As most have undoubtedly heard by now, yesterday the Oilers re-signed Ryan O’Marra to a one-year contract. It’s a depth signing, and while he’ll undoubtedly compete for a spot in training camp my expectation is that he starts the year in Oklahoma.
The trade of Andrew Cogliano to Anaheim earlier this week cleared a slot up the middle on the Oilers’ NHL depth chart. As it stands, the Oilers will employ three NHL veterans – Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger in the center position, with some question regarding what order they’ll slot in. Gagner’s the best of the bunch offensively and has the most upside, Horcoff’s the incumbent in the top role and has some nice qualities, while Belanger is a perfect third-line fit but has enough offense that if he challenges for a top-six role nobody should be surprised.
The wild card here is the name of the fourth centre.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is going to be given consideration; he’s the first overall pick and an opening night slot on the second line might be in the cards. Several scouts have opined that given his size and strength, the Oilers would be better off giving him another year in junior to physically mature and cut down the injury risk. Personally, I only see one of two options – either he makes the team out of camp and impresses over the first nine games, which would mean that he gets significant minutes all season long, or he gets sent back to junior at some point before game 10 and has minimal impact on the team.
The player I feel worst for is Gilbert Brule. As a rule I try to be coldblooded in analyzing player decisions, but Brule’s the kind of player anyone would empathize with. Over his brief time with the Oilers he’s been active in the community – I know hockey players have money, but $10,000 for Maddox Flynn is above and beyond – and has been plagued by injury. This summer’s aborted trade to Los Angeles, one that saw his health status and the desirability of buying him out bandied about by Dean Lombardi, could not have been an easy experience. My hope is that he’s healthy enough to start the year to contend for the fourth-line role (or at least move into it if Nugent-Hopkins is sent down), but at this point it’s far from certain.
Highly touted Swedish center Anton Lander will make his North American debut this season. He scored enough in the Swedish Elite League last season to think that he’ll be able to contribute some offense at the NHL level, but that’s not what has received attention all down the line. Since his draft year, Lander’s character and defensive play have been lauded by scouts, and given his resume some feel he’s a perfect fit for the fourth line. I think he’ll get the job if Nugent-Hopkins is sent down, but from a development perspective I’d like to see him play some top-line minutes in Oklahoma before he’s consigned to a depth role in the NHL.
David Staples wrote on this topic the other day, and his preferred option was Chris Vande Velde. I don’t think Vande Velde has the chops to handle the role at this point. Partially that’s based on his work in the NHL last season; Staples thought he “looked OK” but I saw a guy with no offensive dimension struggling hard to hang on defensively against fourth-liners. More so, however, that’s based on his play in the American League. He had a slow start, but even taking that out of the equation he had a miserable year; from December on he played 45 games, scored just nine points, and finished minus-11 on a playoff team. If he’d done that in the NHL, I’d be all for giving him a shot, but he did it in the AHL, and when a player can’t score and gets lit up in terms of plus/minus as a 23-year old in the AHL, he’s not ready for NHL work and it’s entirely possible he never will be. I’m not writing him off entirely at this point (it was his first professional season, despite his age) but I would like to see improvement in the minors before Vande Velde gets another NHL shot.
How does Ryan O’Marra fit into the picture? As hard as it is to believe, given how long he’s been on the radar, O’Marra is actually younger than Vande Velde by a few months, but he’s probably been passed by him on the depth chart. Last season was the make-or-break year for O’Marra in a lot of ways, and while with 22 points and a plus-nine rating he had probably his best AHL season he was outworked at the NHL level. Renney deployed him largely in the offensive zone, almost exclusively against fourth-liners, and his line still got outshot by a 3:2 margin while contributing minimal offense. O’Marra has proven over his professional career that scoring won’t get him into the NHL, and getting out-shot 3:2 almost certainly means his defensive game isn’t NHL quality as of yet. I think he’s being kept as a reserve forward, the kind of guy that competes in camp and gets a cameo in the NHL if enough people get hurt. Certainly that’s what his resume suggests at this point.
The dark horse in this discussion is checking forward Milan Kytnar. I doubt he gets much of a shot, based on his use in the AHL last season, but he’s been a defensive specialist since junior and chipped in more offense last year in his rookie debut than O’Marra has over his entire career. He turned 22 over the summer and will almost certainly start the year in the American League, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him leap-frog both O’Marra and Vande Velde by the end of 2011-12, and I feel he’s going to be a strong call-up option toward season’s end. Beyond the two blue-chippers (Nugent-Hopkins and Lander) listed today, he’s the guy with the best shot at an extended NHL career.
In an ideal world, I’d like to see the Oilers start with Nugent-Hopkins and Brule, sending down the former after nine games. Injury risk is the biggest reason I’m advocating that path for the first overall pick, but there are other reasons. Brule serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when small but highly-touted prospects get injured in their debut NHL season, but I also hope the Oilers look at what they did with Sam Gagner – he avoided serious injury (narrowly, as those who remember that big Boogaard hit in his rookie year can speak to) but it isn’t clear that getting the fast track to the NHL really served his development all that well. Meanwhile, I fear the team won’t be able to rely on Brule, but I think that a) his style of play fits the fourth line, b) he’s an above-average fourth-liner if healthy and c) the team is less worried about his development than they are Lander’s.
Assuming Brule can’t go, and the Oilers don’t add a Dominic Moore-style player (a useful veteran that can’t find a home) in the dog days of free agency, than the only real choice I see is Lander. Developmentally, it would be nice to see him in the AHL, but his resume as a professional is far superior to any of the other options in the system at a far younger age, and I can’t see him losing a battle to the likes of O’Marra and Vande Velde on merit.