What the Oilers have/What the Oilers need: Forwards

Jonathan Willis
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

The options:

  • 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

The options:

  • 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:

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.

Forwards 10-14

The options:

  • 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.

Completed 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.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#2 TheRealEberle
February 08 2014, 10:28AM
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If Eberle gets traded I think I would cry more than Smyth did when he first got traded

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#3 Jordan Nugent-Hallkins
February 08 2014, 10:30AM
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Boyd Gordon is, in my opinion, one of MacT's best acquisitions. The guy's a rock. Nuge should be getting one on one time every practice with him, learning the art of the face off.

Gordon gets real low, usually ends up on one knee after each draw. I don't know if Nuge has the upper body strength to pull this off yet.

EDIT: Ebs has been my favorite Oiler ever since his first goal against Calgary. But I would be willing to part with him+ if it meant a top D man or clear cut 2C coming back.

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#4 Halfwise
February 08 2014, 10:30AM
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Clear-thinking analysis. As a fan I have favorite players, but the team comes before the individuals.

If you broaden the perspective to include the holes on D, the trade chips have to be spread a bit more thinly.

Does an Eberle fetch an OEL or equivalent top pairing D?

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#6 RT26
February 08 2014, 10:33AM
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Jonathan,

Great write up. Quick question - do you think Arcobello could play wing on the third line/ shutdown line?

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#8 TonyT
February 08 2014, 10:43AM
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Wow, I actually agree with everything you said. As much as I like Ebs, I agree he fetches more in a trade (right now) and I don't think I've ever seen him initiate contact or finish a check. I know he's clutch in the jrs but I don't how that will hold up in the playoffs if he never plays the body.

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#9 gomez
February 08 2014, 10:45AM
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@RT26

Sounds like the return on hemsky and gagner be minimal. Eberle would be best bet to bring missing pieces.

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#10 OilDieHard
February 08 2014, 10:46AM
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yup, seems easy to make all the right moves....problem with the Oilers is will they actually make the suggested moves? we also have to compete with all the other teams for the good UFA's, so trades for the players we need seems more logical, though i always worry about trading a player who's happy here for a player who might not want to be here or stay here.

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#11 Harry
February 08 2014, 10:46AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If the team could get every free agent it wanted, btw, I'd fill those missing spots with the following:

  • Paul Stastny
  • Dustin Penner
  • Nikolai Kulemin
  • David Moss

There's no way that happens, of course; there's only so much money and every team's going to be competing for a small list of available UFAs.

Good thing we kept that useless plug Hemsky and traded Penner hey?

I think we could also hold onto Ebs and Yak but only if we get a Ryan ORielly type #2 center

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#12 Al Low
February 08 2014, 10:49AM
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Great analysis. Does Lander have what it takes to be that 4th line centre? He hasn't been overly impressive at the NHL level., thus far. I kinda was hoping Hartikainen would come back into the fold next year and possibly battle for a spot. The Mark Fraser trade looks senseless thus far based on what I've seen of him so far.

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#13 Air on Egg blood
February 08 2014, 10:52AM
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JW, what do you think the price would be for a guy like Martin Hanzal in a trade?

You're not rooting for Patrick Thoresen anymore???

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#16 Walter Sobchak
February 08 2014, 10:57AM
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I know I’ve said this before but I would really like to have a Dubinsky and Jenner on this team.

I would move Peron way before Eberle, I see Eberle has more upside, he has a favorable contract with length & term, Peron will be a UFA in two years, and the chances of him staying at this point would have to be pretty slim.

Yakupov shouldn’t be dealt but have a strong feeling the Oilers are moving him this summer.

Sam Gagner has to go! If the Oilers are ever going to improve this is the guy that has to be replaced. I would be hesitant to deal Hemsky.

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#17 Woogie63
February 08 2014, 11:00AM
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Basically agree with this. After the break I would anticipate that Lander and Pitlick will have to play more hockey in the NHL.

