TOP SIX: NEED VARIETY

 

What is a top-six forward?

How many teams have six legit top-six forwards?

How many successful teams have six similar top-six forwards?

We can debate who qualifies as a top-six forward, but it seems few teams have six legitimate ones, and those that do rarely have all of them producing at the same time. However, the good teams don’t have six of the same type of forwards on their top two lines. Most of them have a variety of size, grit and tenacity combined with above-average skill.

Now that they are the healthy the Pens probably have the best array of top-six forwards. Superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and complemented by a power forward in James Neal, an excellent two-way player in Jordan Staal and solid wingers Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis and his 51 points. They Pens have the luxury of having the two best centres in the game so they are a rarity.

The Flyers have Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Daniel Briere and Matt Read. They also have three young former top-eight picks in Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and James Van Riemsdyk scattered throughout the lineup. They have great skill in Giroux and Briere, size and skill in Jagr, skill and ruggedness in Simmonds and Hartnell. They have a great mix in their top-six.

Detroit has Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Todd Bertuzzi. They have two dynamic players in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, two big bodies in and then two pretty good skilled guys in Hudler and Filppula.

Boston has Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Nathan Horton. The Bruins have loads of size and skill an agitator in Marchand and two strong power forwards in Lucic and Horton. They will be the only team in the NHL with a shot to have six players with 50+ points this year. Seguin 61, Bergeron 58, Lucic and Krejci 55, Marchand 50 and Chara 48.

All of these top teams have a nice mix of skill, size and some grit.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

It seems every year the amount of players getting 50 points is dropping. I remember when 80 points seemed like a good number to shoot for, but now it seems many "top-six" forwards are in the 40-50 point range.

If a guy tallies 40-50 points, but is one-dimensional does he really help you? The game has changed. If a team has a player who is purely offensive then he needs to be a threat one-on-one and has to be a 50+ point player to help you win. Most coaches would rather have a 40-point guy who can kill penalties or brings some other intangibles to his game, than a one-dimensional forward with ten more points.

THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS

Right now I don’t think the Oilers have the right mix in their top-six to win.

They have four very skilled forwards in Eberle, Hall, RNH and Hemsky. Health would seem to be the only thing that will stop them from producing next season, however, none of them possess much size or physical attributes in their game. None of them are scared, in fact their high-end skill strikes fear in opposing D-men, but they need to have some skilled-grit to play with them. Not every player needs to be a bruiser, but the Oilers need to find some guys with a combination of skill, size and grit to mix in amongst these four.

The Oilers are lucky that they have four highly skilled forwards, because those are the hardest to find, but now they have to ensure they surround them with the proper pieces.

I asked TSN analyst Ray Ferraro his thoughts on building the top-six of the Oilers.  

"The complementary players to play with the four (Hall, Hemsky, RNH, Eberle) you are talking about, has to be someone who can get in the battle for a lose puck, stay in the battle, win the battle, make a play in tight quarters, and when he gets a pass from one of the skilled guys he doesn’t chop the puck up into 14 pieces. He’s got to be able to make a play to keep the rush, or the cycle going.

 "I believe you can find that, in fact I know you can. It may take some time, and I know everyone wants it to happen overnight, but put it this way it is way easier to pinpoint that type of player when you already have the skill guys in play. Most certainly that is something they have to attack and try to plug a hole as they move from the stage they are at now to a position of actually competing for a playoff spot. That is something they have to address." 

Which type of players are we thinking about?

Guys like Chris Stewart in St. Louis. The risk with Stewart is that he’s a bit of a partier of the ice, but he’s big, strong, mean and he’s scored 28 goals twice. He’s having an off-year with the Blues, so if they lose out early in the playoffs maybe they’d be open to moving him.

I’m thinking about guys who provide grit and skill like Nick Foligno (44 points), Steve Downie (41 points) Brandon Dubinsky (only 31 points this year, but he’s produced over 40 a few times), Steve Ott (38 points), Ryan Clowe (41 points) and David Clarkson (28 goals, 42 points).

Some of the best examples are guys who likely aren’t on the market right now: Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Scott Hartnell, James Neal, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Ryan Callahan and Curtis Glencross (I know, bad decision by the Oilers).

They will be hard to find, but the Oilers need to start looking.

TRADE OPTIONS

Now before you go all crazy and suggest I think the Oilers need to trade Magnus Paajarvi, read what I’m saying.

