Oilers 'pretty close' to fulfilling wish list ahead of NHL trade deadline

EDMONTON — Ken Holland thinks the Edmonton Oilers got "pretty close" to fulfilling their trade-deadline wish list, despite being up against the salary cap.

The Oilers brought in defenceman Mattias Ekholm from the Nashville Predators and centre Nick Bjugstad from the Arizona Coyotes this week. To make it work, the salary-cap strapped Oilers sent underperforming winger Jesse Puljujarvi to Carolina, and had to make defenceman Tyson Barrie part of the package that went to the Predators for Ekholm. The Coyotes are eating half of Bjugstad’s salary.

After the math gymnastics were done, Holland said the Oilers have less than $1,000 of cap space left.

"Getting a defenceman was a priority," said Holland. "Obviously, we’re excited to get Mattias. He gives us size and experience, I think he’s going to be really good, not only for what he brings to our team, but he’s going to be a good role model and mentor for our young defenceman."

Ekholm made his debut in Oilers blue on Wednesday in a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bjugstad is expected to join the team Friday afternoon. He may make his debut Saturday, when the Oilers visit the Winnipeg Jets in the second of a home-and-home series.

Edmonton has the highest-scoring offence in the league and the best power play, too. But where the Oilers have struggled this season is killing penalties, a 75.5 per cent clip that's better than only seven other teams.

Holland said Ekholm and Bjugstad will be needed to help shore up the team when teammates go the penalty box.

"Bjugstad can penalty kill, Ekholm can penalty kill, they both give us some size," he said. "I think we’re deeper."

While five-on five play has improved since Christmas, Edmonton needs to shake the perception of being a team that has to outscore its mistakes, or that it needs its power play to overcome the other deficiencies in its game.

The Oilers have the firepower even as Evander Kane has missed the majority of the season with injuries. But it increasingly looks like Stuart Skinner — still considered a rookie though he did play sparingly in the NHL last season — will need to backstop this team down the stretch. Jack Campbell’s save percentage is still well below .900 and it’s not clear if Edmonton's big free-agent signing can get to the level of play the team hoped to see when he signed a five-year, $25 million deal.

To help protect Skinner the hard decision was made to move Barrie — a popular player in the dressing room and power-play quarterback — for a defence-first defenceman.

Holland said he wished he could have added Ekholm and kept Barrie, but there was no way that could have been accomplished with Edmonton's cap situation. Unlike other contenders that were able to add roster players for picks and prospects, the Oilers simply couldn't add in one area without subtracting from another.

“The reality was that we were not adding, we had to either upgrade, and if it wasn’t an upgrade, it was a change. Tyson Barrie’s an offensive defenceman. He runs the power play," said Holland. "Mattias Ekholm is a different player than him. He’s not running the power play, he’s not an offensive defenceman, I’d say he’s a defensive defenceman."

The Oilers have been carrying a skeleton-crew roster for most of the season, with just 20 players, so Holland wanted to create a bit of space to expand the roster.

“We were running a 20-man roster, and I wanted to get to a 21- or 22-man roster,” said Holland. “Each player (to fill in those spots) is $750,000 to $850,000, and we’re bring in a defenceman (Ekholm). If we would have hung onto Tyson, we would have had to move out expensive forwards.”

Coach Jay Woodcroft said that the team will go into the stretch run with added confidence.

"I think they feel buoyed," said Woodcroft of his players. "I think it lifts everybody up. It shows that we’re serious about making a long run here.

"It's never fun to see friends walk out the door and leave us — it's part of the business. But we’re excited about the additions that have been made."

The Oilers have more than $73 million in salaries committed next season, with several contracts up for extension, like Evan Bouchard, Klim Kostin and Ryan McLeod. Holland said what he’s looking at next season influenced what he could do next season.

"It’s part of it. When you make decisions, you have to be aware of what’s going on in the summertime."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2023.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press