There’s a different feel to the Edmonton Oilers as the 2023 training camp draws closer.
Leon Draisaitl’s “It’s the Cup or bust” line in a spring media avail grew to mantra status for the fan base over the summer, and the players are rejoining the chorus as fall arrives.
What does that mean for the Oilers roster?
Chances are general manager Ken Holland will be quick to strike, quicker than a year ago, if cracks appear.
As impressive as the Oilers are at the top end, there are questions in goal, on right defence and on right wing.
If the organization needs to replace Jack Campbell or Cody Ceci, or if Connor Brown gets hurt, these are the assets that will be in play.
1. 2024 first-round selection
Building teams value high picks, and the first-round selection for Edmonton in 2024 should land in the area of Nos. 25-32.
Trading the pick will mean three first-rounders in a row heading out (Reid Schaefer and the 2023 pick used by the Nashville Predators on Tanner Molendyk at No. 24) for immediate help.
If the Oilers can find an effective piece like Mattias Ekholm (the return from the Predators) using the 2024 first-round selection as a key piece, Holland will make the move. Ideally the GM keeps his powder dry until at or near the deadline.
Players from teams who could be struggling at that time? Targets include Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and defenceman Dylan DeMelo and Kraken right winger Jordan Eberle. All could be attractive options during the season or at the deadline for Edmonton.
There’s plenty of chatter from management, players and rightsholder media about Philip Broberg playing more this year.
The implication has Broberg eventually replacing Brett Kulak or Ceci in the top four of Edmonton’s defence. That can work two ways: First, the player gains experience and confidence, eventually forcing a veteran out of the everyday lineup. Second, the elevated minutes serve as a showcase to other teams.
This practice has been going on for decades and was perfected by Sam Pollock when he was general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.
NHL teams pushing for a championship emphasize veterans because mistakes are less common from experienced players.
NHL teams offloading at the deadline are always looking for potential, something Broberg owns in abundance.
If Holland goes shopping for a right-handed defender during the season or at the deadline, Broberg might be the ask. For the first time since he was plucked by Edmonton in 2019, Broberg’s name may show up in trade rumours during 2023-24.
Dylan Holloway is less likely to be dealt than Broberg, as there is no one blocking his path.
The issue for Holloway is goal scoring and outscoring at five-on-five. He has shown progress as a young forward but the Oilers need him to stand and deliver in 2023-24 inside the top three lines. Here are his even-strength totals for AHL and NHL so far.
All numbers even strength
Holloway touches the puck often in the AHL, a good arrow for future success. He didn’t move the needle as much offensively as one would expect for such a dynamic player at that level.
In the NHL, his outscoring was solid for a rookie, but the offensive output remained shy.
Chances are Holloway will settle in and deliver enough offence to play inside the top-nine forwards. It’s possible he plays on a line with Connor McDavid or Draisaitl at centre.
If he struggles, especially in a year where everything (Pacific Division title, Stanley Cup) matters, patience for young players will be in short supply.
Raphael Lavoie is waiver eligible and that means he’ll have special status during this year’s training camp and preseason.
Lavoie is a goal scorer, that’s an extremely valuable skill for an NHL team. He’ll get plenty of work in the exhibition schedule, and if he scores well enough it’s likely the Oilers use the final roster spot on him.
He also offers the organization a chance to reset if an attractive option at another position comes available in trade. Lavoie is blocked on left wing by Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Holloway and possibly Warren Foegele (who may play right wing this season).
On right wing, Edmonton likely runs Zach Hyman and Brown on the skill lines, with Foegele and Derek Ryan possible for the third and fourth lines.
If Lavoie is getting squeezed, and a strong offer is made to Holland that involves a non-waiver player or a roster player making the minimum who plays a position of need, Holland might be compelled to make an October deal involving Lavoie.
5. Brett Kulak
If the Oilers have a chance to add a big piece on defence, and Broberg isn’t the ask, a player like Kulak might be included in a deal. He offers veteran savvy defensively and skates well, plus the postseason performances by this player have been strong in Edmonton.
Moving Kulak would allow Broberg to slide in on the third pair left side, behind Darnel Nurse and Ekholm on the depth chart.
Consider this option a decidedly unpalatable one, made necessary by the ask of the other team in a deal involving a strong option who could help the Oilers win Stanley.
All bets are off.
Oilers fans should expect trades to go down more frequently this season based on many factors.
The organization can’t address all of the question marks with upgrades, but must act quickly when cracks appear in-season if there’s a desire to stay in touch with the top of the division.
Holland will have to see how the season plays out for Campbell, Ceci and Brown.
A look at the team’s situation at the end of May revealed several trade options that could help the team into a better cap position.
From that group, Kailer Yamamoto and Klim Kostin were dealt.
There’s a good chance several of the players noted here are entering their final months as members of the organization.
(Photo of Dylan Holloway: Perry Nelson / USA Today)