In order to get something of quality you need to give up quality, and Paajarvi might be that guy. I really like his attitude, and I believe he will be a solid NHLer. However he brings essentially the same tool box as the Oilers four skilled guys, just without as much finish.

Paajarvi has incredible speed and when he learns to use his size to his advantage he might be very dangerous, however, he will never be a rugged or gritty player. That isn’t a knock, because he has great skill, but if the Oilers could acquire a Dubinksy or Clowe the asking price would be someone like Paajarvi. It would be a risk, because Paajarvi is younger, but if the Oilers are serious about finding the right pieces for a contending puzzle they might have to give up on potential skill, for a guy who has more grit, but maybe a bit less skill.

I think the same goes for Sam Gagner. I’m a huge fan of Gagner and I think he’ll keep improving because he works very hard in the off-season to improve his game. He also has shown he will stand up for his teammates when necessary, and h’ss well-respected in the room. I wouldn’t give up on Gagner, but if he could fetch a gritty forward with some skill, I’d at least be open to listening.

DEVELOP FROM WITHIN?

Do the Oilers have any players within the organization that can fill this void?

Right now it looks like Teemu Hartikainen, Ryan Jones and Tyler Pitlick would be the best options. However, none of them have shown an ability to drop the gloves and protect their more-skilled teammates on a regular basis. It might not be a necessity, but if you look at the best ones out there they are all willing to do that a few times a year.

Jones did fight in junior A, but he hasn’t done it regularly for years. Hartikainen and Pitlick have never really done it. I’m not saying they can’t slot into the equation at some point, but if the Oilers are looking for a mixture of skill and nastiness then they likely aren’t the answer. Hartikainen’s physical play will be a welcomed addition, but they will still need another nastier skilled forward.

BEST BET

Their best bet will be to draft a guy who plays that way.

I think Stu MacGregor has done a pretty solid job since taking over in 2008, but my one critique would be they’ve never gone after a skill guy with an edge. When they drafted Cam Abney in the 3rd round, they took him to be an enforcer, not a guy who could play in the top-six.

You don’t have to take this type of player in the first round, although guys like Hartnell, Ott, Kesler, Downie and Foligno were, but they need to start drafting guys like this in the later rounds.

Neal went 33rd, Lucic 50th, Dubinsky 60th, Marchand 71st, Callahan 127th and Clowe 175th. Excluding Lucic, most of them cut their teeth in the AHL for a few years and then debuted in the NHL. They have skill, but they also have an edge to their game. They produced points and pims in junior, and these types of players are something the Oilers need to start drafting.

In this year’s draft guys like Tom Wilson, Henrik Samuelsson, Brenden Troock and Mitch Moroz are players they should look at this year. They have skill, but they also possess an edge which the Oilers are drastically lacking. There are others of course, but those are the types of guys they need to look at.

Recently the Oilers have drafted guys with size and skill, which is a good, but they haven’t taken any players who consistently bring that vital mixture of skill, speed, grit, nastiness and toughness.

It needs to be added to their list of "Must-Haves" moving forward? Who would you add?

  • Bucknuck

    It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Having said that, I don’t care what size of fight is in a Chihuahua, it’s losing the battle against a Rottweiler. I would hope that they draft some big nasty bodies this year.

    Speaking of big nasty bodies, why isn’t Ben Eager playing more minutes? I don’t really get it, am I missing something in his game?

    • OilLeak

      He’s big, fast, and strong but overall lacks the ability to play with high end forwards. He has never put up points anywhere he’s been before, why would that change now?

      The fascination that Edmonton fans have in turning 4th line plugs into 1st line forwards is bewildering.

      • Oilers89

        I agree that he is not ideal, but then again Petrell and Jones have played on the top line, and I’m not sure that either are necessarily better fits. Jones has been putting up points and goals though.

        • OilLeak

          Neither are the answer if the goal is complete 2-way wingers with the ability to play tough competition and provide some offense.
          Find and acquire the correct players that do suit this role, don’t promote players that are incapable of filling the role.

          Last I checked we were still a lottery team, shuffling the deck chairs doesn’t solve a damn thing.

        • OilLeak

          So you want him on the third line? That’s not the answer either. Eager is not a 3rd liner on a good team or a bad one, he’s a 4th liner, at best.

          The Oilers need more good players to become a better team, over-promoting players beyond their skill level is not the way to do it.

