In order for the Oilers to build on their solid 2019-20 season and continue growing into a legitimate contender, Ken Holland is going to have to make some changes to his roster.
To me, there are three glaring needs for the Oilers this fall. They need a better goalie than Mike Smith to play with Mikko Koskinen, they need a legitimate third-line centre, and they need another good, two-way winger for the top-six to play alongside Connor McDavid.
I wrote on Saturday about Holland’s potential options for goaltenders, so, next up, I’ll talk about the hole down the middle.
With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being used predominantly as a winger, Riley Sheahan became Edmonton’s defacto third-line centre. While Sheahan did some things well, like playing a key role on the Oilers’ excellent penalty kill, he got caved in at even strength.
With Sheahan on the ice at even strength in 2019-20, the Oilers got outscored 37-to-21. Sheahan is best suited as a fourth-line centre at this stage and Edmonton needs a pivot to anchor a third-line that can, at the very least, break even with its opponents. The last thing you want is your bottom-six bleeding and giving back everything accomplished by your top-six.
Can they find that player in free agency? Or will it have to come via trade?
Carl Soderberg looks like the ideal fit for Edmonton on the free-agent market. Since his disastrous 2016-17 season in which he scored just six goals in 80 games on a very bad Avalanche team, Soderberg has put up 121 points in 229 games over his last three seasons. This season in Arizona, the Coyotes outscored opponents 31-to-25 with Soderberg on the ice, which is impressive given the fact he spent a lot of his time in defensive-zone situations against top opposition.
The issue with Soderberg is that he’s coming off a 17-goal season, so he probably won’t be cheap. He’s also turning 35 years old in October, so there’s some risk that his game could decline given his age.
Cody Eakin is another interesting name, though his offensive production hasn’t been as consistent as Soderberg’s as of late. Eakin is known mostly for his play as a penalty killer and shut-down centre, but he’s also had some solid offensive contributions. In 2018-19, he scored 19 goals for the Golden Knights and the team outscored opponents 52-to-37 when he was on the ice.
In 2019-20, though, Eakin regressed to just four goals in 41 games for Vegas and the team got outscored heavily with him on the ice. He was dealt to Winnipeg at the trade deadline and performed well in a small sample size, but it’s difficult to say which Eakin you’re going to get year to year. He’s only 29 years old, though, which is a safer bet than Soderberg.
It looked like Derick Brassard was going to be an Oiler last summer, but the deal fell through and he ended up with the Islanders. After a tough season where he bounced from Pittsburgh to Florida to Colorado, Brassard had a nice bounce-back showing on the Island, posting 10 goals and 32 assists in 66 games.
The Islanders had an even 31-to-31 even-strength goal differential with Brassard anchoring their third line this season before the acquisition of J.G. Pageau shoved him over to the wing. Brassard isn’t your traditional bottom-six centre, but he does enough things well and can generate offence.
Those are the three options that I think make the most sense from Edmonton’s perspective, but I’ll run through a few more names who are on the free-agent market.
The Oilers struck out with his brother, but Mikael Granlund looks like a very nice bounce-back candidate. He never found his footing in Nashville, putting up just 35 points in 79 games, but Granlund isn’t far removed from a 21-goal, 67-point season with the Wild.
That said, it’s been a while since Granlund has actually been used primarily as a centre. He was mostly used as a winger beside Calle Jarnkrok or Matt Duchene this year and, in Minnesota, he spent the previous two seasons before that playing on the wing with Mikko Koivu or Eric Staal.
Sticking with Nashville, the perenially-underrated Craig Smith is set to hit the open market this fall. Smith has recorded 20 goals in six of his last seven seasons (he had 18 at the time of the pause this year, so I’ll call it a 20-goal season) and the Preds had an eye-popping 46-to-22 goal differential with him on the ice this year.
Again, though, like with Granlund, the issue is whether Smith is really still a centre. He was used mostly as a winger alongside Nick Bonino this year and hasn’t taken more than 100 face-offs in a season since 2016-17.
