Red Wings, Oilers and the Road Ahead
Two lengthy streaks came to an end last week for the Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers. For the first time in 25 seasons, the Wings won’t qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, while the Oilers clinched a postseason berth for the first time since 2006.
For the Wings, this is the result of a slow decline that began in 2011 and accelerated since 2013. Many of the players responsible for their quarter century of dominance retired, were dealt away or departed via free agency. Most of the few who remain from the glory days, including Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, are well past their playing prime. Rebuilding on the fly by slowly adding young players while bringing in veterans via free agency failed to keep the playoff streak alive this season.
The Oilers, after nearly a decade of failed rebuilding attempts and several coaching and management changes, are enjoying the culmination of general manager Peter Chiarelli’s work since taking over the job two years ago. Young superstar Connor McDavid was a slam-dunk first-overall pick in 2015, but Chiarelli also brought in a well-respected head coach (Todd McLellan), a solid starting goalie (Cam Talbot), two power forwards (Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon) and stabilized the defense with Adam Larsson and Kris Russell.
The question now is, what lies ahead for both clubs beyond this season?
For the Wings, they’ll obviously try to build upon the nucleus of promising youngsters they’ve carefully cultivated within their system. Forwards Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou could become the foundation for what could become a brighter future.
The Oilers must take advantage of this season’s exceeded expectations and develop into a perennial playoff and potential championship contention. They must avoid the pitfalls that befell the once-promising Colorado Avalanche, who seemed on the verge of greatness three years ago when they finished with the league’s third-best record. Because of mismanagement since then, they will finish this season at the bottom of the overall standings.
For both clubs to make big strides after this season, significant roster issues still must be addressed.
The Wings must determine if Petr Mrazek is finally ready to become a reliable starting goaltender. They need one or two young, skilled defensemen. They must also determine if wingers Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, who’ve failed to blossom as hoped into dependable scoring forwards, still have a future in Detroit.
Experienced skill on defense remains a factor for the Oilers. They’re still missing a proven top-pairing blueline stud. They also lack seasoned checking-line depth. Finding a reliable backup for the overworked Talbot is a must.
Both teams must also manage their cap dollars wisely after this season.
With over $67 million invested in 17 players for 2017-18, the Wings won’t have much room to re-sign restricted free agents Tatar and Athanasiou and still bring in some blueline help. They could get some cap relief if the Vegas Golden Knights were to pluck an expensive annual cap hit, such as goalie Jimmy Howard’s $5.29 million, off their hands at the expansion draft in June. Perhaps they can ship out some salary via trade, but with eight veterans over 30 carrying long-term contracts with no-trade clauses, that won’t be easy.
The Oilers, meanwhile have over $49 million tied up in 16 players, giving them more cap room to work with this summer to address their needs. However, top-line right wing Leon Draisaitl will seek a substantial raise and they’ll likely want to keep Russell off the free-agent market in July. They must also keep sufficient cap space available for 2018-19, as McDavid will command a superstar’s contract that could reach or exceed $10 million annually.
Decisions made by the respective managements of both clubs this summer could have a significant effect upon both clubs. Their choices will determine how long they remain on their current trajectories.