  • OilLeak

    Jorden Tootoo is starting to come into his own and has skill and a whole lot of crazy. UFA could be interesting but does lack size. he could play the agitator role similar to marchand on a top 1 or 2 line. then you could move a smaller forward.

    also Shane Doan is UFA which could be perfect. he’s only 34. Also like PA Parenteau for another UFA.

    as for a trade… Clowe would be the best fit and would be worth over-paying with prospects.

  • Jason Gregor

    And to think Lucic was in our grasp…..Lowe is only interested in small fast players and our draft record reflects this.

    If we want tough hard nosed players, we need to start drafting them and get over our need for speed above all else.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Not sure if it is friction between Renney and Tambellini, but Steve did give Tom both Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk this last summer. Renney has misused them for the most part. Giving them bit roles on a physically challenged hockey club. Eager has zero confidence right now and looks to be a wasted venture.

    Getting these type of players is one thing. Using them properly is another. It’s something the Oiler coaching staff definately struggle with it appears. Given the opportunity, Ben should be able slide into the first and second lines and be comfortable by now. Renney has just pushed those guys into the corner and pizzed on them all season long.

  • Time Travelling Sean

    I like Eager, 13 minutes a night isn’t a stretch for him? How much does he get currently anyway?

    TBH I do think Harti can be that guy, he plays a gritty game, and like Ferraro said he can go in the corners and keep the cycle going. Sorry if he isn’t Wendel Clark and doesn’t beat people to a pulp because they looked at him wrong. Although players can adapt, they can add things to their game if it’s that big of a deal.

  • First to third line’s this team is not tough at all! The 4th line are terrible hockey players.

    These players need to go.

    Jones-Petrell-Hordichuck-Belanger-Eager-MPS-Omark-Barker-Khabibulin

    These players in

    Doan-Stoll-Tootoo-B.Jackman-Grigorenko/Galchenyuk-Ashton-Clutterbuck

    Your team just got a whole lot nastier and a little tougher to play against. IMO this is do-able!

        • Time Travelling Sean

          Reddox was 5’11, scored 0 goals in 50 games?

          Sure Petrell isn’t extremely high level elite talent. Your bottom six isn’t made out of players like that.

          He has a role on this team, and he fills it very nicely.

          Should we trade him for someone like him? Your bottom six should consist of guys exactly like Petrell no?

          All I’m saying is Petrell’s role is just as important to the outcome of the game as someone like Hemsky. He plays that role very well. Why trade him for someone like him? That’s confusing.

          And no, there isn’t 100’s of Petrell’s, simply because Petrell can actually execute his role on a consistent basis.

          His forechecking, and grittiness with his ability to penalty kill and think, and can pot in 1-2 shorties a year isn’t a simple 800k free agent pick-up because no team would simply dump a player like that.

          I mean it’s confusing, the bottom six should have gritty penalty killers who can think the game and can contribute offensively every once in a while.

          We have that yet we want to trade him for someone like that?

    • Rogue

      Petrell is fine in his role, Eager is fine as a fourth liner, and we’ve never seen MPS used effectively in a role to be evaluate what we have in him. The rest can go, but unless they have expiring contracts we will see them I fear.

      As for players coming in, Doan’s not coming unless a trade, and I don’t know his contract status. Stoll this year is marginally better then Belanger this year in terms of stats. You would have to get rid of Belanger to bring him in, and the way he was treated here last time, I don’t think he will sign. Jackman is ok, but hes getting older. I would not be against him being here. Tootoo, Clutterbuck, Ashton I concur would be lovely players to watch.

  • @ Time Travelling Sean

    Really? What makes him so special? (Mind you I dont dislike Petrell)

    He’s a north south skater who hits a little and fought what? twice this year. play’s 6-8 min a game(maybe).How effective is that! Has what, 3 or 4 goals and 3 or 4 assist! ~Ya that’s really hard to replace~Oh, what the Christ!

    • Time Travelling Sean

      His tenacity on the forecheck, his gritty play, his penalty killing, and the ability to score 6-10 goals make him a solid player.

      If you think Hemsky’s role is more important than his your wrong. Hemmer can win a game more often then Petrell can, but Petrell can also make us lose games, and he has been the antithesis of that. If anything his tough,gritty,grinding, responsible play has made us more difficult to beat.

