There are 6 slots for 7 skill forwards on the 10-11 Oilers depth chart. Penner, Hemsky, Gagner and Hall are a lock, but the rest of the group is a moving target. It is so fluid we may well be having the same conversation one year from now.
In a very real way, the Oilers could have made life much easier for themselves if they’d chosen Tyler Seguin #1 overall. I’m not arguing the pick (Taylor Hall is a solid #1 overall selection) but we’re left with a depth chart deep on both wings and soggy in the middle. In the previous look at reasonable expectations (the foot soldiers) I named Shawn Horcoff and Jordan Eberle among the group that will be asked to play a specific role outside the top 6F and 1PP. I’ll list the top 7 candidates for the two offensive lines below, but we should acknowledge that both Horcoff and Eberle could push their way onto the top 6F’s at any time before or during the season.
- LW-C Dustin Penner: I think we should start by talking about the possibility of Penner playing center this coming season. His FO percentage wasn’t terrible (48%) compared to the rest of the group and he has had a season over 50% (in fewer sorties). My personal preference would be to keep Penner on LW (he’s very effective there) but from a roster point of view it makes sense. Penner is the straw that stirs the drink in the offensive zone, and an absolute giant of a man when he has the puck and a lane. He is the ultimate Coke Machine when he’s on his game and an extremely valuable hockey player who creates powerplay after powerplay just by maintaining possession in dangerous areas. It is a pure tragedy that the best hockey of his career is likely to be played deep in the NHL’s second division. Reasonable expectations: Outrageous minutes on the PP and a lot of work on the 1line at 5×5. This player is a stud and Renney has shown a willingnness to run those types ragged in the past. 81gp, 35-35-70. Dustin Penner is a big part of this hockey club.
- RW Ales Hemsky: I believe Ales Hemsky is the best player on the Oilers hockey team. He’s a splendid talent, worth the price of admission all by his lonesome. Unlike a more cerebral player (like Sam Gagner, as a for instance) Hemsky is pure reaction, reflex and skill: he was touched by God. He is not a perfect player (turns the puck over at the blueline, needs to shoot more) but he’s got game, gumption and will crank it up no matter the opposition. That’s a lot to like. Hemsky’s injuries are a big concern, especially considering the huge number of games missed this past season. He is the most physical of Edmonton’s skill wingers (although Taylor Hall may give him some competion. NOTE: I’ve listed Brule as a center here) and he is outstanding on the PP. One imagines Hall (or MPS, or Eberle) cashing more of those butter goalmouth chances than Shawn Horcoff has in the past after 83 has delivered a wonderful pass. I think Renney will rely on Hemsky in all situations this season and would be shocked if this player gets less than 4.5 minutes a night on the powerplay. Reasonable expecations: 60gp, 18-48-66 and a steady diet of skilled rookies auditioning for the role of Hemsky’s wingman.
- C Sam Gagner: On October 22, the Oilers played Gagner with Penner and Hemsky, with predictable results. Penner was the first star, Hemsky 2nd and the kid third star. The totals for that line: 4 goals, 9 assists, 13 points.
Dustin Penner: "That would have to be the best game of my career, certainly statistically. The stars lined up for me and my linemates tonight. It feels really good. I don’t know the last time I was on a team that bounced back from down as much as we were. That’s one of the games where you know the true meaning of momentum." The game highlights are here. Gagner is a cerebral player with a wonderful imagination. His first three NHL seasons have been frustrating for some, but a closer view (Corsi) suggests a steady improvement in terms of moving the puck in the right direction. He’s worked very hard over the summer and recently signed a two-year deal that I suggest will be a bargain for the Edmonton organization. Injuries are a concern, but the arrows are strong and positive for Samwise. Reasonable expectations: 80gp, 16-37-53. If they can find a rookie winger to cash his passes–AND they can find a way to use them against the soft parade–Gagner could have a monster season at age 21.
- L Taylor Hall: Taylor Hall scored 14-32-46 on the PP and 4-1-5 shorthanded last season in the OHL. Doing simple math, that makes his EV number last season 57gp, 22-33-55 (.965). That EV number is exceptional compared to other juniors with similar numbers. Let’s use Steven Stamkos (a nice comparable overall) as an example: 61gp, 23-23-46 on the PP (basically the same, Hall played 4 fewer games and had a lot more assists but the same point total); 5-3-8 on the PK and that makes his EV number in his draft year 61gp, 30-21-51 (.836). A lot of numbers, but bottom line is Hall did more damage at EVs than Stamkos and that remains true for several juniors in their draft year (Sam Gagner is another). That EV number is excellent. Hall has swagger and skill and you get the sense that he’s going to cut a wide swath as an NHL player. I would only caution that it is unlikely to come all at once: the last 18-year old to score 100 points for Edmonton was Wayne Gretzky for the WHA Oilers. Reasonable expectations: 74gp, 20-20-40 and much better if Renney can fix the PP with Hall an integral part of it.
- C-R Gilbert Brule: Sometimes when a team is historically bad it is easy for fans to overlook real growth. Last season–in the middle of a monumental clusterbleep season–young Gilbert Brule ripped of the shackles that held him back and kicked out the jams at the NHL level. He’s still 5.10 and he’s not a complete player, but Brule brings some grit, skill and attitude. Plus he can win faceoffs (or at least he won 52.6% of 274 sorties last year). If Dustin Penner stays at wing, I suspect the top 2 centers on the team with be Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule. Reasonable expecations: 75gp, 18-22-40. If Brule can deliver another season just like the last one, Oiler fans should start including him on that list of outstanding young players who could be here when the Stanley returns.
- L Magnus Pääjärvi: I often talk about arrows and how many are pointed up or down. All of the arrows in his quiver are positive: speed to burn, pro experience, he’s a shooter on a team with puckhandlers and he’s more physically mature than the other kids. PLUS he played defense as a kid ala Bengt Gustafsson so there might be some awareness of the overall game. I cannot wait to see him in pre-season. Reasonable expectations: 66gp, 12-18-30 and some breathtaking dashes into enemy territory. If he has some element of a two-way game, this guy could be a major part of the club within a couple of seasons.
- C-W Andrew Cogliano: I’ve listed him here because it makes sense that the organization will try him on the skill lines. He has three seasons of NHL experience and should be posting better numbers, but the organization should try him with some skilled men for half a season before sending him away for 10 cents on the dollar. If Cogliano can come to camp and find some chemistry with one or two of the kids, Edmonton`s 4th line might be a "kid line" that gets more minutes on nights when things are clicking. He was on that kid line that went supernova spring 2008. I see him as being more of a winger than center, but it seems he and the organization still hold out hope that he can play the center position. Reasonable expectations: 82gp, 10-20-30 and one final effort to find a role in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers.