April 07 2014 10:47AM
The Edmonton Oilers are a team with many problems, but there are some good things there, too. Number one with a bullet on that list is the line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.
The Kids & the Hall
Hall’s a monster with any linemates, and watching him put the rest of his game together is incredible. He’s always been a hard-driving offensive difference-maker, but during the last lockout he added in a gift for playmaking that hadn’t really been part of his NHL skillset; we’re now at the point where he’s a first-rate setup man.
More than that, though, is his defensive game. I’ve always felt Hall got shortchanged reputation-wise because he drives results, but watching him the last month blocking shots and backchecking, it feels like there’s a dimension there that I hadn’t seen before, too. I’m not supporting this with numbers, but by eye it feels like somewhere around midseason he just found another level of defensive commitment.
Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle aren’t on the same level as Hall, but as a trio they’ve done some exceptional things together, both in the past and in this late season. Together, they’re a legitimate No. 1 line in the NHL.
The Rest of the Forwards
The Oilers, as they have for so many years, now need to find a way to support that top unit with 10-11 competent forwards behind them. Today, a healthy Oilers team looks something like this in those roles:
- David Perron – Sam Gagner – Nail Yakupov
- Matt Hendricks – Boyd Gordon – Ryan Jones
- Luke Gazdic – Ryan Smyth – Jesse Joensuu
- Anton Lander – Mark Arcobello – Tyler Pitlick
The second line is both awfully close and a mile off. An optimist sees a keeper on a great contract (Perron), a reliable scorer coming on after a terrible start (Gagner) and a potentially elite goal-scorer (Yakupov). The pessimist sees the same keeper, a black hole up the middle with awfully limited replacement options, and a winger who probably shouldn’t have spent the last two years in the NHL and has awfully high bust potential.
The rest doesn’t look much better than the Steve Tambellini editions of the team, and that (along with the defence) is a job for the general manager to tackle this summer. Gordon’s been very good, Hendricks was a nice addition, Arcobello’s done good things and one imagines they’ll hang on to Gazdic for pugilism.
What represents enough improvement? Would moving Gagner for a third-line wing and adding a couple of free agent veterans do the trick? Is a depth chart that looks like the following good enough behind that top line?
- David Perron – Mark Arcobello – Nail Yakupov
- [Viktor Stalberg] – Boyd Gordon – [David Moss]
- Matt Hendricks – Anton Lander – [Blake Comeau]
- Two of: Luke Gazdic, Jesse Joensuu, Tyler Pitlick and Ryan Smyth
It’s a scenario that nicely highlights, for me, the difficult choices that need to be made on the second line next year. Yakupov’s a gamble – a gamble worth making, certainly, but a gamble all the same. At centre, the choice is even tougher, because finding an external candidate for the role is going to be very difficult, very expensive, or both, and the internal options are Gagner and Arcobello. It shouldn't be too difficult to fill out the roster but that No. 2 line is going to be tough.
There’s also this summer’s draft, where the Oilers will likely hold the No. 3 overall selection. The idea of Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett or Leon Draisaitl starting next year between Perron and Yakupov is a little scary, but long-term might be the best solution. It’s also the kind of move that retaining Arcobello (a pretty good fallback option in the event of struggles) might hint at.