It doesn’t take a genius to realize that some of the moves the Edmonton Oilers have made this summer have been, at the very least, questionable. A quick visit to Twitter will have you finding even the most flamboyant Ken Holland defenders drawing ire to some of the team’s moves. But is this just a case of fans being overly negative about a team that’s given them nothing to be positive about in recent history, or do they have a point? Let’s take an in-depth look, chronologically, at every move that’s transpired thus far in the Oilers offseason.
Devin Shore extension – 2 years, $850,000 AAV – June 8th
I’m not too fond of this signing. It’s not quite about the numbers, but about why the contract was given out in the first place. For many Oilers fans, this was foreshadowing for what’s to come. It represents the fundamental lack of critical hockey knowledge within the Oilers pro scouting department compared to other teams. Shore had a relatively low point total at just nine points in 38 games, which puts him on pace for 19 over an 82 game season. It places him 13th among Oilers forwards, which is where he’s expected to slot in next year as an extra forward. Forwards Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis, Jujhar Khaira, Dominik Kahun, and the recently bought out James Neal won’t be back next year yet had better production. So what is it about Shore that the Oilers love so much? We should really be asking, what does Dave Tippett love about him so much?
Throughout the year, Shore was plugged into the league-worst bottom-six time and time again with minimal results. Despite having better point production and possession numbers, this left players like Ennis and Patrick Russell as a healthy scratch. The difference between Shore and them? Penalty Killing. Tippett loves his penalty killers. While the kill has undeniably been significantly better under him compared to previous Oilers coaches, it looks to be mainly because of the goaltending. Mike Smith, in particular, has great numbers on the PK. Out of the 62 goalies that played 20+ games in the 2019-20 season, Smith finished 4th in goals saved above expected (GSAx) on the penalty kill, with Mikko Koskinen 19th. In 2020-21, Smith finished 1st, and Koskinen also improved to 14th. The skaters had a much different story, however. Although the penalty kill ranked 9th overall in 2021, they finished 28th in expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) on the PK. While Shore may not be responsible for how good or bad the entire kill is, he certainly wasn’t contributing to any success they had on it. It’s often said that the goalie is the best penalty killer, and I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment for the Oilers’ predicament.
Transaction Grade: D+
The Duncan Keith trade – July 11th
Let’s go over the facts. Duncan Keith is 38-years-old, and his $5.5 million contract takes him until he’s 39. Caleb Jones is 24-years-old, and his 850,000 AAV contract takes him until he’s 25. For any non-math-geniuses reading, yes, that’s a 14-year difference. Somebody born this month is going to hit puberty when Jones is as old as Keith is currently. The simple fact that Keith, whatever your opinion on him is, has at best a fifth of the mileage left in his tank as Jones has, makes this trade a major loss for the oilers.
It’s not often that teams develop defensemen from the draft table to regular in the lineup. It’s even rarer to develop one not taken in the first couple rounds of the draft, and rarer still for the Oilers to do so in the last few decades. Edmonton had a diamond in the rough here and traded him away the second they had a reason to.
Duncan Keith is a solid puck mover and offense driver. He led the Hawks D in on-ice goals for and expected goals for; however, he also led the entire league in expected goals against per 60 among defensemen. This essentially means that when he was on the ice, no defenseman got more chances against his team than Keith- he was getting absolutely caved out there. Having a pretty awful defense around him didn’t help, of course, but he was a major contributor to how subpar it was, playing by far the most TOI out of any Blackhawks defenseman.
Jones didn’t have a good year by any metric in 20/21, but in the 19/20 season, he was solid. Among Oilers defenders, he was 4th last in goals against per 60 minutes. That’s less than Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, and Ethan Bear. This must be taken with a grain of salt, though, as these results were achieved in a relatively sheltered role. In the most recent Oilers season, there were for sure a few defensive mistakes that don’t exactly show in the analytics of it all, but is this worth trading a young defenseman over? Of course not. This type of thinking is how you end up getting Jeff Petry’s and Justin Schultz’s. No matter how you value Keith- be it his ‘leadership qualities, ‘intangibles’ and such, his 5.5 million dollar cap hit isn’t worth it when Jones put up better on-ice results the last 2 years for less than a sixth of the cost. It goes without mentioning that the 3rd round pick sprinkled on top doesn’t help the Oilers case.
On the Oilers Nation podcast, Tyler Yaremchuk of oilersnation.com pointed out that if Keith should retire after the 21/22 season, he will actually give the oilers a NEGATIVE cap hit of roughly 3.4 million for the 22/23 campaign due to the retirement recapture penalty. This means they’d have 3.4 million extra to spend compared to any other team in the league. On top of losing Keith’s 5.5 million dollar cap hit, that’s a net gain of 8.9 million off the cap. I highly doubt there’s some handshake deal in place considering how hard Oilers General Manager Ken Holland defended the price he paid in his presser after the trade, but it’s good to have some hope from time to time.