To really understand what we have in these two we have to create room for them to establish themselves are NHLers.

I would like to see Lander played in the 2C slot and the PP, to see him with skilled players. If he can be successful here he can play the 2014/15 season as the 4C.

I would like to see Pitlick play 3RW, with lots of minutes and NOT benched when he makes a mistake...it is about play time and growth.

That means we need find another slot for Gagner and Hemsky... Prune to grow.

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#19 Dog Train
February 08 2014, 11:01AM
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With the position that the Oilers are in, at least we have a longer time-frame to worry about making these moves. I would focus on adding picks and prospects at the deadline for players that are no longer in our plans and giving guys like Pitlick and Lander a long look. Teams might be more willing to make deals for guys like Eberle or Gagner in the off-season when the cap goes up.

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#20 Rod from Viking
February 08 2014, 11:02AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If the team could get every free agent it wanted, btw, I'd fill those missing spots with the following:

  • Paul Stastny
  • Dustin Penner
  • Nikolai Kulemin
  • David Moss

There's no way that happens, of course; there's only so much money and every team's going to be competing for a small list of available UFAs.

Stastny- too small, too expensive,upgrade on Sam? Dustin Penner-will he suddenly be motivated? Kulemin-He would be great if he would come. David Moss-Like his game as well.

Johnathan, what do you think of Jamie McGinn? He is a rugged player with decent hands and good speed.

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#21 DSF
February 08 2014, 11:05AM
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If you can move Eberle for a top pairing D (somewhat doubtful), you're left with Gagner, Hemsky (a rental who would likely only yield a draft pick), Smyth (likely no value because of age) and Jones as trade chips.

I would imagine you could try and move Klefbom or Gernat for 3rd line help so the acquisition of a #2C and a top 6 power winger become problematical unless you can acquire them as UFA's

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#23 Reg Dunlop
February 08 2014, 11:08AM
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You make a good point about the top 6. Balance there at the expense of assets like Eberle should make the oil a better team.

You make a bad point, 'hoping for a training camp injury' regarding JJ. Hopefully you were being facetious.

You make debateable points regarding Hemsky. If you think a non-aggressive 30 year old UFA who has an injury history is a better bet than a hardnosed 32 year old with term left on his contract... with what the oil lack now I have to disagree.

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#25 Walter Sobchak
February 08 2014, 11:11AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I'd move Perron before Eberle too, if the trade value on both was the same. I don't think it's even close; Eberle has way more cachet.

The trouble is that Edmonton needs help on D and I don't think anyone movable other than Eberle or maybe Yakupov brings that back.

So with that said Jon, do you think the Oilers could get by with an Ehrhoff to stabilize the defense?

My thinking is the Oilers are going to bring in Nurse, possible Klefbom and have a real good chance at drafting Ekblad. One or possible two of those players could be in the lineup come next season, if you include Marincin as a starter that’s three new defensemen.

Is that true heavy minute defensemen really a priority for the Oilers right now?

I can’t see an Eberle for an Ehrhoff making much sense? I can see a Peron for Ehrhoff or possible Yakupov for Ehrhoff but certainly not Eberle.

Of course this all depends on if those kids are really ready to be NHL defensemen and if the Oilers are even interested in Ehrhoff.

Will Klefbom be ready?

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#26 Woogie63
February 08 2014, 11:11AM
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MacT should wake up every morning and work on a;

1C - RNH might be better suited as 2C - you need to draft ...nobody trades this guy

2D- to play with an improving Shultz - trade a talented forward as noted above

1G - self evident - grab from FA or a trade it happens all the time.

Buy a team in the Q and OHL as the future of amateur scouting and player development.

Then enjoy 2013 Family Day.

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#27 David Staples
February 08 2014, 11:11AM
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Why not trade Perron, having a career year, and hold Eberle, who will be better over next five years?

