Trilogies (part one)

Three is usually considered a magic number. In fairy tales you get three wishes, tasks often involve three challenges, in baseball you get three strikes, and for the Edmonton Oilers it would appear that three is going to be something of a theme.

Yakupov hasn’t joined the team yet, and neither has Justin Schultz. But even after they do, this Oilers squad looks more and more like it will be defined by the forward trio of Hall, Eberle and Nugent Hopkins. With that in mind, I’m going to offer up a trilogy of my own, looking at expectations and roster projections for this team for the next few years.

Over the last few months I’ve had a few requests to project out the Oilers roster over the next few years, taking an approach similar to what I did with a recent series of articles re-examining franchises like the Devils and Jets.

I’m reluctant to undertake any massive roster calibrations and permutations for two reasons:

  1. It has been done before by people far more insightful and cognisant of details to which I am only vaguely aware. If you want that, read Lowetide or anything Jonathan Willis writes.

  2. And I think this will find general agreement here on the Nations – nobody wants me to produce another epic of Tolstoyan-proportions.

That aside, what I will do is take a look at the roster, the UFAs, the roles that need to be filled, and the likely candidates within the organization and try to suss out any weaknesses in the franchise’s development pipeline.

I’ll start with a review of what the Oilers have up front and what can be expected from current or on-the-cusp players at the forward positions.

I don’t really want to waste time here debating whether this season will be cancelled or not, so I’ll just skip ahead to the starting roster for the 2013 season.

A quick note – free-agency, in my view, should be treated as a kind of last-phase quick fix to address the smallest problems that the organization hasn’t been able to address internally. Bringing in a big-name free-agent to be your #1 defenseman or a 1st line forward, doesn’t always work. In fact, often it can backfire. This usually requires an overpayment and the results are almost always underwhelming. Where free-agency is most effective is in filling in the final few details, a fourth-line grinding winger or a depth center to win a defensive-zone faceoff and kill the clock when playing with a lead – the Willie Mitchell range of player.

Might as well start at the top. The top six will at some point include Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov, Hartikainen, Hemsky, Paajarvi and Gagner over the course of the next two to three years. Obviously not all at the same time, but I think that those are the names that we can expect the team to build around. Hemsky may leave, and Paajarvi may not make the cut permanently as a top-six forward, while Gagner may be moved in a trade. But the first two lines are far more settled now than they have been in a very long time. Like I said at the beginning, this whole thing is going to start and end with the Big Three.

It is the depth ranks where things get chaotic.

The Oilers have drafted and are developing a very deep group of limited talent in players like Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick, Kritians Pelss, Tobias Rieder, Jujhar Khaira, Anton Lander, Ryan Martindale, Travis Ewanyk, Mitchell Moroz, Toni Rajala and a host of others. The trick here is that many of these players were drafted at the same time as those in the top half of the lineup. By virtue of their being works-in-progress, they are likely to take longer to develop into NHL-ready players than Hall or Nugent-Hopkins. So the gap between now and when they are ready for the NHL must be bridged with veterans, holdovers, and free-agents.

It can be frustrating to see one half of the roster come so clearly into view only to have disorder and short-term solutions fill the other portion, but I’d far rather be faced with this problem than the inverse.

So I’ll begin with taking out the most likely candidates for replacement.

My Mistake, Four Coffins

(The Eastwood gold is at 1:33, interesting note, the Hays film rules were still in effect that would have prohibited showing the firing of a gun and somebody getting shot in the same scene. Leone had no idea about this and Eastwood wasn’t going to tell him. The result is the shooting-from-the-hip shot. Terrific camera work.)

Nikolai Khabibulin, Darcy Hordichuk, Lennart Petrell, and Andy Sutton will likely all have moved on. Most of those roster spots I suspect will be filled internally. I expect Yann Danis or a bargain UFA goaltender could slot in to support Dubnyk. The wings can be manned by promotion from the farm team or signing a UFA to a short-term deal similar to previous contracts to players like Petrell and Hordichuk.

Oh, and sorry, but Shawn Horcoff isn’t going anywhere.

If the Oilers can’t find a way to trade Ben Eager or make his contract disappear, then I think Ryan Jones is also allowed to walk. If they can find a new home for Eager, then I am of the opinion that Jones gets a one-year deal as a 4th line winger with some penalty-killing duties.