There’s also Alex Galchenyuk, who could be worth a risk as a reclamation project. He had a miserable year in Pittsburgh after getting shipped over in the Phil Kessel deal and ended up getting sent to Minnesota at the trade deadline. Galchenyuk scored just eight goals between the Penguins and Wild, but he’s only a year removed from scoring 19 goals in Arizona.
There’s obviously upside with Galchenyuk, but he leaves a lot to be desired with his defensive game, so he might not be the right fit here.
The free-agent market isn’t overly inspiring when it comes to the ideal third-line centre candidate. I really like Soderberg, but his age worries me. Eakin has been all over the grid as of late, and guys like Smith and Granlund aren’t really even centres, so Brassard might be the best option.
If Holland can’t find the right fit on the open market, he might have to do so via trade. Rather than going ahead and listing every single third-line centre in the NHL, I’ll try to find some players who either need a change of scenery or could end up as salary cap casualties.
The Predators seem like they’re in need of a shake-up after a frustrating season that ended at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes in the play-in round.
In just the second year of a six-year deal worth $6 million annually, Kyle Turris found himself a healthy scratch this season. Nashville is need of defencemen, so I wonder if a deal around Turris and Adam Larsson makes any sense. Taking on Turris’ deal is a bit risky, but he isn’t that far removed from scoring 27 goals as a Senator. If that doesn’t work, both Nick Bonino and Kris Russell have one year left on their respective deals. Maybe there could be a swap there that fills a need for both teams.
Over in Arizona, the Coyotes have backed themselves into a difficult salary cap situation. They have Taylor Hall set to become a free agent and they would surely love to keep him around.
I mentioned Antti Raanta as a goalie target for the Oilers, but Arizona could also have a solution for Edmonton’s need for a good two-way centre in Christian Dvorak. He’s coming off a solid 18-goal, 38-point season and the Coyotes outscored opponents 72-to-48 with him on the ice.
Dvorak is signed to a long-term deal at $4.45 million annually, so moving him and Raanta would open up a lot of cap room to sign Hall and it would solve Edmonton’s two major issues. Of course, this is a package that wouldn’t come cheap and it would require some other financial maneuvering by Holland to execute.
The Lightning are also in a tight cap bind as Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cerelli will see their entry-level deals expire this off-season. The pipe dream would be to acquire Cirelli, obviously, but that isn’t going to happen. Instead, Yanni Gourde could be the odd-man-out. He’s a very good two-way centre, though he’s probably overpaid at $5,166,666 annually.
Also in cap hell are the Toronto Maple Leafs. In order to improve their horrendous blueline, the Leafs will need to deal some of their depth up front. Of interest to the Oilers could be Alex Kerfoot, a quietly solid middle-six centre. Kerfoot had a bit of a down year offensively, scoring 28 points in 65 games this year, but he had 42- and 43-point years in Colorado before that.
Finally, there are some young change-of-scenery options that could be interesting risks to take. Former high draft picks Tyson Jost in Colorado and Lias Andersson in New York are both struggling to find their footing in the NHL. Maybe there’s a deal to be made involving Jesse Puljujarvi.
What does it all mean?
The third-line centre gig is undoubtedly a huge priority for Holland this off-season, but it isn’t going to be an easy hole to fill. The free-agent market isn’t exactly overflowing with ideal options, so Holland might have to get creative.
Internally, Edmonton could fill this hole by rolling with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down the middle, forming a McDavid-Draisaitl-RNH one-two-three punch. Of course, that would ultimately open up another hole up front as Holland would then have to look for another winger for the top-six.
Long-term, Ryan McLeod might be Edmonton’s third-line centre of the future, but banking on him stepping in as a rookie and thriving in that role in 2020-21 isn’t prudent. Cooper Marody is closer to being NHL-ready than McLeod, but, again, rolling into the season with a rookie as your third-line centre is a massive gamble.
To me, Nugent-Hopkins is the best internal candidate to drive a good third-line for the Oilers. It would open up a hole, but, if the options for wingers this winter are better than the centres available, this might be the play.