Looking Into Every Move The Oilers Made This Off Season: Part 2

In part one, we went over the first half of the Edmonton Oilers offseason as it stands today. From the Duncan Keith trade to the Zach Hyman signing, there’s been some disagreeable moves Ken Holland has made this past couple months, to say the least. It couldn’t possibly get any worse, right? …right?

Cody Ceci signing – $3.25 million AAV, 4 years

Cody Ceci has had a positive impact on every team he’s been on- Yes, even in that dismal run with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was a solid piece for their bottom-two pairings. Ceci will look to recreate the success he saw with the Pittsburgh Penguins this year with the Oilers. Solid possession player, he won’t leave you frustrated or yelling at your TV (as long as he isn’t shooting the puck), but he also won’t exactly wow you with his puck moving ability, or leave you completely at ease when he’s facing down tough opponents. He is a good bottom pairing guy who can step in on the second pair if needed, but a team with a deeper defence group wouldn’t have him playing more than 18 minutes a night. For my money, he’s not much more of a player than Koekkoek, who the Oilers managed to sign for under $1 million a year. It’ll be good to have a player like Ceci solidifying the bottom pairing, but that cap hit is hard to swallow. I feel like there were better options on the market for much cheaper.

Transaction Grade: D

The Ethan Bear Trade

A young up-and-coming top-four right-shot defenseman in the NHL is absolute gold. It seems like teams never stop reaching in the draft for them- and yet Ethan Bear, who led all rookies in ice time in 2019-20, managed to get no more than Warren Foegele. Now don’t get me wrong, Foegele is a great player, and is definitely filling a need the Oilers have had since Chiarelli gutted the bottom-six in the 2017 off-season. However at most he is a good middle-six winger with a 45 point upside, more than likely somewhere around 35. That’s not worth a top-four defenseman who in a down year was Edmonton’s third-best defenseman. 

An analytics darling for sure, Bear can be prone to defensive slip ups. But the player I’ve watched the last two years is absolutely a strong top-four defenseman on most teams. He moves the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone with ease and style. In 2020-21, There was only one player on the Oilers he spent 100+ minutes with that ended up with a GF% below 50% at 5v5 when Bear was on the ice- Nugent-Hopkins with 43.75%. The numbers look even better when you look at expected goals for %. Among players who were top 10 in ice time for the Oilers, Kailer Yamamoto was the only one who didn’t finish above 50% xGF with Bear. All this in a year where many casual Oilers viewers would cave into the media’s narrative that he had a ‘bad year’. 

What drove Bear out of Edmonton? Make no mistake- it was the media. Do you really think that if people aren’t making articles about how Bear needs to contribute more to the team based on small mistakes, he gets nearly as many racist comments on twitter following the sweep to the Jets? Hockey fans can certainly be passionately harsh, and particularly Canadian fans, but I highly doubt Oilers fans would be as nasty as they were if the general perception towards Bear was closer to the truth- he was a good second pairing defenseman who got played with the top-six very little, and was simply unlucky this year. Did we all forget about how much of a breath of fresh air Bear felt like he was giving us in 2019-20?

One thing that’s been consistently true with players that Oilers fans and media tend to use as the whipping boy is that they have a terrible PDO, or on-ice save % + on-ice shooting %. I like to call it the luck stat. If your PDO adds up to 1.000, you’re not unlucky or lucky. Over 1.000, lucky. Under 1.000, unlucky. Got it? In 2018-19, Ryan Strome had just a 0.982 PDO in the 18 games he played for Edmonton, mostly in part to his absolutely horrific but obviously not sustainable 2.83 on-ice SH%. He was driving offense and getting chances, but they just weren’t going in. This happens to every player, it just so happens Strome’s offensive drought cost him his Oilers tenure. The Oilers shipped him off to New York in a now-infamous deal, and obviously I don’t need to tell you how that worked out. I’m still not sure how general managers with 30+ years of experience in hockey haven’t figured out that making long term decisions on a young player based off of one season with a low on-ice shooting % isn’t smart.

The move isn’t quite an F, since I like the player they got in return, even if it wasn’t fair value. This could be a trade we look back on in a few years and say, hey- I like the assets they got, but how the hell did anyone think this was fair value? Similar to the Taylor Hall and Jeff Petry trades.

