EDMONTON — When we asked Ken Holland what happens to the plan when you lose two of your top four defencemen for nothing, with Oscar Klefbom injured and Adam Larsson gone to Seattle, he was direct and concise.
“You make a new plan.”
So this is what the new plan looks like:
• Signing Zach Hyman to a seven-year contract with an average annual value of $5.5 million.
• Re-signing Tyson Barrie on a three-year term with a $4.5 million AAV.
• Replacing Larsson with Cody Ceci, on a four-year deal ($3.25 million AAV).
• Nabbing centreman Derek Ryan on a two-year contract with an AAV of $1.25 million.
“I believe that we’re deeper on the back end, and I believe that we’re deeper on the front end,” Holland said of his work at the free agent deadline. “And we’re still exploring.”
What do we think about Holland’s handiwork? Let’s dig in, shall we?
• Hyman makes Edmonton better. There is no debate that finding a proven left-winger for Connor McDavid and solidifying a position that has been a revolving door on the Oilers’ top line is a positive over the next five years. The contract is a couple of years longer than you’d like, but that is how free agency works.
It is near impossible to find a negative view on Hyman from around the hockey world. “Steady as a drumbeat,” was one description that sums up the player.
• Barrie, the NHL’s leading scorer among defencemen and a player who wants to play in Edmonton, for three years is a win. Forget his season in Toronto — Barrie is a proven offensive contributor who needs to be buttressed defensively — and having him back makes Edmonton a better team.
“I had fun playing hockey again last year and that was important for me. We like Edmonton. It’s a good fit. It’s a joy to come to the rink. It’s a good culture they have,” said Barrie.
For some, signing an above average offensive D-man on a contract we would consider to be favourable is bad business. Those folks are not named McDavid, Leon Draisaitl or Darnell Nurse, however.
“Connor called me this morning, all the boys texted me,” Barrie said Wednesday. “I think we have a good thing going, a good group of guys, and the sky’s the limit.”
• Ceci. Now we get to the question marks.
Who is Ceci? Is he the player who finished second in plus-minus (plus-18) and second in scoring (17 points, all even strength) while playing 18:31 per game for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season?
Or is he the guy who struggled in Toronto the year before that, part of a Leafs blue line that needed an overhaul? Today, one third-of that group mans the Oilers’ blue line, with Ceci and Barrie in Edmonton.
Barrie is undoubtedly a better player in blue and orange than he was in blue and white, while Ceci was no doubt a better player in Pittsburgh than he was in Toronto. Can he be a solid, shutdown piece on the right side of the second pairing — likely with partner Duncan Keith — who can justify dealing away a 24-year-old Bear?
This is the one acquisition Holland made on Wednesday that carries the biggest asterisk. We don’t blame him for losing Larsson, but on a day he needed a stout defender, acquiring Ceci is going to be on people’s radar for a long while in Edmonton.
• Bear was, in the end, another small defenceman who doesn’t defend well enough. A right side of Barrie, Bear and young Evan Bouchard simply is not an option for a team that wants playoff success, so turning him into a bigger, third-line left-winger who can help Edmonton’s depth up front was good business.
Bear can surely play for your team if he is surrounded by a bigger more defensive-minded D-corps. On this team he is more of the same, and became the odd man out on Wednesday.
• Ryan? Why not.
Holland has a third-line centre-of-the-future in Ryan McLeod, and was unable to acquire a high-end 3C on Wednesday. So he landed what is essentially a high-end 4C in Ryan, a smart utility forward who will insulate McLeod and help him grow into the role.
If by the deadline McLeod just isn’t able to play third-line centre yet, and Ryan is deemed not productive enough in the role, Holland will hope to find one at the deadline to help in the playoffs.
You can’t get everyone you want on one day, especially in a cap system, and this is one place that remains fluid.
The other? In goal, where Holland failed to get in on a goalie carousel that saw 14 netminders move through Central Registry on their way to new clubs Wednesday. He was in on Darcy Kuemper but couldn’t close the deal, and had a deal to move Mikko Koskinen’s contract if he could have landed the Arizona goalie.
Now he’ll start the season with the same tandem from last year, and try to adjust on the fly if he has to.
Make no mistake: the fact that Mike Smith and Koskinen combined for a team save percentage (.910) that ranked seventh in the NHL at all strengths last season is only part of the equation. Koskinen does not have the trust of the players or the organization, and failing to get better at the most important position leaves doubt inside a locker room that knows a backup to Smith will get 35 starts this season — and perhaps have to weather an injury to the ageing starter.
“I understand people talking about (our) goaltending. Smitty is 39, Kosky is 33,” said Holland, who acknowledged that Koskinen’s $4.5 million AAV for one more year has him stymied. “The only way I can get into the goalie market is if I trade a goalie. I could not get into the goalie carousel because of contracts.”
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