February 08 2014 10:21AM
The Edmonton Oilers enter the Olympic break on the upswing, having gone 5-1-1 over their previous seven games, primarily thanks to strong goaltending. The break gives the organization a breather to take stock of where they are at and chart their path over the last quarter of the season and into the summer.
Let’s take the opportunity here to do the same.
What we’re going to do is go through the roster position by position, and determine what changes need to be made over the summer and at the deadline and what questions need to be answered to make those changes.
Top Six Forwards
- Jordan Eberle
- Sam Gagner
- Ales Hemsky
- Taylor Hall
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
- David Perron
- Nail Yakupov
The Oilers have seven top-six options for next season, making this technically a position of strength but the mix needs to be changed. The consensus view seems to be that size needs to be added, particularly down the middle. While I think a bit of size would be a welcome change in the complexion of the group, I also think the most important thing here is to add two-way ability.
People forget that teams like the 2011 Boston Bruins (to pick one example) weren’t actually all that big up front. Boston’s top six had two big wingers (Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton), two tiny wingers (Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand) and a lack of size down the middle (Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci). Overall, that group averaged out to being 6’, 204 pounds. That’s still bigger than the Oilers – and Edmonton could really use a guy (especially on that second line) with the size to create chaos in front of the net. But the big thing with Boston’s group was that it had a pile of dedicated two-way guys. Edmonton has two, maybe three if we’re feeling generous.
In my view, Edmonton needs to axe three of the seven players above. They currently have seven players for six spots and need a two-way centre and a power winger. I’d nix Sam Gagner (owing to two-way indifference), Ales Hemsky (owing to age and health concerns) and Jordan Eberle (it’s him or Yakupov if the team needs help on defence and Eberle looks to me like the guy who will fetch more in trade).
All three are good players, particularly Eberle. But the mix needs to change and Edmonton needs trade assets.
The Third Line
- Boyd Gordon
Some might include Matt Hendricks or Ryan Smyth or Ryan Jones on this list. I don’t, though I’m close with Hendricks (the problem with Hendricks is age and style – he’s a guy likely to drop-off in the near future and consequently counting on him here is problematic). Ales Hemsky might be included too – he’s been fine in the role this year – but I have a specific vision for this line and Hemsky’s skillset isn’t a great fit.
A Dennis King tweet lays out my vision for this line exactly:
Look at lack of defensive awareness/effort from the Oilers talented kids and if that doesn't change you'll need Neidermayer-Pahlsson-Moen— Dennis King (@DKingBH) February 7, 2014
We’re trying to make the top end more defensively responsible, but it will take maturation for guys like Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov to get there, so in the meantime a dedicated hard-checking, nothing-happens defensive line will help ease the burden. Gordon’s one member; the Oilers need two more.
- Mark Arcobello
- Luke Gazdic
- Matt Hendricks
- Jesse Joensuu
- Ryan Jones
- Anton Lander
- Tyler Pitlick
- Ryan Smyth
I’m a big believer in a few things. Ideally, a roster should have 14 forwards and seven defencemen (since the eighth defencemen ends up sitting for long stretches), it should have a fifth centre and with the exception of the 10th forward guys on the fourth line should generally be both cheap and young. I’ve included the NHL guys this year as well as the relevant AHL guys who won’t clear waivers next year as options; the Oilers have five spots for these eight (plus whatever they want to add).
Personally, I think the team doesn’t need to add anything here; there’s lots to like in the depth group. Assuming that Luke Gazdic’s role is seen as essential, the four others I’d take are Arcobello, Hendricks, Lander and Pitlick, with Joensuu buried in the AHL (or being the beneficiary of a training camp injury) and the others departing as free agents. That gives the team three guys who can play centre, a legitimate top-six fill-in option and brings two young AHL’ers who are coming on strong into the mix (I laid out the case for Lander and Pitlick the other day). It also gives the coach four penalty-killing options (everyone but Gazdic) at the end of the roster.
Naturally, there’s wiggle room here. If Nail Yakupov or David Perron work in trade as well as Jordan Eberle does, it’s possible to keep Eberle and move one of them. If third-line wingers prove impossible to find, Matt Hendricks could slide in at left wing and one of Smyth or Jones could replace him on the fourth line; a cheap Ales Hemsky could work on the other side too if it comes down to that. If a two-way centre absolutely cannot be added, than Sam Gagner could be retained as a place-holder until such time as one is. And so on.
But this is the basic plan I’d pursue in Craig MacTavish’s shoes, and any trade I made would need to fall in line with it. In other words, if some team offers me a fourth-liner, I don’t care because I already have a fourth line; I’m moving players either for other trade ammunition (picks, prospects) at the deadline or for players who will help fill the actual holes I have in my lineup.
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