Transaction Grade: D-

Tyson Barrie signing – $4.5 million AAV, 3 years 

When was the last time the guy who led all defensemen in points got paid this little? Feel free to double check my research, but nobody comes close if we’re speaking in terms of cap %. Only recent example I can think of pertaining to a defenseman who got a crazy amount of points but ended up not getting paid much was when Erik Gustafsson was sold to the Calgary Flames for just a third-round pick (does that really count?) But I still would’ve preferred if the Oilers let Tyson Barrie walk. The term isn’t awful, taking him until he’s 33. Neither is the money, which ranks him tied for 68th among defensemen by their cap hit- despite him finishing first in points on the back end this past season. And yet, this is a move I wouldn’t have made. Tyson Barrie doesn’t fit on the top pair. At 5v5 he held a 52.43 GF%, however just a 48.48 xGF%, meaning he definitely benefited from having great goaltending and finishing around him when he’s on the ice, something he doesn’t contribute to. It gets much worse when you take the Connor Mcdavid factor out though- according to naturalstattrick.com, Barrie has a 44.73 xGF% without Mcdavid, a difference of just under 4% compared to what he gets playing with him. Not awful right? I mean, it’s got to be hard to produce on a team with limited depth, and you can’t blame Barrie for producing better when Mcdavid is on the ice. However, and get ready for this, Mcdavid’s xGF% without Barrie? 64.85%. That’s good for first in the league among players who played every game 20+ minutes a night. 

When Barrie is anchored to Mcdavid, make no mistake- He’s actually bringing him down, WAY down compared to other defenders on the team. So Barrie makes Mcdavid worse at 5v5, and that’s not arguable. Even the actual goals for % is a drastic difference. Barrie’s 47.06 GF% without Mcdavid is absolutely revolting when you consider Mcdavid has upwards of a 13% increase without him, at 60.47 GF%. Is there a positive to this deal though? Absolutely. It is much harder to see than nearly any negative to the deal you could find though. He has consistently made teams power plays run smoother and be more effective- But at the same time, the Oilers power play doesn’t exactly need him. I feel like we’re at the point with the 1st PP unit where anything can work so long as Connor’s moving it up the right wall and Draisaitl’s shooting it from the left hash mark. I mean really- in a year where Nugent-Hopkins seemed to look uncomfortable on the man advantage, Chiasson and Neal struggled to convert on the countless chances gifted to them, and having Barrie on the powerplay was so uncomfortable in the first month Tippett put in notoriously-mediocre-on-the-powerplay Darnell Nurse as an alternative- The Oilers still comfortably finished first on the powerplay yet again. The year before that they had an injured Oscar Klefbom running the show and the Oilers power play broke records. 

Time and time again it’s been shown that the power play rests in the hands of Mcdavid and Draisaitl- nobody else. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t been watching, or hasn’t been paying attention. Still, Barrie does provide real production anywhere he plays, and is at the very least a good offensive defenseman who can move the puck up the ice well enough. In a sheltered role at 5v5, and top powerplay minutes, we can assume Barrie can live up to this deal. It’s clear he’s not cut out defensively for the top 2 pairs. How good will this deal really be then? In my opinion, it all boils down to how he’s deployed. If his top pair ticket is snatched from his hands a month into the season by someone like Evan Bouchard for example, and he’s forced onto the 3rd pairing to play with Koekkoek 14 minutes a night at 5v5, I like this deal for the oilers. He’d be producing on the powerplay and keeping the status quo, whilst also providing real value at 5v5, on either side of the puck. Personally I can’t trust Tippett to deploy him properly, but we can always hope.

Transaction Grade: C+

Darnell Nurse extension – $9.25 million AAV, 8 years

For a long time, it seemed like Darnell Nurse was the quiet whipping boy of the Oilers fanbase. Too many puck fumbles at the blue line, too many bad goals against where he was just standing around. He certainly had a steep learning curve to get to where he is now, but I’m so glad he made it. Very few players, especially on Canadian teams, can withstand the pressure of a fanbase hating on them constantly. They usually end up traded, or signing elsewhere. 

Just think of the sheer willpower Nurse must have developed over the years, starting out as a ‘disappointing’ prospect seen as a reach after he didn’t make Canada’s world junior roster in 2014 (pretty hilarious when you consider Derrick Pouliot, Griffin Reinhart and Chris Bigras made the team.) Then, not becoming an NHL regular until a couple years after he was projected to, and everyone else in his draft class was already established. Only last year in 2020-21 did he truly reach his draft day potential as an elite, puck moving top-pair defenseman. Now, in no way was Nurse a $9.25 million dollar defenseman this year. I struggle to admit even $8 million would’ve been an acceptable cap hit, however with these long term deals you do have to take a good deal of risk. Do I think Ken Holland is one of the worst contract negotiators in the whole league and a 10 year old child who failed grade 5 mathematics could do better? Absolutely, but Nurse HAS improved every single year of his career so far. 

