December 06 2012 10:30AM
Three is usually considered a magic number. In fairy tales you get three wishes, tasks often involve three challenges, in baseball you get three strikes, and for the Edmonton Oilers it would appear that three is going to be something of a theme.
Yakupov hasn’t joined the team yet, and neither has Justin Schultz. But even after they do, this Oilers squad looks more and more like it will be defined by the forward trio of Hall, Eberle and Nugent Hopkins. With that in mind, I’m going to offer up a trilogy of my own, looking at expectations and roster projections for this team for the next few years.
Over the last few months I’ve had a few requests to project out the Oilers roster over the next few years, taking an approach similar to what I did with a recent series of articles re-examining franchises like the Devils and Jets.
I'm reluctant to undertake any massive roster calibrations and permutations for two reasons:
It has been done before by people far more insightful and cognisant of details to which I am only vaguely aware. If you want that, read Lowetide or anything Jonathan Willis writes.
And I think this will find general agreement here on the Nations – nobody wants me to produce another epic of Tolstoyan-proportions.
That aside, what I will do is take a look at the roster, the UFAs, the roles that need to be filled, and the likely candidates within the organization and try to suss out any weaknesses in the franchise’s development pipeline.
I’ll start with a review of what the Oilers have up front and what can be expected from current or on-the-cusp players at the forward positions.
I don’t really want to waste time here debating whether this season will be cancelled or not, so I'll just skip ahead to the starting roster for the 2013 season.
A quick note – free-agency, in my view, should be treated as a kind of last-phase quick fix to address the smallest problems that the organization hasn’t been able to address internally. Bringing in a big-name free-agent to be your #1 defenseman or a 1st line forward, doesn’t always work. In fact, often it can backfire. This usually requires an overpayment and the results are almost always underwhelming. Where free-agency is most effective is in filling in the final few details, a fourth-line grinding winger or a depth center to win a defensive-zone faceoff and kill the clock when playing with a lead – the Willie Mitchell range of player.
Might as well start at the top. The top six will at some point include Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov, Hartikainen, Hemsky, Paajarvi and Gagner over the course of the next two to three years. Obviously not all at the same time, but I think that those are the names that we can expect the team to build around. Hemsky may leave, and Paajarvi may not make the cut permanently as a top-six forward, while Gagner may be moved in a trade. But the first two lines are far more settled now than they have been in a very long time. Like I said at the beginning, this whole thing is going to start and end with the Big Three.
It is the depth ranks where things get chaotic.
The Oilers have drafted and are developing a very deep group of limited talent in players like Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick, Kritians Pelss, Tobias Rieder, Jujhar Khaira, Anton Lander, Ryan Martindale, Travis Ewanyk, Mitchell Moroz, Toni Rajala and a host of others. The trick here is that many of these players were drafted at the same time as those in the top half of the lineup. By virtue of their being works-in-progress, they are likely to take longer to develop into NHL-ready players than Hall or Nugent-Hopkins. So the gap between now and when they are ready for the NHL must be bridged with veterans, holdovers, and free-agents.
It can be frustrating to see one half of the roster come so clearly into view only to have disorder and short-term solutions fill the other portion, but I’d far rather be faced with this problem than the inverse.
So I'll begin with taking out the most likely candidates for replacement.
My Mistake, Four Coffins
(The Eastwood gold is at 1:33, interesting note, the Hays film rules were still in effect that would have prohibited showing the firing of a gun and somebody getting shot in the same scene. Leone had no idea about this and Eastwood wasn't going to tell him. The result is the shooting-from-the-hip shot. Terrific camera work.)
Nikolai Khabibulin, Darcy Hordichuk, Lennart Petrell, and Andy Sutton will likely all have moved on. Most of those roster spots I suspect will be filled internally. I expect Yann Danis or a bargain UFA goaltender could slot in to support Dubnyk. The wings can be manned by promotion from the farm team or signing a UFA to a short-term deal similar to previous contracts to players like Petrell and Hordichuk.
Oh, and sorry, but Shawn Horcoff isn't going anywhere.
