Every time I look at the Oilers’ forwards this season, I’m amazed by how young a group it is. Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi are all under the age of 20, and playing in their first season. Gagner, Brule and Cogliano are all 23-or-under, and all are expected to play pivotal roles in the top-nine. Shawn Horcoff’s the lone top-12 forward over 30, Penner’s next at 28, Hemsky’s 27, and the remaining regulars are either 25 or 26.
And every time I think about that, I wonder if the Oilers could use a steady veteran up front.
First, it should be said that the lack of veteran leadership doesn’t mean the rebuild won’t work. The pre-dynasty Oilers weren’t bursting with experience; in 1979-80 the oldest forward to play any kind of significant role with the team was Stan Weir, at the tender age of 27. Brett Callighen was next at 26. Looking at the ages of the players on those teams, they never relied on veterans to keep the team in line, and as I recall they still managed to achieve a measure of success.
Then again, at the start of the 1980’s, 30 was really, really old. In 1979-80, only 30 forwards over the age of 30 managed to play 50 or more games. Last season, that number jumped to 112. Even allowing for the fact that there were only 21 teams in 1979-80, that’s a nearly threefold increase. Improved conditioning has players still having a meaningful impact at a much older age, and so we might argue that Callighen and Weir were in fact seasoned veterans, despite their younger ages.
While I’m not sure I buy that argument, and do believe it’s possible to engineer a successful rebuild without veteran guidance, many hockey men with far broader experience disagree. For instance, here’s Ken Holland’s take on the subject:
"The veterans’ leadership is also playing a major role in the development of our players. Igor Larionov and Steve Yzerman have had a major impact on Pavel Datsyuk. You know, Pavel looked up to Larionov and the latter was always talking to him. He was talking about how to be a professional, how to eat, how to train and how to come to practice every day. "Chris Chelios took Jiri Fischer under his wing, they have played together when we won the cup in 2002. Fischer was the partner of Chelios and they also were talking all the time on the bench. Lidstrom partners up with Niklas Kronwall. So our young kids are paired with veterans and the latter are teaching them how to play the game. This is also a major fact that helps us developing our prospects.
From what I’ve read and heard, I tend to think that Holland’s thoughts represent the consensus of NHL general managers. That doesn’t make it automatically correct, of course, but when hockey men I have a lot of respect for advance a theory like that, I pay attention. Especially since the theory sounds sensible, as that one does.
Going back to this year’s Oilers, they have some options if a space should clear up (via injury or reassignment or trade).
Owen Nolan had hoped to sign with a contending team, but it’s easy to imagine that any NHL job would appeal to him right now. He’d bring a wealth of experience to the organization, with more than 1200 games played for six different franchises. He knows the pressure of being a first overall pick; he was one in 1990. He was an NHL captain for five seasons. He knows the pressure of playing in a Canadian market, having dressed for the Nordiques, Leafs and Flames. Twice he’s won gold medals with Team Canada. His skill-set is excellent; he’s big and gritty and he’s scored 16 or more goals every season since 1997-98, and 30+ points every year since 1993-94.
Bill Guerin’s also available. He was brought into training camp with the Flyers, but had only a middling preseason performance, and as with Nolan time is of the essence. Like Nolan, his experience is tremendous; more than 1200 games played with eight different teams. Like Nolan, he knows the pressure of being a highly-touted prospect; he was the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft. He spent two seasons as an NHL captain, with the New York Islanders. Guerin has firsthand knowledge of the Edmonton fishbowl; he spent parts of four seasons with the Oilers and had a lot of personal success with the team. He has a Stanley Cup ring and has been an international champion with Team USA. The last time he scored less than 40 points was when he totalled 39 in 59 games back in 1997-98; he had 21 goals and 45 points last season.
As I said earlier, I’m not totally convinced that a veteran warhorse is a necessity. That said, on balance I think a player like Nolan or Guerin would be a real asset for the Oilers’ young players, and I think the team could find room for one of them. My question for readers is simply this: should the Oilers look to add one of these two players?