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.
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.
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.
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?