The Edmonton Oilers set the bar for next season with a successful final four finish, and now there’s an expectation to keep progressing. General manager Ken Holland will be busy this offseason — trading away players, freeing up cap space, convincing players to stay, or acquiring new talent. With that said, we take a look at four players who are expected to remain with the team but, at the same time, should take the next step and have bigger roles with the club for the 2022-23 season.
The Mississauga, Ontario native took great strides, both literally and figuratively, this season. Ryan McLeod played in six preseason games to start the year and made the team out of camp. However, after playing only in two regular-season games to start the year and only averaging 5:51 average time on ice (TOI), he was sent back to the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League (AHL).
He was recalled to the big club on Nov. 8 and never looked back. His speed and effortless skating stride were evident, and he gained confidence throughout the season, often used as the main puck transporter through the neutral zone when his line hit the ice. He was very versatile — playing center and also wing on the top-six on either side of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
When Jay Woodcroft took over behind the bench on Feb. 10, he immediately gave McLeod a spot on the penalty kill, which was a role he excelled at in the minors. He finished the season with nine goals and 12 assists in 71 games and averaged 12:46 of ice time. He took an even bigger step in the postseason, averaging 14:33 TOI, and his confidence grew to newer heights, which was shown when he scored a big goal in Game 3 against the Colorado Avalanche. He scooped up a loose puck and accelerated through the neutral zone, and ripped a wrist shot past Pavel Francouz, tying the game.
At his exit meeting after the Oilers’ season was over, McLeod talked about how valuable the playoff experience was for him, saying, “I think it was huge. It was a lot of fun and a lot of good experience for us and a couple of the other young guys to get our feet wet in the playoffs.”
McLeod’s growth throughout the season was remarkable — from being tentative in his decisions with the puck in early November to being confident enough to take on two Avalanche defenders and rip a wrist shot home in a Western Conference Final. He’s projected to take a bigger leap next season, with the number three center position surely to be his to share with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, depending on how Woodcroft deploys his forward group. With the way he played by the end of the season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him pot 15 goals and 20 assists next year while being a vital member of the Oilers’ special teams.
The eighth overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, Philip Broberg, had a stellar first season playing in North America. He had a taste of the NHL life, playing in 23 games and recording his first NHL goal while adding two assists. He averaged 13:28 TOI and had a 52.2% Corsi for percentage (CF%). He even had a taste of postseason action when he suited up in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings; however, he only played 3:16 minutes. At the minor league level with the Condors, he tallied 23 points in 31 games, finishing 10th in points-per-game amongst all AHL defensemen.
The Oilers have some decisions to make this offseason. Will Duncan Keith retire or be back with the orange and blue? Will Brett Kulak re-sign with his hometown team? Each decision directly affects Broberg’s role with the club next season. Ideally, he’s fit to play the third-pairing role on the left side. However, if Keith and Kulak return, and with Darnell Nurse flanking the left side on the first pairing, Broberg might be bumped down the line or be required to play his off-side.
Yet, Keith will be 39 years old next season and missed 18 this season due to injury. So, it’s safe to assume there will be injuries throughout the Oilers’ blue line next season. In saying that, I’d expect the 6-foot-3, 200-pound defender to fill in on the bottom pairing when injuries occur. And who knows, with his size, speed, and ability to smoothly skate the puck out of danger, there’s a possibility he could sneak into a top-four role if needed.
I remember when goaltender Stuart Skinner made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators in the 2020-21 season. Mike Smith was injured at the time, and Mikko Koskinen needed a break in net from the back-to-back games. It was the hometown kid, Skinner’s chance to play at the NHL level. His debut wasn’t pretty, giving up five goals on 38 shots and at times looking nervous between the pipes, but that’s to be expected in your first NHL game. The Oilers’ high-powered offense against a weaker Senators team pulled through for an 8-5 Oilers victory. It was only a one-game sample size, but at the time, I questioned whether Skinner had what it took to become an NHL-level goaltender.
Fast forward a season, and Skinner showed he could hold his own against NHL competition. He appeared in 13 games for the Oilers, winning six games, posting one shutout with a 2.62 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .913 save percentage (SV%). Of course, his numbers were better at the AHL level. He won 22 out of 35 games and posted a 2.22 GAA and a .920 SV%. At times throughout the Oilers’ rollercoaster season, there was a tumultuous crowd that demanded Skinner be recalled to the Oilers when Smith was struggling. In the end, he finished the season with the Condors, losing in the Pacific Division semifinal to the Stockton Heat, and was called up as a black ace for the Oilers’ playoff run.
With the departure of Koskinen to Switzerland, and Smith’s future with the team still unknown, it opens a new opportunity for Skinner. However, the question is, to what extent? The Oilers made the Western Conference Final this past season, and there’s an expectation to continue moving the needle forward. Edmonton certainly can’t put the pressure on young Skinner and give him the starting role, so they’ll need to hunt for a new number one in the offseason if Smith doesn’t return. That said, the organization will continue to develop Skinner, and I’d expect him to land the full-time gig to be the team’s backup goaltender, playing in 30-35 games next season. I’d imagine that if he continues to develop well, he’ll push for the number one role within a couple of seasons.
Oilers’ defenseman Evan Bouchard had himself a fine first full season in the NHL. He finished fifth in team scoring with 12 goals, 31 assists, and 43 points. The blueliner had up and down moments this season, yet there’s always a learning curve for young defensemen, and the premier players are the ones that are able to respond well to adversity. What has always been his strength is his booming shot from the point and the ability to produce offensively, but defensively throughout the season, there were lapses in defensive coverage and, at times, a lack of urgency.
After the Oilers’ lost to the Calgary Flames 9-5 on March 26, I’d written an article saying Bouchard had one of the worst outings of his career, but his bounce back from that game was tremendous, and I also wrote there was a significant change in his play thereafter.
He showed more willingness to be aggressive and engage physically. He had more urgency to react to dangerous scoring chances against, and he carried that style of play into the postseason. He recorded three goals in the playoffs, all against the Flames, including a big goal in Game 5 that contributed to Edmonton eliminating their provincial rivals. Like McLeod, he emerged as a dependable player in the postseason, and Woodcroft was confident to play him in all situations. He finished sixth in playoff scoring on the Oilers with nine points in 16 games while delivering 19 hits and blocking 17 shots.
With the pedigree of being a 10th overall draft pick, there’s an expectation that he’ll take the next step next season. He finished 28th in NHL scoring among defensemen, edging out teammate Tyson Barrie by two points, despite playing 101 fewer minutes less than him on the power play. The Oilers have some decisions to make this offseason, with rumours circulating that Barrie will be moved to free up cap space. When/if that happens, that will open the door for Bouchard to play more minutes on the team’s first power-play unit. If so, it is all but guaranteed that Bouchard will put up a 50-plus point season in his second full season in the NHL.
I left Jesse Puljujarvi out of the list due to the chatter circulating that he may get traded in the offseason; however, I think that would be a bad move on the Oilers’ part to let go of a potential 50-point player with a good two-way game. Nonetheless, Oil Country should be excited about the progress of their young players and homegrown talent, which could one day help contribute to them raising another championship banner in Rogers Place.
He’s the first ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – He’s been featured on CBC Radio providing hockey analysis for the Edmonton Oilers – He’s a freelance writer and Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.