A Fistful of Options

Subtracting Petrell and Hordichuk from the roster would seem to give the Oilers two holes to fill, but I believe that by this time both Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen are put into the roster. Hartikainen may end up playing in the top six, while Paajarvi seems to be destined to enter the NHL roster as a 3rd line forward. This leaves the 4th line LW spot open for Ryan Smyth and an extra roster spot for a potential enforcer/agitator type player. Dane Byers might be a good candidate to fill that role.

It is worth noting that Hemsky could slot in along the left-wing for a short time on a line with Gagner and Yakupov (those three would appear to have strong complementary skills), perhaps meaning that either Hartikainen or Paajarvi continues to play in OKC for a short time.

It speaks volumes as to the metamorphosis this club has experienced these past six years that its former top winger and face of the franchise, Smyth, is being so comfortably relegated to the role of depth winger expected to play roughly 60 or 70 games.

Now, about that right-wing

Depth on the right wing starts with Eberle, then there is the temporary shuffling of duties between Nail Yakupov and Ales Hemsky and then on to either Ryan Jones or Ben Eager. There is considerable depth here, for the time being, but in two years’ time, should injuries play a factor and/or Hemsky have departed via trade or free-agency, the talent pool quickly becomes very shallow. This will need to be addressed. My belief is the best remedy is the one already available, to retain the services of Hemsky as a 3rd line winger on a deep team. My ideal solution is at the end of the next paragraph.

Down the middle of the roster, Nugent-Hopkins is the #1 center, on that I think we can all agree. Sam Gagner, be it by merit or default, is the 2nd line center. Following that , as I said, Shawn Horcoff isn’t going anywhere and the 4th line center position could go to either Eric Belanger, if he remains with the team, or perhaps Chris Vande Velde for a time, until Anton Lander or another option becomes available. Center depth for this team, as well as addressing some toughness, pugnacity, and flexibility at both wing and center would be for the Oilers to trade to acquire Henrik Samuelsson from the Phoenix Coyotes. Maybe they would accept some corporate sponsorship in trade, or be anxious to pay off the debt created by the Oilers’ selection of Steve Kelly rather than Shane Doan.

I haven’t mentioned Hall at center because I have yet to hear anything explicit about his being tried at that position in OKC, so will continue to operate on the assumption that he plays the LW.

For what it is worth, I believe that Ben Eager and Eric Belanger will be moved before or during the 2013-2014 season. Steve Tambellini has shown a disturbing loyalty to his free-agent signings (see Khabibulin, Nikolai), but the men in the room now (Lowe, MacTavish, and others) lead me to believe that he would move off of those players if there are better options available, specifically internally. There were rumours around the end of the season and leading into draft day that Belanger had requested a trade to Montreal. If even half of this is true, that Belanger would like an opportunity somewhere else, then I think Tambellini and company would be more than willing to facilitate the process.

So we might imagine the Oilers’ roster for 2013 looking something like Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Hartikainen, Gagner, Yakupov, Paajarvi, Horcoff, Hemsky, Smyth, Vande Velde, Eager or Jones, and Dane Byers as the extra forward.

Over the course of the next few years it is likely that the bottom six of that roster is gradually replaced with prospects like Tobias Rieder, Kristians Pelss, Tyler Pitlick, Jujhar Khaira, and others as they mature and graduate from the farm team.

I need to make a point here; I’m not guaranteeing that any particular player in the bottom six is going to become the player that the team requires. Like the Canucks, the Oilers could end up hunting for years for that complementary 3rd line center or winger who can push the team over the top. What I am saying here is that there are a decent number of options graduating into the pro ranks year after year and with time and luck enough of them ought to be able to turn into the role players that this roster will need.

At the very end of this series I’m going to take a look at some, if you’ll pardon the use of the term, reasonable expectations about the current prospect group in so far as how many might eventually make the NHL cut. I think the weaknesses that appear will prove interesting.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. Geniuses, both.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Thanks for the analysis Rex. The impending problems in the bottom 6 are a real concern but I firmly believe that the anticipated WOW move will address this issue. I thought Yak would be the most likely piece moved but with the advertisements for Russian brides… maybe not. Speaking of which, what a great idea. Marry a Russian prostitute and BAM. Stanley Cup.

  • Joshieboy

    I don’t really get this paradox mentality I keep seeing and hearing from us Oiler fans that:
    a) We want to have a system like Detroit where we take time with our prospects

    If we want a system like Detroit we’ll need some good veterans to hold down positions and make the young guys earn their keep. Yes, Belanger and others were pretty bad last year, do you really think that VandeVelde would have been that much better?

  • OilClog

    Belanger, Eager, and Hordichuk should all be moved along.

