By: Constantine Maragos
With the conclusion of the 2018-19 NHL season, the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks are facing the year-end media earlier than they’d like. Both teams have young superstars taking the league by storm, however glaring issues in each team holds them back from taking the next step. In this article, we’ll look into each of Edmonton and Vancouver’s seasons and look to see where they excelled, and where they need to improve.
Edmonton Oilers (35-38-9), 7th in Pacific Division
The Edmonton Oilers have caught themselves in another lacklustre season after their second round, seven-game series against the Anaheim Ducks two years ago. This year has been especially disappointing for the team. The Oilers finished with 35 wins and 79 points, good for 7th in a relatively weak Pacific Division, and 25th overall in the NHL. There is a multitude of factors one could blame this season’s finish for, including asset mismanagement and an underperforming roster.
Former Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli made a number of questionable moves in his tenure with the team that we do not need to harp on more than they already have. However, in the scope of this Chiarelli made certain moves which left the Oilers in the same position, or worse. To start, roughly one month into the season, the Oilers swapped Ryan Strome for New York Rangers forward Ryan Spooner. After only scoring 2 points in his first 18 games, it made sense at the time to try and shake things up with the swap. However, in doing so the Oilers acquired a player who’s struggles went beyond the offensive end. Spooner’s subpar defensive ability has been well documented and has led to his movement around the league. On the other hand, with a decreased defensive usage with the Rangers, Strome has been able to score at a significantly higher level. Spooner did not manage to score any more than he did in New York. Shortly after Chiarelli’s release, the new Oilers regime sent Spooner to the Canucks for Sam Gagner, who has been itching for NHL time since being stuck with the AHL Marlies all season. Gagner has been a step up from what Spooner and Strome were for the Oilers, recording 10 points in 25 games for the team.
The other two moves Chiarelli made this season involved shipping off forward Drake Caggiula, Jason Garrison, & a 2019 3rd round pick in a pair of trades to acquire defensemen Brandon Manning from the Blackhawks and Alex Petrovic (0-1-1, -7, 9GP) from the Panthers (both trades happened on December 30th). Again, these trades seem to have been poor asset management. Brandon Manning played a total of 12 pointless games for the Oilers before he was assigned to AHL Bakersfield. Alex Petrovic did not fare well either, playing only nine games, although he did miss time due to injury. As an impending UFA Petrovic did not make much of a case to be re-signed. Through his nine games with the team, Petrovic recorded only 1 assist, and registered a -7 plus/minus. Petrovic also achieved a -10.1% relative xGoals, as well as sitting at an On-Ice Shot Attempts Against/60 of 62.07. Petrovic served as a healthy scratch from February 16th until the end of the season. In turn, Drake Caggiula (5-7-12, +3, 26GP) stepped up his play with the Blackhawks. Although Caggiula has not been anything near a revelation, the primary scrutiny surrounding these moves is the lack of asset management and desperation shown by management. Of course, such moves are not the primary factor the Oilers’ demise but can be looked at as a sample size of the countless missteps that have occurred over the years. With many needs to address this season, the incoming management regime is left with a slim talent pool, and many needs to address this offseason.
Apart from the number of media storylines that shadow the organization, Leon Draisaitl enjoyed a career year. There was no shortage of critics regarding the huge contract he signed in 2017. Draisaitl’s 8-year/$66 million contract accounted for 11.33% of the Oilers cap hit at the time (and caused plenty of headaches among Leafs fans earlier this year), however, he has certainly begun to live up to that number, if not already. Draisaitl finished the year with 51 goals and 105 points, placing him 1 goal behind Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard trophy and 4th overall in scoring. Draisaitl was also tasked with a heavy workload throughout the season, averaging 22:35 in ice time, second only behind teammate Connor McDavid among forwards. This statistic alone should measure the importance of these two players to the Oilers roster.
The most intriguing storyline this season was the persistent speculation surrounding 20-year old forward Jesse Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi never solidified himself into the Oilers lineup. To summarize Puljujarvi’s struggles this season, agent Markus Lehto has stated that it “may be beneficial [for Puljujarvi] to go somewhere else.” With that being said, assessing Puljujarvi’s current value is tough, as he is only 20, and a fresh start is what he may need. With only 4 goals and 9 points through 46 games, Puljujarvi’ season ended on February 15th due to a hip injury, which he underwent surgery for on March 4th. However, through such low production and inconsistent play Puljujarvi has not shown that he is capable of becoming a full-time NHL player. But as he is so young, the Oilers need to assess whether or not it is worth keeping someone who has shown flairs of skill or cut their losses and move forward with other assets. It is also worth mentioning that Edmonton has set a high price for Puljujarvi at a 1st, a prospect, and another asset (per Darren Dreger). It remains to be seen how the situation will play out, but the most sensible trade scenario, given Puljujarvi’s play and trending value, would be to try and swap him for another young player in a similar situation.
Looking forward, the Oilers have many needs to address, whether it be finding depth on the wing or stability on defense. The only consistency that lies within the organization is their two stars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl who seem to score no matter the circumstance. If the Oilers want to compete soon, they will need a number of smart acquisitions astute player development to improve their fortunes next year.
Vancouver Canucks (35-36-11), 5th in Pacific Division
Despite playing at around .500 for the entire season, the Canucks found themselves playing some meaningful games up until near the end of the season. The Canucks finished with 35 wins and 81 points, placing them 5th in the Pacific Division and 23rd in the NHL. However, without the outstanding second-half of Jacob Markstrom, the emergence of young superstar Elias Pettersson, and the reliable defensive play of centre Bo Horvat, the Canucks would be in a much lower place in the standings.
