philosophy – Since the late Sather era, the Oilers have employed a 4th line usually filled with role players, enforcers, or out-of-gas veterans. This wouldn’t be such a bad strategy if they, in fact, didn’t decide to play them as much as they do. Either run as a three line team with your 4th line dunces on the bench, or actually find players who can play the game to give you a non-insulting 4th line. Belanger is a decent player and a fine 4th line centre. Petrell may be an intimidating alien species to play on your penalty kill, but he got absolutely obliterated at even strength last year (-22.5 ES Corsi). Lander (-15.2), Eager (-13.4), and Hordichuk (-11.6) weren’t exactly sustaining viable life on the 4th line either. I would love to see the Oilers bring in an established non-geriatric veteran to help the 4th line do what it should: give the good players a breather, don’t get scored on, and score more goals than is required to count your boxcars on one hand.
- Assessing Talent – We’ve already covered the absolutely mindless decision to keep Lander up in the NHL when he was obviously not ready for the league, but it is symptomatic of recent errors in misjudging talent and therefore mis-populating the roster. Recent examples in my mind would be the handling of Linus Omark, the stubborn insistence to deny Hartikainen a roster spot, not developing MPS in a proper fashion when you knew there weren’t enough minutes to go around, or signing players like Strudwick/Barker to fill their roster quotas while said players create internet memes with their ground-breakingly terrible play. I am heartened that a sane voice like MacTavish has been added to counter the prevailing stupidity in the room, and I am optimistic that the team we saw play under Krueger while Renney was concussed is foreshadowing for what is to come.
- edit – Blue Line Depth – I forgot to add this one, but it’s almost inherent that the Oilers lack depth on their defensive unit. This is the biggest priority in the short term, with Sutton being out for likely the balance of the year and Whitney being a real question mark. Pechham/Teubert/Potter are not good enough options for your 6-8 dmen depth. They need to address this immediately, or a good chuck of their even strength minutes will be at risk.
- Firesale Activity – This next week will likely see the most unpredictable activity in terms of hockey transactions since the summer of ’05, when the Oilers managed to turn Eric Brewer and Mike York into Chris Pronger and Mike Peca. Teams will be looking to either shed salary or repurpose their lineups in anticipation of the $64.3 million cap and commensurately lower cap floor. They should be aggressive in ferreting out any and all situations where a bargain could be had — smell around the ‘nutcase’ set of teams (Islanders, Florida, etc) to see if anything can be shaken out from the chaos. Another angle could be to target players for trade who will be difficult for teams to retain in exchange for assets that aren’t a priority — sending a prospect forward for a promising NHL-ready-ish dman, for instance. PK Subban’s potential holdout would be one such opportunity. Justin Falk (MIN), Nick Leddy (CHI), Carl Gunnarsson (TOR), and Jason Demers (SJS) are examples of the kind of Dmen who will need new RFA deals this summer and could be due large raises. Would you trade Paajarvi+ for one of them? I could see a good case for it.
- Buyout Musical Chairs – I wrote an earlier post about The Case to Buy Out Shawn Horcoff. I firmly believe that it is in the interests of the franchise to buy out the captain in order to retain cap space to sign the younger players and procure one final big dollar asset (specifically for the blue line). However, his contract is structured in such a way that it might be attractive to cap floor teams who are looking for a low salary relative to cap hit — his last two years average $3.5M in salary with a $5.5M cap hit. Teams like the crazy uncle Islanders could find that attractive in exchange for a larger money contract on their books. He’s been a loyal soldier, but they should look into this kind of swap to avoid needing to pay him many millions of dollars not to play on the team.
- Injuries – As always, the elephant in the room with the Oilers is their ridiculous luck when it comes to injuries. It’s just their luck that all 4 of their young forward guns (Hall, Eberle, RNH, Yakupov) have sustained injuries in the last couple of years that required them to miss non-trivial amounts of time. Likewise for Gagner and Hemsky. And Smid. And Whitney. And their former head coach (Renney). This kind of voodoo needs to be exorcised somehow, and I’d recommend beginning by burning Chris Pronger’s baby furniture. They’ve turfed the entire training staff. They’ve employed strength and conditioning specialists. They’ve let their ice deteriorate in quality. Hell, they’ve tried everything! Whatever it is, the Oilers always seem to be one key injury from Hall or Whitney or Stoll or Doug Weight away from falling into a mine shaft. Depth needs to be identified and given opportunities to get familiar with prominent roles before this happens. Players like MPS and Hartikainen need to get real big league reps in all situations before they’re forced onto the first line because Jordan Eberle impaled himself on his toothbrush.
- The Schedule — A lot has been made of the Oilers terrible schedule, but there are two sides to that coin. Along with a 9 game road trip during the Brier, they will also receive stretches of sustained Home play. The truncated schedule also increases the risk of the first threat identified above. The bad news is that the Oilers will be forced to play 38% of the schedule versus division foes as opposed to 29% last year. Considering how regularly we get owned by the Wild, Flames, and Canucks, this is bad news for the home squad.
Well there you have it — a totally qualitative post! Weird, right? Let’s see what the Oilers do over the next week to address some of these items. I think I’ve earned the right to be skeptical.