Every time we say Nurse has broken out into the defenseman he was drafted to be, he comes out and impresses us even further. In 2018/2019 he broke 40 points for the first time, scoring 6 goals and 35 assists for 41 points in 82 games, just his second full season with the club. I must say in Oscar Klefbom’s absence that year, he really stepped up defensively. The next year he had a similar year, with 5 goals and 28 assists in 71 games. Prorated, that’s 38 points in 82 games, 3 shy of his 2018/2019 total. Darnell Nurse is a player whose analytics tend to strongly disagree with what you see on the ice. In the 2020/2021 season, his wins above replacement (WAR) was particularly awful compared to what the casual perception of him was. 

Whether you attribute this to how certain aspects of his game seem to be misjudged and badly represented by the numbers, or how he consistently played with defenseman Tyson Barrie who, putting it lightly, doesn’t exactly have a good reputation in the defensive zone, it’s very clear he was better defensively than the numbers said. Last year I saw a Darnell Nurse who was constantly paying for his linemate’s pinches and unnecessary fancy passes, and when paired with anybody else his defense seemingly improved, which is completely backed up by the numbers as well. Away from Barrie, Nurse’s xGF% goes from 48.40%, all the way up to 56.62%. Talk about an anchor.

 I fully believe Nurse is the best defenseman the Oilers have had in a long time, and while the contract is almost certainly an overpayment today, there’s no telling what the deal could look like in four-years. 

Transaction grade: C-

Slater Koekkoek signing – $925,000 AAV, 2 years 

Slater Koekkoek had an odd year. Due to a collarbone injury dealt by Sam Bennett, he only ever got into 18 regular season games and four playoff games. It was later revealed by Koekkoek in an interview after the signing that his collarbone never fully healed, this coming after Dave Tippett’s insistence on playing him over Caleb Jones whom I’d consider to be a better puck mover- But that’s a topic for another day. Koekkoek had pretty awful numbers, but considering this was all in a terribly small sample size, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and pull numbers from a two-year sample instead of the usual one. 

In an albeit limited role with the Blackhawks and Oilers, from 2019-20 to 2020-21, he had pretty solid results. Koekkoek was fourth in ice time on the Blackhawks in 2019-20 and managed to play to a 53.75 xGF%. Chicago wasnot good in the regular season at all that year, so that’s very impressive. Infact, relative to his teammates that’s down right amazing- The Blackhawks sustained a measly 46.93 xGF%. 

Visibly, Koekkoek pleases the brain. He’s got Evan Bouchard levels of calmness to his game, and keeps the puck away from attackers like he gets paid nearly a million dollars per year to do so. Offensively there isn’t much to see of course, but he gets the job done. Definitely a consistently good third-pairing defenseman, something the Oilers seemed to lack last year while he was out. A possible Koekkoek and Bouchard pairing to start the year could cure cancer.

I don’t get to say this much but I’m for sure happy with the contract, and I’m sure Oilers fans will be too for the remainder of the deal. 

Transaction grade: A-

Final Thoughts

Just to recap, here are the grades I gave to every move Ken Holland made this off season.

Shore Extension – D+

Keith Trade – F

Smith Signing – B

Neal Buyout – B+

Hyman Signing – B-

Ceci Signing – D

Bear Trade – D-

Barrie Signing – C+

Nurse Extension – C-

Koekkoek Signing – A-

That adds up to an average grade of a D. This is absolutely not a good off season for the Edmonton Oilers, and one that I think will come back to haunt them in the years to come. There’s just too many possible flops for this to actually work out. What if Bear continues to be the player he was in 2019-20 on the top pair for the hurricanes? Worse yet, what happens when he inevitably improves and turns into a bonafide top pair defenseman, and we end up asking ourselves in 2023 how someone could possibly have justified that move? What happens when Duncan Keith’s cap hit completely disables the Oilers from adding at the deadline, and Caleb Jones goes on to have a successful career with the Blackhawks? I’m not saying all of these moves will suck, there will for sure be a few hits, but it’s far more likely we end up regretting a majority of these moves. Chances are it’ll be the ones everyone knew would suck from day one. 

Absolutely there’s many Oilers fans who will look on with the strange emotion of “I told you so” mixed with utter sadness I’m sure the Germans have a word for when this off season blows up in Ken Holland’s face, but for now all we can do is wait and hope with blind faith that it’ll work out better than it seems on paper. Despite how negative my analysis may seem of half these players, I’m desperately hoping the same as anyone that it all ends up fine. Trust me, I’ll be ecstatic when Keith’s leadership and intangibles provide Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard with that extra kick to their game, or when Foegele proves me wrong and becomes Mcdavid’s permanent linemate. While I try to stay realistic, you can never know, with how random hockey can be at times. Sometimes, fantasy IS reality.

2 thoughts on “Looking Into Every Move The Oilers Made This Off Season: Part 2”

  1. I know the market for defenseman is inflated, especially when it comes to salary, but Nurse is not worth $9.25M.

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