Oilers enter offseason with same old questions, no new answers

The Edmonton Oilers' performance in the playoffs was disappointing, but the team has little choice but to try again with the same cast of characters.

After being eliminated by the Las Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday night, the Edmonton Oilers enter the offseason with a familiar problem facing the team.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, this team can score. The Oilers led the NHL in goals during the regular season (3.96/game) and they filled the back of the net plenty during the playoffs (3.67/game), despite a bit of a cold stretch at the end.

While plenty of this team's offence comes from the power play, it was a top-10 team by almost every 5-on-5 possession metric during the regular season and the playoffs. This club can finish, and it controls the play enough that its offense bolsters its defense by limiting opportunities for opponents.

That's a heck of a foundation to build off, but as good as this team can be it also has significant problems keeping the puck out of its net. Edmonton allowed 3.50 goals per game during its playoff run and the Golden Knights scored four or more times in five of six games against the Oilers.

A common theme of Edmonton's playoff defeats in recent years has been the fact the team has spent an inordinate amount of time digging the puck out of its own net. Here's a summary of series they've lost in the last four years and their opponents' offensive output:

Via Hockey-Reference
Via Hockey-Reference

Any stat you pick from series defeats are likely to look ugly, but it seems clear that defensive issues are at the heart of Edmonton's inability to reach its playoff goals. Even during the regular season in 2022-23, the Oilers ranked 17th in the NHL in goal suppression (3.12/game), making them one of just two squads to earn a postseason berth despite below-average defensive results.

Heading to an offseason with an imposing strength and a transparent weakness theoretically makes the Oilers a good candidate for a mini overhaul to find players capable of bolstering their defence or their crease.

In reality, however, doing anything but bringing the same team back in 2023-24 will be extremely difficult. Edmonton has assembled one of the least flexible rosters in the NHL, preventing all but the most marginal changes.

The Edmonton Oilers are in for a long offseason. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)
The Edmonton Oilers are in for a long offseason. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

That starts with the salary cap situation as Edmonton projects to have just $5.97 million in space for 2023-24. The unrestricted free agents on the roster for the team's playoff run are Derek Ryan, Mattias Janmark, Devin Shore and Nick Bjugstad. That quartet of role players makes a combined $3.8 million.

None of them will be too difficult to replace, but whoever takes their places will eat some of what's left, and the team has top-four defenceman and key power-play contributor Evan Bouchard hitting restricted free-agency in search of a new contract. Bottom-six contributors Klim Kostin and Ryan Mcleod are in the same boat.

That means that if the Oilers want to make a substantial addition from outside the organization it needs to move money out. Unfortunately for Edmonton, that will be awfully difficult to do.

Five of the team's seven most expensive skaters all have no-movement clauses, and they cost a combined $37.5 million against the cap. The other two skaters are Draisaitl — a steal at $8.5 million who isn't going anywhere despite the fact his no-trade protection is just a 10-team list — and Mattias Ekholm, an in-season trade addition who's been an excellent fit.

The goaltenders Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner cost a combined $7.6 million, but Campbell had an awful regular season (.888 save percentage) and Skinner was brutal in the playoffs (.883). Neither has positive trade value on long-term contracts that both run through at least 2025-26. While Skinner could bounce back, both netminders are dangerous bets who'd be difficult to ship out.

When you're talking about moveable players who make more than $1 million against the cap in 2023-24, that list is just Kailer Yamamoto, Warren Foegele, Cody Ceci, and Brett Kulak. None of those guys are going to get help you acquire paradigm-shifting roster pieces unless you're throwing in serious futures.

Considering Edmonton's prospect pool ranked 21st by The Athletic's estimation in January, that seems unlikely — especially with top prospect Dylan Holloway coming off a rookie season where he failed to score 10 points or skate 10 minutes per night in 51 contests.

The Oilers also have just half of their picks in the top three rounds of the next three drafts, which will make facilitating deals more difficult.

It's not impossible for Edmonton to make a small move or two, but this team will be forced to broadly maintain the status quo. It has a few young players like Holloway, Bouchard or Philip Broberg who might drive some internal improvement, but this is primarily a team of finished products.

Five of its top-six forwards are between the age of 26 and 31. Four of its six blueliners are between the age of 28 and 32. All of those players are signed through at least 2024-25.

This team is as locked in as you can be. That might not be a bad things considering how dangerous the Oilers are at their best. Even so, there's an argument to be made that something's missing — and Edmonton is going to have a hard time finding it this offseason.