And this argument about Boston, well, Lucic changes entire complexion of the forward lines, a nasty, skilled, intimidating forward like that. Average size isn't the issue, it's having that kind of big, tough, skilled player ... and good luck finding him.

So if you can't get a Lucic, what do you do?

I guess you just keep looking for one. A Hanzal would also do :)

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#28 Batfink
February 08 2014, 11:12AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If the team could get every free agent it wanted, btw, I'd fill those missing spots with the following:

  • Paul Stastny
  • Dustin Penner
  • Nikolai Kulemin
  • David Moss

There's no way that happens, of course; there's only so much money and every team's going to be competing for a small list of available UFAs.

Not Penner. Never Penner. His last year with oilers he was -12. I don't see this as the real Penner any more than I see the real Penner this year with his +19. Somewhere in the middle on an average team with average linemates is more realistic. With the Oilers again? Who knows. Playing with Getzlaf and Perry is like being whatever pylon the Canucks used to put with the Sedins. The Detroit octopus thrown on the ice could put up numbers with these guys.

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#29 tileguy
February 08 2014, 11:12AM
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I think if a decent return is realised with Ebbs you can keep Hemsky as your 2nd line RW if he agrees to sign for 2-2.5 mil.

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#31 DSF
February 08 2014, 11:21AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Are any of the draft eligible centres NHL ready to the degree you can plug one of them into the #2C spot?

I would assume Buffalo, if they retain the top pick, will take a centre since they are loaded with D prospects so which one of the 3 rated in the top 5 do you think could step in and play next season?

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#32 etownman
February 08 2014, 11:22AM
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You need to think outside the box JW & not so much in straight lines! I agree that the Oilers need a big talented top 6 player that can consistently play in the top 6 but there's no need in my opinion to move a 35 goal scorer to acquire the size needed in this lineup! Having Hendricks & Gordon on the third line looks good to me but I'm really hoping the Oilers focus on filling the 3rd spot on the 3rd line with the right guy & that would be a player with size who can move up & down the line up! He doesn't need to score but he needs to be physical & not have plays die on his stick! What's wrong with adding a younger version of Hendricks who can play up & down the line up? THe young guys are maturing & being much more physical with the moves MacT has made so far, there's no need to move any of Hall, Hopkins, Yakupov, Eberle or Perron, just add a physical player to top 6 & another to the third! Build the fourth line with Gazdic on it & it would be interesting to watch the results!

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#34 Rama Lama
February 08 2014, 11:24AM
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JW does Eberle get you PK Subban?

As much as I like Eberle, he has become very predictable and as you correctly pointed out his shooting percentage over his first two years was high and unsustainable.

I think having Subban anchors the defence and gives us options trading one of our up and coming defenceman for a solid top six center.

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#36 Walter Sobchak
February 08 2014, 11:27AM
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David Staples wrote:

Why not trade Perron, having a career year, and hold Eberle, who will be better over next five years?

And this argument about Boston, well, Lucic changes entire complexion of the forward lines, a nasty, skilled, intimidating forward like that. Average size isn't the issue, it's having that kind of big, tough, skilled player ... and good luck finding him.

So if you can't get a Lucic, what do you do?

I guess you just keep looking for one. A Hanzal would also do :)

My thoughts exactly about Peron, trade high, and get something of need.

You then have an option for keeping Hemsky if you can’t find a decent trade for him.

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#38 Reg Dunlop
February 08 2014, 11:30AM
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If I didn't take your points the way you meant them then please enlighten me. It seems to be a big jump from JJ isn't an everyday NHL player to hoping he gets injured in TC. Obviously JJ is not much of an upgrade on Petrell but to see an injury to any player as a good thing seems wrong. Excuse me if I am missing something or if I am out-to-lunch on this.

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#39 Quicksilver ballet
February 08 2014, 11:30AM
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With Hemmer exploring other options soon. There will be a need to fill a spot on the RW. Chris Stewart from the Blues may soon get Perroned if the land Ryan Miller by mar 5th. If Miller does land in St. Louis, it would probably be accompanied with a multi yr extension in the 6 mill per range.