If the Oilers can’t find a way to trade Ben Eager or make his contract disappear, then I think Ryan Jones is also allowed to walk. If they can find a new home for Eager, then I am of the opinion that Jones gets a one-year deal as a 4th line winger with some penalty-killing duties.
A Fistful of Options
Subtracting Petrell and Hordichuk from the roster would seem to give the Oilers two holes to fill, but I believe that by this time both Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen are put into the roster. Hartikainen may end up playing in the top six, while Paajarvi seems to be destined to enter the NHL roster as a 3rd line forward. This leaves the 4th line LW spot open for Ryan Smyth and an extra roster spot for a potential enforcer/agitator type player. Dane Byers might be a good candidate to fill that role.
It is worth noting that Hemsky could slot in along the left-wing for a short time on a line with Gagner and Yakupov (those three would appear to have strong complementary skills), perhaps meaning that either Hartikainen or Paajarvi continues to play in OKC for a short time.
It speaks volumes as to the metamorphosis this club has experienced these past six years that its former top winger and face of the franchise, Smyth, is being so comfortably relegated to the role of depth winger expected to play roughly 60 or 70 games.
Now, about that right-wing
Depth on the right wing starts with Eberle, then there is the temporary shuffling of duties between Nail Yakupov and Ales Hemsky and then on to either Ryan Jones or Ben Eager. There is considerable depth here, for the time being, but in two years’ time, should injuries play a factor and/or Hemsky have departed via trade or free-agency, the talent pool quickly becomes very shallow. This will need to be addressed. My belief is the best remedy is the one already available, to retain the services of Hemsky as a 3rd line winger on a deep team. My ideal solution is at the end of the next paragraph.
Down the middle of the roster, Nugent-Hopkins is the #1 center, on that I think we can all agree. Sam Gagner, be it by merit or default, is the 2nd line center. Following that , as I said, Shawn Horcoff isn’t going anywhere and the 4th line center position could go to either Eric Belanger, if he remains with the team, or perhaps Chris Vande Velde for a time, until Anton Lander or another option becomes available. Center depth for this team, as well as addressing some toughness, pugnacity, and flexibility at both wing and center would be for the Oilers to trade to acquire Henrik Samuelsson from the Phoenix Coyotes. Maybe they would accept some corporate sponsorship in trade, or be anxious to pay off the debt created by the Oilers' selection of Steve Kelly rather than Shane Doan.
I haven’t mentioned Hall at center because I have yet to hear anything explicit about his being tried at that position in OKC, so will continue to operate on the assumption that he plays the LW.
For what it is worth, I believe that Ben Eager and Eric Belanger will be moved before or during the 2013-2014 season. Steve Tambellini has shown a disturbing loyalty to his free-agent signings (see Khabibulin, Nikolai), but the men in the room now (Lowe, MacTavish, and others) lead me to believe that he would move off of those players if there are better options available, specifically internally. There were rumours around the end of the season and leading into draft day that Belanger had requested a trade to Montreal. If even half of this is true, that Belanger would like an opportunity somewhere else, then I think Tambellini and company would be more than willing to facilitate the process.
So we might imagine the Oilers’ roster for 2013 looking something like Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Hartikainen, Gagner, Yakupov, Paajarvi, Horcoff, Hemsky, Smyth, Vande Velde, Eager or Jones, and Dane Byers as the extra forward.
Over the course of the next few years it is likely that the bottom six of that roster is gradually replaced with prospects like Tobias Rieder, Kristians Pelss, Tyler Pitlick, Jujhar Khaira, and others as they mature and graduate from the farm team.
I need to make a point here; I’m not guaranteeing that any particular player in the bottom six is going to become the player that the team requires. Like the Canucks, the Oilers could end up hunting for years for that complementary 3rd line center or winger who can push the team over the top. What I am saying here is that there are a decent number of options graduating into the pro ranks year after year and with time and luck enough of them ought to be able to turn into the role players that this roster will need.
At the very end of this series I'm going to take a look at some, if you'll pardon the use of the term, reasonable expectations about the current prospect group in so far as how many might eventually make the NHL cut. I think the weaknesses that appear will prove interesting.
Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. Geniuses, both.