Well, it hasn’t really happened, has it? Adam Larsson has fewer points than Zack Kassian, Puljujarvi couldn’t get reliable ice time and got sent to the AHL (frankly it’s for the best), and Milan Lucic is having something of a nightmarish campaign.
Lucic currently sits at just 11 goals and 31 points despite spending a huge chunk of his 5-on-5 minutes with Connor McDavid and getting nearly three minutes of power play time per game (third-most among Edmonton forwards). This after a 20-goal season in Los Angeles a year ago and, of course, all that ice time with a kid who’s turned Patrick Maroon into a 30-goal threat.
Maybe you chalk it up to bad luck. After all, Lucic is only shooting 9.5 percent right now, well below his career average of 14.3 percent. It’s the first time he’s had less than double-digit shooting success since the lockout-shortened season when he showed up out of shape and scored seven goals in 46 games. The only other time he wasn’t getting the puck in the net as effectively was his rookie year in 2007-08.
But the thing with the Lucic contract was that yeah, it was long and probably too much money, but he was projecting as a very productive player in getting ice time with McDavid. That hasn’t come to pass, and the reasons why are the reasons you could have guessed anyway. He’s a bigger, slower player who plays a heavy game and rarely misses time, on the wrong side of his prime. He was being asked to basically be a skilled enforcer for a child whose game involves cruising around the ice like a water bug, making dazzling plays at a thousand miles an hour. It was always likely to be some sort of a stylistic clash, but the assumption was that as long as Lucic could get to the net — like, say, Connor Sheary does for Sidney Crosby — then he was going to get his goals and earn his contract. That hasn’t happened.
The wonderful Jonathan Willis covers Lucic’s problems scoring in-depth over at Oilers Nation and that’s worth exploring, but I really think a lot of those issues arise from the fact that this marriage always had a potentially unhealthy pallor to it.
That inability to keep up is very obviously part of the problem. Lucic is shooting the puck from farther out than he has in four seasons. His average shot distance is nearly 31 feet, which is fairly high. It’s currently the fourth-longest in his career. And that’s while playing with McDavid, who generates chances near the net at an absurd rate. Conversely, Maroon’s average shot distance dropped four and a half feet from last season to this one (currently about 23 feet, 3 inches, last year almost 28). One cannot imagine his ascension to serving alongside McDavid is merely coincidental here. The difference between a 23-foot shot and a 31-foot shot may not sound like much, but those eight feet move you from roughly the second hashmark to almost the top of the faceoff circle.
The bigger problem was the idea that Lucic, being closer to 29 than 28 at this point, was on that seven-year contract. The Oilers were supposed to be able to milk the added value over the first two or maybe three years of the deal as Lucic approached his age-30 or age-31 seasons, so that when he inevitably started to break down, Peter Chiarelli could at least say, “Well, we got those productive seasons out of him on the front end.” They weren’t supposed to suffer like this. Not this early, anyway. As Lucic hit his mid-30s? Sure, you expect some decline. But not now, not before his 29th birthday.
It leaves Edmonton in a bit of an interesting position. Maroon, who’s extremely cheap at $1.5 million this year and next, seems to now be McDavid’s semi-permanent left wing, presumably right up until he isn’t. Jordan Eberle, who is likewise not producing that much despite plenty of minutes with McDavid (just 32 points), is the natural right wing there. That drops Lucic down to a second-line role, which is a potentially inefficient use of $6 million, but as long as he’s producing in slightly more sheltered minutes perhaps the Oilers don’t mind so much.
And let’s put it this way, if you’re going 1-2-3 down the middle with McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you’re doing alright for yourself regardless of who’s on the wings. Throw those lines in a blender and you’re going to be competitive most nights with a former No. 1 pick (who himself is a solid 1b or great No. 2 in this league) is your third pivot over the boards.
There’s a perception that the Oilers are a one-line team. McDavid is in on a huge percentage of their goals, as you’d expect. That number, in all situations, is 81 of 158, which is about 51 percent. And for to really hammer home how special the kid is, he’s also only been on for 42 of Edmonton’s 144 against, just over 29 percent. The Oilers are therefore plus-39 with McDavid on, and minus-25 when he’s off. So you see where it comes from. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair.
The obvious issue of getting dramatically outscored comes largely because guys like Lucic and Eberle aren’t carrying the water you’d hope. But neither was Puljujarvi effective as a sort of Voltron-like replacement with Lucic, so he’s just getting minutes in the American league and apparently doing just fine down there (5-6-11 in 15 games as an 18-year-old ain’t bad at all). And Benoit Pouliot has been even worse this year with just 5-5-10 in 51 games. Nugent-Hopkins is only at 11-15-26, and he’s sixth on the team in scoring.
A huge part of the problem is that Larsson isn’t what the Oilers clearly thought he was. Is he a solid middle-pairing defenseman who can’t push the play? Yeah. Is that valuable? Yeah.
Is that what they must have thought they were paying for when they gave up an offensive dynamo in Taylor Hall? You’d really hope not.
It would be nice if Lucic and the other veteran forwards could score. It would be nice if Puljujarvi could be effective. But what the Oilers need more than anything is a defender who can get the puck up the ice consistently. They have a pretty good blue line overall, but if you don’t have a guy like that, you’re always going to struggle.
It doesn’t even have to be a really good, top-pairing puck-mover like Kevin Shattenkirk (whom Chiarelli should move heaven and earth to acquire), but a solid middle-pairing guy who can just help you get the puck out of your own zone on a consistent basis while McDavid is off the ice is going to help immensely.
That’s the thing: You can put McDavid on the ice with just about anyone (anyone who isn’t Milan Lucic, at least) and he’s going to move you up one or two zones every single time. Only a handful of players have been on the ice for more goals per 60. His per-60 relative goals number is fourth-highest in the league. The kid is amazing. Give him the Hart in June, no questions asked.
And in the meantime, Chiarelli can do his generational talent and the rest of the team a favor and give up as much as he needs to in an attempt to acquire someone who can just lug the puck. There are plenty of them out there and a lot of them are undervalued. Doesn’t have to be a guy who fits the Larsson profile of young, somewhat cheap, and under contract for years to come.
Obtaining a stopgap in their mid- or late 20s until you can develop someone as good or better than him goes a long way for the club. And thanks to the Lucic contract, and the age of some older vets on the roster (Pouliot and Sekera are both ostensibly useful players on the wrong side of 30), the time for the Oilers to get meaningfully competitive is right now. McDavid is about to be the most expensive player in the league and some of the other younger players on the roster are likewise going to see their entry-level or bridge deals expire within a few years.
Then it becomes harder to keep everyone. How many teams have had to be ripped down because of cap considerations like this, with or without championships? Half the Oilers roster is under the age of 25, and around 26 is when guys start getting expensive.
It’s not that it’s win-now for the Oilers. But it’s sure as hell win-soon. And because this roster really doesn’t have a lot of problems when everything is going right (i.e. shooting percentages for higher-end players normalize), Chiarelli’s job is easy. Get a No. 2 or 3 puck-mover. Give up whatever you need to give up to make it happen, draft picks, prospects, whatever combination required.
The reported asking price for Shattenkirk is a first and a high-end prospect. And if that’s the only thing standing between this team and actual, unadulterated dominance of an admittedly weak division, then I don’t see what the problem is.
You go out and you get a player like that, then you get to sit back watch this team cruise through the regular season and a few playoff rounds before the hard decisions come.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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