Transaction Grade: F
Mike Smith signing – 2 years, $2.2 million AAV – July 21st
I actually don’t mind this move for the Oilers. Smith is essentially the only reason their penalty kill is respectable, as mentioned earlier in the article. While the Oilers finished 9th overall on the kill this past year, Smith finished 1st in goals saved above expected on the PK, cementing him as the best goalie on the PK this year. It’s a good bet he continues this trend of being amazing on the penalty kill, as the trend in recent seasons definitely points to puck-handling goalies having more success on the PK.
I don’t mind the term of the contract at all either, which seems to be the major critique of this move. Mike Smith isn’t your average late-thirties goalie- he seems to be in that small gifted pool of goalies that flourishes with age. He’s been a career backup and at most a fringe starter his entire career, so naturally, he’s got much less wear and tear on him compared to your average starting goalie. 41 for him would equate to any other goalie’s 34. Smith finished 7th in Vezina voting this past season, and deservedly so. He rocked a .923sv% in 32 games played and finished 4th in goals saved above expected, according to moneypuck.com, by far Smith’s best performance in the statistic in his career. I really don’t see him regressing due to age any time soon- if he performs worse next season, it’ll be because of plain old hockey unpredictability.
Transaction Grade: B
The James Neal Buyout – July 26th
The day before free agency officially started and just hours before the buyout window closed, the Oilers bought out the remaining 2 years in forward James Neal’s five-year, 5.75 million AAV contract. Undoubtedly they waited until the very last minute of the buyout window to see what deals they could at least attempt to make to move the contract outright, but in the end, the price was too high, and they opted to go the buyout route. As far as terrible contracts go, James Neal’s has to be one of the most forgiving, leaving only a 1.917 million dollar dent on the cap for the next 4 years, as opposed to the 5.75 million they’d otherwise be taking against the cap for another 2 years. This was always the objective of the Milan Lucic trade- Lucic’s contract is almost completely buyout proof, and James Neal’s is very much not. Any flames fan who tells you differently is fooling themselves.
While both Lucic and Neal saw much improvement in their game with their new teams compared to when the deal was originally made, Neal clearly fell behind this year. The real deal saw some insane goal-scoring heaters in the 19/20 season- scoring not just a hattrick against the rangers on new years eve, but a separate four-goal game against the islanders earlier in the season. Any Oilers fan who watched the exciting 19/20 regular season campaign can recall just how electric this guy was. He did get injured partway through the season and clearly looked a step behind, but after the covid break was done and the playoffs rolled around, he was absolutely ready to go.
Neal wasn’t quite up to the challenge the second go through, as next season, he saw his worst point totals ever and some nasty underlying numbers. He stuck out like a sore thumb in one of the worst bottom 6 groups in the league and left many Oilers fans and the Oilers coaching staff needing more out of him.
With the 3.83 million in cap savings the Oilers received from the buyout, they easily could’ve gotten two better forwards than Neal in free agency. So far, though, that cap space has been used horribly, and it’s almost at the point where I’d rather have Neal’s cap hit than let Ken Holland have cap space in free agency. We can only pray for the best and judge this move on the buyout itself, which is a pretty good move.
Transaction Grade: B+
Zach Hyman signing – $5.5 million AAV, 7 years – July 27th.
How long has it been since a high-value top-six winger free agent CHOSE Edmonton? Milan Lucic? Who’s that? Much like the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins extension, it looks like Zach Hyman sacrificed money for term. Undoubtedly either player could be making well upwards of 6 million per year if they went just a couple of years less on their contract. But for how many years will we be saying with Hyman, “wow, that’s totally worth the cap hit”? Chances are no more than three. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s model-based off data from evolving-hockey.com has him worth more than his cap hit for the first three years but sharply declines after that.
The main factor that goes into how long his contract is worth it is, of course, his health. Unpredictable as it is, physical forechecking forwards like him, especially ones that play 18+ minutes a night, are very prone to a sharp decline in play in their early 30’s, as we saw locally with Milan Lucic. Hyman’s hustle speed has always been a strength of his. Will that be the case when he’s 32, with 4 years remaining on his contract? Here’s my take: Hyman is a very smart player. Players like Hyman age well because they adapt to their circumstances- he’s going to train like hell in the offseason to maintain that level of play he’s sustained the last few years. Hyman has improved every year in his career so far- if he’s going to fall off a cliff, it won’t be any time soon. If the Oilers get last season’s Zach Hyman for just half the contract, it’s absolutely worth the money.
There’s certainly risk… but Hyman feels like the last puzzle piece the Oilers needed to complete one of if not the best top 6 groups in the league.
Transaction Grade: B-
This concludes part 1. Stay tuned for part 2, where you can actually hear me dying inside through the article.