      We shouldn’t trade him/offload/dumphim/ simply because he isn’t from Oakville or Edmonton, because I see no reason whatsoever to simply dump him.

      And sure, he can be easy to replace? makes no sense, why replace something you already have? players like Petrell and Eager and Belanger have just as much weight in the outcome of a game as Eberle does.

  • John Chambers

    I don’t really agree with Jason’s premise, that variety and balance is needed to have a winning team, at least not in the way Jason is talking about it. I think you’d rather have it than not, but I don’t think it’s so important that you downgrade your talent to get it.

    Sure the Oilers could use a Neal or Lucic, but would they necessarily help more than a Giroux, just because they play a more physical style that would add variety?

    • Jason Gregor

      Show me a team that has won with six, smaller, non physical forwards in their top two lines..

      If you can find one I’d like to see it. So to answer your question, while Giroux has more pure skill, it wouldn’t guarantee more success.

      • Jason Gregor

        Why do I need to? For one thing, what do you mean by “smaller” and “non-physical”, I would need to know exactly what you mean before I even agree that all 4 of EDM’s forwards fit that description. I don’t know that accurately describes Hall, for instance. Or, even if it accurately describes Hall now, will it accurately describe him in 2 years?

        Secondly, that something hasn’t been done before isn’t really an argument as to why it couldn’t be done going forward, especially when we don’t really know why it hasn’t been done before. Has no team has ever won with 6 forwards of your description (I don’t know, I haven’t looked too extensively, I don’t think DET’s last Cup run would fit your decription, although they weren’t the biggest or most physical top 6/9 ever) because it couldn’t possibly work, or because:

        (a) it’s too specific. As you get more specific with the requirements, it’s pretty hard to fit those requirements. Probably no team has ever won the Cup before with their top 6 forwards all 6’4″, 220 lbs, or bigger. Do I think that means it couldn’t work if you could get the right 6 forwards? No.

        (b)Maybe the game has changed. Maybe you couldn’t win with 6 small forwards in the past, but you can now and there simply isn’t enough years since the new CBA for an example to pop up.

        (c) It’s too hard to get 6 good enough players at that size. Not that it couldn’t work, but practically speaking, it’s too hard to find, keep, and pay 6 forwards like that. Am I supposed to believe that, if a team were somehow able to put together the following top 6F’s, they couldn’t potentially win the Cup (depending on the D, G, bounces, etc):

        Eberle, Hall, Hemsky, RNH, Giroux, Parise

        I don’t believe that for a second. Not that that top 6 would be guaranteed a Cup or anything, but depending what’s around them, sure, why can’t that team win?

        • Jason Gregor

          It hasn’t been done because it doesn’t work.

          And Detroit had a huge bodies in Franzen and Holmstrom, guys who work the front of net and along the boards.

          Also who do you propose acquiring Parise and Giroux and affording all six of them, while still finding money for the backend?

          But even in the days with no salary cap a team didn’t do it, because you can’t win with just pure skill.

          Hall is 6’1″ but he isn’t a physical force. He is a force in other ways, but not a guy who mixes it up in front of the net or along the boards.

          You don’t think opposing teams would just lineup and force those two lines to dump and chase? Are those guys consistently good puck retrievers?

          And here is a list of all the Cup winners…
          http://www.tmlfever.com/cupwinningrosters.html
          Show me the team that had six forwards where none had any sort of grinding, board battles or front of the net presence…

          You won’t find it, because you need a mix to win…

          Look at the great teams of the Oilers and Islanders…

          Oilers had Messier a physical force, and Anderson a dirty stick guy when necessary…

          The Islanders had Clark Gillies, John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom…

          Teams don’t win with just finesse on top two lines…You need a mix skill of course, but you need a few guys who bring more than just pure skill.

          • Rogue

            Hi Gregor,

            Excellent post, anyone who’s watched this team at all over the years, especially this season knows that while this team is skilled, any sort of grinding East-West hockey effectively neutralizes the Oilers top two lines. My question is, isn’t Sam Gagner the odd man out? Not that I have anything against him, it just seems that every off-season for the past three years this website has asked whether they should keep him. I’m of the particular opinion that the Oilers (if serious) could only keep one of Hemsky or Gagner going forward, and Hemsky just re-upped. Are there any other options among the top 6 to be moved?