Eberle in the trade bait category is hard to fathom.

Think the Oilers will land Ekblad this coming June. Like in other recent drafts top 3 teams seem to focus on potential elite offensive players and not blueliners, as seen in Adam Larsson and Seth Jones. Ekblad will still be on the board when the Oilers draft in that 3 or 4 spot. Maybe they could get Rod Langway in here to help tutor Ekblad, Nurse, Marincin and Klefbom for a couple years.

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#40 DSF
February 08 2014, 11:32AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I haven't spent as much time keyed in on draft prospects this year as I have in years past, but from what I've read and heard I'm inclined to believe both Bennett and Reinhart will be in the NHL next season, likely as 2Cs. Agree/disagree?

No idea but it's always a risk to rely on an 18 year old in that prominent of a role.

I think, if I'm MacT I would take a hard run at Ryan O'Reilly from Colorado.

The Av's have Duchene and MacKinnon as their top 2C's and, even if they don't re-sign Statsny have Max Talbot to play #3C.

Eberle might get that done.

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#41 etownman
February 08 2014, 11:33AM
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Also JW, I know fans are tired with the line 'be patient' but I believe the Oilers are close to harvesting some interesting players out of their system! Yakimov turns 20 this year & I'm really hoping the Oilers can sign & bring him over because I was impressed with him at WJC & he was a leader for Russia! He's doing great in KHL & is 6-5! Moroz & Khaira are graduating from WHL & both are around 6-3 214 lbs. These are big, physical players that can play but need a little time to develop! Ewanyk & Kessy are tough, physical players I'm following at OKC & they look like they're candidates for 3rd or 4th line roles!

We see the fruits of patience with Marincin & I believe we're going to see the same with these forwards, just a little more patience required!

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#45 Benhur
February 08 2014, 11:37AM
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i do like your analysis but I still would hate to see Ebs go...the justification here is that Yak projects better...which is questionable! Getting an offensive big winger would be nice but who is going to trade one of these unless they are lesser talents with lower upside. Who would be available? If someone is available they usually draw a premium as seen during last summers free agency and how did that work out? The other player I see as an asset is Hemsky but not at his current price point. I would sign him as a third liner as he is doing a good job in that role now. Also he can play up the order when needed. Unfortunatley I believe Hemmer will opt for free agency so MacT is backed into a corner here...a no win situation! If Lander is going to succeed he'll need to be in more of an offensive role not on a 4th line pluggers role...he's just not built for that. I see him as a 3rd liner...probably slotting into Hemmer's spot. I do agree that they should try out some of the OKC players as mentioned...but how do you do that without exposing players to the waiver wire? It's going to be extremely difficult for MacT to get the pieces we need this summer so good luck to him. Another point...I'm not happy with the coaching and I haven't been for a long time because of the teams inability to exit their zone. They have way too many turnovers in the Dzone....sometimes 2 to 4 times as many as the oposition. This is definitley a coaching issue and I was glad to hear Dallas talking about it (finally) a few games ago. I think this is one of their biggest areas of improvement needed! Hemsky happens to be one of the few forwards that can move the puck up the ice through stickhandling or passing!!!!

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#46 Serge
February 08 2014, 11:38AM
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If Oilers are trading Eberle and that is a big if and if Philly is a trading partner rumour of the day Oilers would be wise to go after Sean Couturier.

I don't like the idea of going after a top Dman because he will be an older player and Oilers are not going to be peaking anytime soon. They have some excellent prospects at D.

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#47 Wohin gehst du?
February 08 2014, 11:40AM
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Look, I know Joensuu hasn't played well, but would you really wish injury on him?

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#49 DSF
February 08 2014, 11:42AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I love O'Reilly as a player but have trouble believing the Avs would move him in-division.

Could be but, of course, Eberle would also be moving in division.

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