Through 60 starts this season, Jacob Markstrom posted a 28-23-9 record. The Canucks starter also contributed 34 Quality starts on the season, as well as an 11.1-point share, tied for 7th in the league. However, his performance in the second half of the season was a catalyst in keeping the Canucks near the playoff conversation this season. Since December 7th, Markstrom posted 19 wins at a 0.921 SV%, paired with his one shutout for the season. Night in and night out, Markstrom provided the Canucks with an opportunity to win. One of his most notable performances of the season was his 44-save outing in February against the fully-loaded Calgary Flames. The Flames outshot the Canucks 34-13 in the second and third period, but Markstrom held his ground throughout and led the team to a shootout victory. The progress Markstrom has made this year gives the Canucks needed stability in net throughout the rest of their rebuild, as rookie netminder Thatcher Demko still needs time to develop into a full-time pro, and prospect Mike DiPietro is still multiple years away from the Canucks crease. Going into next season, if Markstrom is able to build off his play this season, the Canucks could be playing meaningful games in spring quicker than we’d expect.
Another popular storyline is Elias Pettersson’s record-breaking season. The Swedish rookie hit the ground running at the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, scoring in his debut, and subsequently scoring 10 points in 10 games through the month of October. Pettersson finished the season with 31 goals and 66 points, leading not only the Canucks but the entire rookie class in scoring by a considerable margin. Pettersson set a multitude of records through his impressive feats this season, most notably setting the record for most points by a Canucks rookie. In addition, the Pettersson effect was alive and well throughout the season. Petterson ranked third in relative Corsi at 4.3%, only behind linemates Brock Boeser and Josh Leivo no less. Despite complaints regarding his size (or lack thereof) Pettersson’s ability this year to protect and handle the puck in such a skilled manner has reinvigorated the Canucks offense. The insertion of Pettersson into the Canucks lineup has allowed for a seamless transition into a new identity for such a young core and gives great hope for the future. The next step in Pettersson’s career is his forthcoming Calder trophy win. However, a slow finish to the season and explosive entrance into the league by 25-year old rookie Jordan Binnington has created a bit of a conversation. Nonetheless, expect Pettersson to be named rookie of the year, and improvement next year on his already spectacular game.
As injuries seem to plague the Canucks year after year, head coach Travis Green leaned on centre Bo Horvat tremendously throughout various stretches of the season. Injuries to bottom-six centres Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle at the beginning of the year led to a tremendous defensive load for Horvat to manage. Tasked with shutting down the top opposition night in and night out, while also looked at to still produce, Bo Horvat showed how important he is to the Canucks roster. Horvat lined up for 2018 faceoffs on the year which is more than any other player in the NHL. Additionally, 38.6% (779) of those draws came in the defensive zone. Horvat finished the year with a 53.7% success rate on draws. Along with the heavy defensive burden, Horvat had a career year offensively, recording career highs in goals, assists, and points (27-34-61, 82GP). As Horvat continues to develop as a 200-foot player, he has still yet to reach his full potential.
The biggest weakness that the Canucks have is their struggle on defense. Throughout the season, it was apparent that veteran Alex Edler was the backbone of their defense core and was relied on more than ever to perform. Edler logged an average TOI of 24:34, ranking him 10th in the NHL. Edler also missed extensive time due to injury, playing only 56 games on the year. The damage was tough to mitigate for the Canucks fdefense, as veteran Chris Tanev also missed a comparable amount of games this year (27). While this is not an unknown phenomenon, especially for Tanev, the absence of the veteran duo was missed more than ever. Despite the magnitude of games lost to injury, Edler was still able to produce impressive numbers, posting 10 goals and 34 points on the year. This was Edler’s 3rd time scoring 10 goals or more in a season, and the first time since 2011-12. As an impending free agent, and well-documented for his admiration of the city he’s called home his entire career, expect Edler to be back next season. As for the rest of the Canucks defense, there is still work to be done. Although defensemen Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher made good progress this year, there were countless occasions where they were anchored by defense partners such as Erik Gudbranson and Derrick Pouliot. Before being traded, defenseman Erik Gudbranson was one of the worst possession defenders in the NHL. At the time of his trade, Gudbranson led the Canucks in shot attempts against per 60 with 66.64, while also at the bottom of the league in plus-minus at a -27. In addition, defenseman Derrick Pouliot looked lost at times when out on the ice. The lack of physicality from both defensemen led to long, drawn-out shifts in the defensive zone and countless turnovers on the breakout. Luckily, with the arrival of Quinn Hughes and potentially new personnel in the offseason, ice time on the back end will not be taken for granted, and play will improve.
Looking forward, the Canucks have a strong young core already in the NHL and will add another top prospect with the #10 pick at the NHL Draft in Vancouver. Also look for Bo Horvat to take another step, where presumably he will be named team captain, a role that’s been he’s been groomed for ever since he came into the league. In addition, the developing chemistry between Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson will only become stronger, and they have the potential to become one of the top duos in the NHL. Quinn Hughes’ NHL audition impressed many and should certainly excite fans going into his rookie season. His confidence with the puck on his stick will only increase as he acquires more NHL experience. Also, if the likes of Jake Virtanen, Josh Leivo, and Troy Stecher are able to build on their 2018-19 campaigns, they will develop into solid role players for the foreseeable future. With that being said, there is still a ways to go for the Vancouver Canucks, but there is a bright future ahead of them.