    • If you have been watching the Oiler’s games from start to finish this season an example of what Gregor is saying is shown on the line of Gagner Hemsky Hartikainen. Hall is very skilled and is a much better player but is easier to knock off than Hartikainen. With Harti on the Gagner line they have been much more effective at creating sustained pressure in the offensive zone because Harti’s strengths are that he’s very tough to knock off the puck and battles extremely well along the side boards and especially behind the goal line. Right now I’m not sure if he is gripping the stick too tight or maybe he hasn’t adapted yet to playing with high skill guys but if he had some finish to his game right now than you’d probably see to greater effect what Gregor is talking about. It’s not about downgrading on talent because being puck skilled is only one facet of hockey. There are many skills required to succeed and play the game. The Carter and Nash combo in Columbus is the perfect example, they are both shoot first players who aren’t really creators so they didn’t really mesh well.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    13 Eberle’s*, 3 Smid’s and 3 Petry’s, yeah that should do it for next year 🙂

    *I say 13 Eberle’s and no goalie because with talent like that you don’t need a goalie 😉

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Bang on Jason ! you mentioned Foligno- I like Marcus, he has size and gritt as well has showed he can put the puck in the net. All said I like how your thinking !

  • Devon

    While size will be going forward and hopefully they have one of at least two guys they will need in Hartikainen but to trade Paajarvi would set them back just as much. While yes Hemsky and Hall are both well ahead of him on the depth chart, going into next season it’ll be nice to have him around if Hall isn’t ready to go at the start of the year or Hemsky gets hurt it’ll be nice to have Paajarvi waiting in the wings in Oklahoma.

    Gagner would be another good choice but unless the Oilers are getting a number 2 center back then it’s not getting them any further ahead. Unless of course you want to go back to having Horcoff and Belanger as your 2nd and 3rd line centers.

    While Trading one or both, Gagner or Paajarvi maybe a necessary evil that brings in that guy or set of guys that get Oilers from being bottom feeders to being able to run with the Canucks, Wings, and Predators of the western conference, right now it seems kind of like digging a hole just to fill another one in if your using those guys as your trading pieces both right now and in the immediate future.

    • Rogue

      Doan sure would look good in an Oiler jersey, say from 1996 to today, if they drafted him instead of… of…. who again?…. oh that’s right Steve Kelly. So what McDonald’s is he working at theses days?

      As for a player that Gregor is looking at drafting. I took in the first Oil Kings playoff game, the first time I’d gone to a game, and Moroz really stood out to me. He has speed, power, and skill. I would love to see the Oilers take him in the 3rd or 4th round. Also another guy that stood out in that series is an Oiler prospect, that being Drew Czerwonka. This guy has a nasty side to him and looks like a real leader on the ice. I’m going to be keeping my eye on him in future training camps. I think he sees time on the big club before guys like Pitlick and Hamilton.

  • Jason, that’s why it’s called a rebuild! You draft quality the first few years, let them develop & then plug in the holes! If you become impatient, you become like the Leafs & move all your talent for quick fixes & it becomes a never ending cycle of rebuild. That’s why it takes 5 or 6 years before your at the point your talking about. Paajarvi, Lander, Hartikainen, Pitlick, Klefbom etc. need an opportunity to strut their stuff!

  • Rogue

    I agree with you 100% JG, but you missed one guy.
    Curtis Hamilton.

    Also, do you think we should take a guy like Filip Forsberg? He has size, and is referred to as a power forward, although not sure how much grit he has.

    Maybe we should have listened to Taylor Halls pick for last years draft: Gabriel Landeskog.

  • Rogue

    Great write up Jason! You should be working for the Oilers Mgmgt. team. You are dead on about having a mix. Without toughness you dont have a chance of going deep in the play offs. Being tough isnt always [ it helps] about size, its being metally tough and gritty… [ Marchand is no giant, he just plays like one ]Giroux in Philly is not a bruiser but at 5.11- 176 lbs he plays a gritty in your face game.Boston has the right idea, Rangers and Philly also on the same track.. St. Louis is catching on. Oilers also need toughness on the back end. when these forecheckers come in your zone, you make them pay the price….Av’s are another team thats building gritinto their game. Oiler forecheckers
    [ when they do go in ] are not hard on the puck, and dont win the battles. You need more than guys like Eager and Hordichuk, who just round around doing not too much. [ Wish Eager didnt have cemtn hands and cement brain, he would be the ideal player… has toughs and wheels, but thats about it.