There have been a lot of rumors swirling in recent weeks about the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers. Jackets GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, was recently at the Oilers-Devils game. Oilers GM, Peter Chiarelli, was at the Jackets-Sabres game on Monday. Darren Dreger went on TSN 1050 in Toronto yesterday and had this to say:
“But things have changed a little bit. So let’s go back to the draft in Chicago. I know Columbus was willing to consider a top pick for Ryan Murray. Now they want player-for-player, and they’re in the market for a center. Is it Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of Edmonton. Who might it be. Right now Nuge is playing great hockey for the Oilers, so I don’t think they’re interested in parting with him. But my sense is the asking price – if it’s Ryan Murray, or for most defenseman that the Oilers have some interest in – is still too high.”
Last night, the Oilers got absolutely hammered in St. Louis, losing to the Blues by a final score of 8-3. It is the second time in the last week they have lost to St. Louis, having lost 4-1 on November 16. In between, they managed another blowout loss to Dallas, 6-3. While Cam Talbot isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with a 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.2 percent, he’s also faced more shots against 5-on-5 than all but two other goalies—Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy – not to mention facing the fifth-most high-danger chances against in the league.
No doubt, Edmonton is currently having some bad luck. The luck stat, PDO, has them third from the bottom with 96.67 percent combined shooting and save percentage. Their shooting percentage is particularly noteworthy because they are shooting an abysmal 5.8 percent. This is particularly interesting given that their expected goals for is top-five in the league. This means they are not just getting shots, they are getting quality shots and for whatever reason they are not going in to this point.
So, what we know about the Oilers is that they are doing a good job in the offensive zone though they have been unlucky, and they are letting opponents get too many shots on net, which may be asking too much of Cam Talbot. If they were going to try and salvage this season, the fix has to be on defense. Darnell Nurse has finally started to look like the player that people hoped he could be. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have struggled a bit. But the biggest problem is still Kris Russell. It should be no surprise that Russell is their worst defenseman when you look at Corsi For Percentage as that has been a problem for Russell for a long time.
Meanwhile, Columbus’ struggles have been finding a center who can play with Artemi Panarin. An early experiment with Alex Wennberg failed when Wennberg became too passive. There was no chemistry with team captain, Nick Foligno, who only converted to a center out of necessity. While Pierre-Luc Dubois has shown some promise in recent games on a line with Panarin and Josh Anderson, the Jackets may not want to rush Dubois and may want insurance in case he hits the dreaded “wall” later in the season. This is a team that is near the top of its division, a division that includes the Stanley Cup champs, despite not playing its best hockey and it is clear that management feels with an addition that the team can contend for a Cup this season.
Meanwhile, the Jackets top defensive pair of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones has been out of this world. With John Tortorella loosening the reigns and allowing Jones and Werenski to “rove” in the offensive zone, the dynamic duo has already accounted for 7 goals. You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that their possession stats are also quite good. What has been a surprise, has been the play of young Markus Nutivaara. In just his second season, the 2015 seventh round pick of the Jackets has suddenly contributed offensively the way that Tortorella had hoped that he would, putting up 7 points and solid possession numbers.
On the other hand, David Savard and Jack Johnson have struggled and it isn’t the much maligned Johnson who has struggled the most, it has been Savard. Tortorella finally had seen enough and scratched Savard last week against the Rangers. Savard was back in against Buffalo on Monday and both he and Johnson were significantly better. If that pair can get back to playing at the level they did last season, the Jackets have a better shot of making it deep into the playoffs. Don’t listen to rumors from out-of-town reporters that throw around Savard’s name. It seems highly unlikely a team weak in depth on the right side is going to give up on Savard just because of some early-season woes.
The one regular defenseman I haven’t yet mentioned is Ryan Murray, who has spent the season paired with Nutivaara. As has been the case for most of Murray’s career, his role on that pair has been to be the “responsible defenseman” freeing up Nutivaara to roam in the offensive zone. He’s quietly excelled in this unheralded role, managing a positive Relative Corsi, but, more interestingly, the highest expected goals for percentage of any Blue Jackets defenseman.
The Jackets are blessed to have a seventh defenseman who is ready to take on a regular role. Gabriel Carlsson played for the Jackets during their playoff series against the Penguins and showed some promise playing a similar role to what Murray is currently playing. And, while he still needs some work, Carlsson’s possession numbers aren’t bad in the limited minutes he’s been given. The problem is that Carlsson won’t crack the lineup as long as the other six defenseman are on the roster and the AHL isn’t going to give Carlsson the development he needs at this stage, though it is a fine temporary solution to get him playing time.
Additionally, both Johnson and Murray will be free agents in the off-season. Murray is still a restricted free agent, but after taking a bridge deal on his last contract, he’ll be looking to get some real money this summer. Meanwhile, the Jackets have another prospect in Vladislav Gavrikov who will be in Russia through the end of his current contract in the summer of 2019, but will then likely be looking to make the jump to the NHL. With the Jackets re-signing Cam Atkinson and looking ahead to extending Werenski and potentially Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer of 2019, they may not be able to commit to Murray long-term.
Enter the Oilers and frequent trade rumor candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins is having a great season from a production standpoint, despite finding his line mates changing with some frequency. He’s on a pace to have his best season to date with 17 points including 8 goals through 21 games. That’s roughly a 30-goal pace and nearly 70 points. On the flip side, his possession stats are not particularly stellar. He has a negative Relative Corsi For Percentage and Relative Expected Goals For Percentage. I do have to wonder how much of that is based on the line mates he is playing with to this point in the season. He’s spent the most time out there with Milan Lucic (who has lost a step) and Ryan Strome. At times they have had him out there with Lucic and Zack Kassian. All of those players are negative possession players. Kassian has only 3 points, all assists, to this point in the season.
With Leon Draisaitl counting $8.5 million against the cap and Connor McDavid’s new deal with a $12.5 million annual cap hit kicking in next year, it has been clear for a while that Nugent-Hopkins was the odd man out. Paying $6 million for your third line center or playing an $8.5 million center as a wing is not exactly the best use of resources when McDavid is already getting $12.5 million against the cap. Using Nugent-Hopkins to land a defenseman to round out the top 4 and send Kris Russell down to anchor the bottom pair would be a wise move for the Oilers, but one they need to pull off sooner than later if they have any hope of making the playoffs this spring. While I think there is a good argument that the deal should be one-for-one given Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million cap hit, I think it is likely the Oilers want something more and that may be the hardest part for the Jackets. I’d keep Sonny Milano or Boone Jenner in mind as a possible second piece in a deal. Milano might fit the Oilers’ game plan better than he fits with Torts’ system. Jenner is another possible cap casualty for the Jackets who is going to be coming off his bridge deal this summer.
While a deal makes sense for both sides and both sides seem to be investigating the possibility, that doesn’t mean it gets done. The Jackets hold the cards here in the respect that they are near the top of the standings and don’t need to make a move right now, particularly as long as Dubois and Panarin are playing well together. If this deal doesn’t happen, there will be other options for the Jackets. I’ll look at some of those options in my next column, barring a trade in the meantime.