    Horcoff’s contract is what needs to go, but will be next to impossible to replace him as our 3rd line center. AHHHHH! All of the prospects C’s we have in the system that could move into his role make Horcoff look like a scoring messiah.

    I think with the possible continued onslaught from our top two lines.. life will be much easier for our bottom 6.

    We need a 2nd line center that can take difficult face offs, and help offset both RNH and Horcoff. Getzlaf? Too bad Anahiem will probably never answer a phone call from Edmonton again.

    I’m encouraged by the prospect list of forwards, but you would have to think the Rieder’s, Raajala’s of the list are all trade bait and have no future on this roster.

    If Vande Velde or Lander see time at all this season or next.. not good.

    Maybe one of the Euro’s goalies will come over in camp and shock us all, they seem to show up just when the time is right.. jussi.

    • Wouldn’t be so sure on the not able to get rid of Horc’s contract business. Sounds like both sides of the labor dispute actually agree on having an amnesty option. Also through these negotiations I think Horc has pissed off management. One of the most overpaid players in the league b*tching about not getting enough…right.

  • Hmmm, I don’t think either Belangier or Horcoff go. The latter is an Oiler Vet who brings a good skill set to a third line center role. The former has already said to have had a down year, but Kruger is on record as saying he want to work with Belangier to bring him back into form. I also remember Kruger talking about utilizing hid role players like Eager and Hordichuck more. I believe the term ‘letting them off the leash’ was used.

    As for Jones, I can never understand why the media keeps thinking he should be gone. A guy who scores around 20 goals a year and kills penalties. In fact usually contributes some shorties on the penalty kill. Name a better 3rd line option for the same or less money. Jones is a steal and should be kept here as long as he continues to produce.

    Sure their seems to be a bot of a log jam on the wings, especially at right, but with Hemsky having a great season in Europe, and Yak having a great season in the KHL, I don’t see this as a problem so much.

    The big problems I see are on depth at LW, and size in our top two. Which I hope are going to be addressed through trade. A big top line LW, and a big second line center would solidify the top six.

    However, barring a ‘wow’ move, I think our team this year is going to live and die on the PP and PK. That is why Magnus will be in the line up. He’s a PK specialist, and draws a crap ton of penalties. I don’t care if he doesn’t score, as long as he lets few goals in while on the ice, and keeps drawing PP, he is very valuable on our third line.

  • 24% body fat

    We have no left wing Depth. Hall to center is one of the stupidest thing I have ever heard. He drives the play hard as a left wing not a center.

    We will not be able to afford Getzlaf plus our fab 5 in two years, plus getzalf has been declining. If anything go get Perry and trade hemsky.

    Moot Point Getz and Perry are going together to the highest bidder.

    • RexLibris

      The Oilers don’t need Perry or Getzlaf. They need the next player that will become Perry or Getzlaf.

      For my money, Curtis Lazar and Henrik Samuelsson are two pretty good candidates to become either of those player types (though not necessarily the same point ceiling).

      The question for the Oilers needs to be – how do we get those two players into our system? It’ll have to be by trade.

  • RexLibris

    Let me clarify something here –

    I wouldn’t LIKE to get rid of Jones. I like him, both as a player and as personality in the dressing room. But I think that he is a player who can also easily be shipped out, whereas Eager and Belanger are less so. If room must be made, sometimes it comes at the cost of losing a better player.

    This isn’t about what I’d like to see. Because that is easy. I’d like to see Paajarvi and Hartikainen go back and forth as 2nd and 3rd line LW options. I’d like to see Vande Velde replace Belanger as the 4th line center after the trade deadline (draw your own conclusions there). I’d like to see the forwards prospects (excluding Yakupov, Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins) all spend their entire ELCs in the AHL.

    Is that going to happen?

    Also, I’d like to believe that Leone and Morricone will be making movies together in the afterlife so that when I get there I’ll have a whole new box set to get caught up on.

    • 24% body fat

      Okay that’s fair, sorry if it sounded like I was singling you out, but I meant I hear, get rid of Jones, on a lot of hockey media. I understand why it would be easy to move him since he has a great contract and is a useful player, but aren’t those the guys we want to keep in order to have a successful team? There’s another article here on the nation talking about how our bottom six needs to get guys, that perfectly fit the description of Jones.

      It’s like when the Oilers let Glencross go for nothing, then spent the next three years whining about how they need a good hardnose forward, that can put up some points.

      The same story is going to happen when the Oilers trade away Gagner, and then complain how we need a second line center that can put up between 40-50 points a season, and have some skill to play with the kids.

