Changes are coming in Edmonton this summer. A first-round sweep against the Winnipeg Jets guaranteed as much for a team in win-now mode, and with a number of inherited contracts coming off the books, general manager Ken Holland is certain to bring in new faces and make the team unequivocally his.
Monday's trade with the Chicago Blackhawks will be the first move of many. The Oilers traded defenseman Caleb Jones and a conditional third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in return for Duncan Keith.
That's three-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time Norris Trophy winner and four-time NHL All-Star Duncan Keith. Not since Chris Pronger in 2008 has a defenseman of such stature joined Edmonton. His credentials are unimpeachable, and he'll be an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer. During a press conference on Monday night, Holland made sure to allude to those qualities while staunchly defending the cost of acquiring Keith, referencing the player's "experience" and "intangibles," which he said are needed to succeed in the playoffs.
The assets surrendered to Chicago are not a big deal. Caleb Jones is a 24-year-old defenseman on an $850K cap hit who skates well and can do a competent job as a sixth or seventh defenseman. The Oilers, having already traded a number of mid-round draft picks in recent years for meager returns, are further cutting into the prospect pool with the departed third-round pick, which isn't great. In the big picture, those are negligible expenditures in the pursuit of improving the NHL roster.
This is less about what Holland gave up and instead what he has acquired in Duncan Keith; a soon-to-be 38-year old with a $5.5M cap hit through 2023. It would be one thing if Keith was merely past his prime. That wouldn't preclude him from being a contributing member to the Oilers in the next two seasons, even if at an inflated salary.
But Keith's on-ice performance has been actively detrimental to Chicago for years. Per Evolving-Hockey, Keith has been worth minus-18.9 goals over the last five NHL regular seasons; only Roman Polak ranks worse among NHL defensemen during that span.
Micah Blake McCurdy @IneffectiveMath
Caleb Jones (traded to Chicago with some picks) is an average nhl defender. Duncan Keith (in return to Edmonton) is a liability to his team on offence at 5v5, a liability on the powerplay, a liability on the penalty-kill, a severe defensive liability at 5v5, and a poor shot. https://t.co/ruLIbB7pwP
Statistics aren't infallible, and there's something to be said about a change of scenery. Sometimes different systems fit different players better. There's a human component, too, and sometimes a fresh start can reinvigorate players.
However, Keith has endured a long and painful decline over a number of years to the point that his outputs resemble that of a player long past usefulness at the NHL level. A new, less physically demanding role in Edmonton could mitigate his problems, but that's still a long way from contributing in a positive manner.
There are likely many causes for Keith's decline. The age factor is obvious, and maybe more impactful is his mileage; 1,327 total NHL games will take a toll on a player's body. What stands out most is Keith's decline in foot speed. A participant in the 2008 Fastest Skater competition, Keith no longer has the same mobility that drove his success during his prime years.
In the offensive zone, he'll still put his hands and vision on display, but he's no longer the same threat with the puck in motion. More pertinently, his defensive game has become non-existent. He isn't able to close gaps and win sprints to pucks the way he used to. There are other players who never relied on speed and can continue to play a meaningful role in their later years (Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, for instance). Keith has shown no ability to compensate.
Of course, the Oilers did not acquire Keith solely—maybe not even primarily—because of tangible on-ice talent. As Holland and many in the Edmonton media have stated, Keith brings other qualities to the table. Experience, leadership and, above all, knowledge of "what it takes to win" in the National Hockey League.
It's the same tired narrative that has been tried time and again in Edmonton with nothing but underwhelming results. Holland himself was hired with the dynasty he built in Detroit in mind. Never mind the fact those teams were largely built during a different era of hockey and pay no attention to the mess he left behind for Steve Yzerman to clean up. Holland hasn't brought his winning ways to Edmonton yet.
Before Holland was Peter Chiarelli, who won a Stanley Cup in Boston.
"His record speaks for itself," CEO Bob Nicholson said at the time of his hiring. Indeed it now does.
In previous years came a parade of dynasty-era throwbacks. Mainly head coach/general manager Craig MacTavish and president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe. In 2013, following a seventh-straight season of missing the playoffs, Lowe defended his ability to build a team.
"I'll say that there's one other guy in hockey today that is still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me. So I think I know a little bit about winning, if there's ever a concern."
Lowe was removed from the role after two more failed seasons.
Along the way, many players with Stanley Cup pedigrees were brought in. Milan Lucic, Dustin Penner, Nikolai Khabibulin and Erik Cole among them. Andrew Ference was not only brought in but named the 14th captain in team history. All of these players combined to win one playoff series in Edmonton. They must have forgotten to pass their wisdom on.
There's no doubting that Duncan Keith, over the course of a long, successful career, has learned a few things he could pass on to his teammates in Edmonton. He might have some advice to lend to Evan Bouchard on how to improve his pivots. He might set a good example in the film room. He may well know what calming words are needed in the locker room after a devastating overtime loss.
But the Oilers organization seemingly treats the conditions necessary for winning the Stanley Cup like some sort of mystical formula outside the bounds of hockey itself to which only a select few are privy, as if it's a family recipe Grandma has hiding in the attic. There appears to be no plan beyond baseline appeals to authority.
What it took for Keith to win three Stanley Cups in Chicago is not a mystery. The most basic and important requirement is a really good team. Per Evolving-Hockey, over that six-year span, the Blackhawks ranked first in the NHL in five-on-five expected goals percentage. To compare, the Oilers ranked 15th last season and 21st over the last three seasons. One can imagine how ugly those numbers look when a certain superstar isn't on the ice.
Becoming a really good team requires a lot of really good players. Players relegated to Chicago's third line in 2015 such as Patrick Sharp and Teuvo Teravainen would easily be Edmonton's second-best wingers today. Nor does Edmonton have anything remotely matching the iron wall of (prime) Keith, Brent Seabrook,Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
Winning the Stanley Cup requires a lot of ingredients: A cohesive locker room, some mature leaders who can help the group battle the trials and tribulations of a long season and luck.
But most importantly. It requires a well-rounded roster with numerous layers of talent and competency. It's still early in the offseason, and perhaps Holland has a few major tricks up his sleeve to completely change the makeup for the better. As of now, and over the last few seasons, the Oilers have been nothing more than a skeleton crew propped up by two offensive superstars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl who fell into the organization's lap at the draft table years ago.
Keith, one of the worst defensemen of the last few seasons, isn't going to do the team any favors on the ice, and unless dramatic changes are made, all of the brilliant advice, leadership and intangibles he theoretically has to offer won't do anything for a team that lacks the comprehensive talent necessary to contend in the NHL.