      My point is, our management, media, and fans, have very little patience when it comes to players in Edmonton. That’s why so many x oilers are doing great things on other teams.

      • RexLibris

        I think we agree on all the points here.

        My only reason for trading Jones is that eventually room will need to be made and the team has to sell high on players of his ilk.

        But I’d rather keep him until the next “him” comes along.

        Ditto Gagner. Trade him and we’re looking at one of Horcoff, Belanger or Vande Velde as a 2nd line center. I don’t want to sit in the nosebleeds if that happens. The fans would turn the air blue.

        No, you keep Gagner until you have somebody else who can step in. Then perhaps you look at sliding Gagner to the 3rd line RW. He may be smallish, but the kid will fight anyone and he scores from about 6 feet out. He is hardnosed and if he were a foot taller and 30 lbs heavier his would be a different story.

        • Hmmm, well said.

          Do you think there’s anyone in the league that could be that Gagner upgrade? Anyone the oilers could acquire anyway?

          I noticed that Winnipeg seems to be stockpiling centers. What do you think about Antripov? He’s a UFA at the end of this year, is getting older so the price would come down. He’s big, and had a 67 point season playing with a skilled Russian winger (didn’t we just get on of those?)

          He also seems durable and is clearly willing to play where he’s paid.

          • RexLibris

            The Oilers wanted Antropov back when Brad Isbister and Eric Daze were all the rage.

            If they go for him now I’ll spin in an early grave.


            They need a young big center (apparently). Voracek or Couturier are two that spring to mind. Note – I am in no way saying that they ought to have taken him over Nugent-Hopkins. Nor am I espousing that one has to be big to be effective. I like Gagner. But the team seems intent on replacing him, and the shadow of Messier still looms over this organization. They’ve been trying to replace him since he left.

            Ideally, for me I’d like to see the Oilers’ depth down the middle in two or three years to be Nugent-Hopkins, Lazar, Samuelsson, Lander. I’m hoping Khaira can get in there eventually, but he’s in his first year of NCAA, so we are a long, long ways off on him. Ewanyk is intriguing as a 4th line guy, but we’ll have to see. He’d likely struggle to reach even mediocre levels of offense in the NHL.

            The Oilers need some high-end centers and some skill depth on the wings. I think they know this and drafted accordingly this June. Tell someone in Sudbury or Kamloops that though and they’ll say you’re crazy.

  • Guys I don’t think Edmonton is going to buy out Horcoff even if there is an amnesty clause… depending on other CBA details it makes much more sense to keep him for a year then trade him to a team who needs to get to the cap floor but doesn’t want to pay all the cash.

    I think people forget that players arent paid in monopoly money. That’s a lot of money being thrown away for nothing when we do not need the cap space immediatly.

    Besides, take out the money issue and Horcoff is a servicable third line center. If we got rid of him and brought in a guy for say 3 mil we would effectively be paying say 9 million in real money for a 3 mil center in year one, then 7 mil then 6 mil while only freeing up 2.5 mil in cap space. THAT is not good business.

    • 24% body fat

      So you wouldnt take perry at a good price.

      I think in three years Perry who has won more than pretty much everyone other than niedermeyer would be a bigger contributor to the oilers in the playoffs.

      Is perry not the definition of power forward right now.

      Now Im not saying we need him. But if he was willing to sign FA at a good contract than take him. And my point was actually rather having Perry than Getzlaf.

    • 24% body fat

      Lazar maybe, but these two size is no where near the other two. Also we will see how the two of theirs offense compares to Perrys CHL leading post draft years.

  • RexLibris

    My suggestion is that Lazar and Samuellson have some traits of Getzlaf and Perry (bullish center and extremely annoying scoring jerk) that Getzlaf and Perry do. I’m not suggesting that either will win the Conn Smythe, Rocket Richard, or Hart.

    But if the Oilers could add those two, they would have elements of a winning team that would complement extremely well to their current group.

    As for trading up for Samuellson, the Coyotes apparently weren’t budging.

    This means that if a deal is to be done, it will need to be something that serves their goals. Phoenix needs to become relevant in their market and they need to add some talent that they can afford for years to come.

    It would take a bucket full of prospects and a few high-end players to convince them.

    In my perfect world, the Oilers snag Ekman-Larsson or Yandle and Samuelsson for any number of names that aren’t Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, or Justin Schultz. Probably need to add a few draft picks in there as well and don’t even think about mentioning Horcoff or Hemsky to them.