How many forwards does the average NHL team need in a season? Which prospects in the system have the best chance of being called up? Do the Oilers have enough quality guys in their minor-league system, or is it something they need to strengthen?
In 2011-12, the average NHL team used 20 different forwards over the course of the season. Only 12 players per team appeared in 40 or more games; 14 players per team appeared in at least 25 contests. The other six forwards on the average team only got spot duty.
This suggests that forward depth is less of a concern than defensive depth. An NHL team that starts the year with 14 forwards – assuming those 14 skaters are the best 14 forwards in the system – can be reasonably confident that the guys on the farm will only be needed for spot work.
Last season the Oilers were in the ballpark of the average, but a little off. Here’s how their forward roster broke down in terms of games played:
- 40+ games (14 players): Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Jones, Jordan Eberle, Eric Belanger, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Ben Eager, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Lennart Petrell, Anton Lander, Darcy Hordichuk, Magnus Paajarvi
- 25+ games (0 players)
- 1+ games (6 players): Teemu Hartikainen, Linus Omark, Josh Green, Chris VandeVelde, Philippe Cornet, Milan Kytnar
With the exception of Linus Omark, every forward on the opening night roster played 40+ games, and given that opening night saw Sam Gagner and Ben Eager on injured reserve, it seems fair to say that the Oilers were in the same situation as our average NHL team: the top-14 guys on opening night were the only 14 to play regularly in the NHL.
In terms of AHL depth, the Oilers were close to golden last year. Hartikainen and Omark were both solid recall options. Green was a veteran with tons of NHL experience; Chris VandeVelde a guy with past experience who might be in the mix for an NHL job this year if the Oilers make a move. Cornet had an outrageous start to the season and earned his call-up by scoring goals; Milan Kytnar was a fluke due to scheduling but also showed the team’s depth by putting in a solid performance the same day he was recalled from the ECHL.
The NHL roster was less impressive, unsurprisingly so given the Oilers’ 29th-place finish.
What does the depth chart look like right now? Imagining a full NHL season ahead, here’s how we would likely slot the Oilers by games played:
- 40+ games (12 players): Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Smyth, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Nail Yakupov, Shawn Horcoff, Teemu Hartikainen, Ben Eager, Eric Belanger, Ryan Jones
- 25+ games (2 players): Darcy Hordichuk, Lennart Petrell
- 1+ games (6 players): Magnus Paajarvi, Chris VandeVelde, Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello, Dane Byers, Tyler Pitlick
I don’t actually think Lennart Petrell is a better player than Magnus Paajarvi, but he is a better healthy scratch and that’s likely to make the difference until he’s moved on down the line (personally, axing Petrell and keeping eight defencemen on the NHL roster would be fine with me). The roster is awfully young and plenty of the veterans are coming off tough years, so there will be problems but development of the young stars should ease a lot of them (and at this point, the long-term future of the group trumps present concerns).
What happens if we project ahead to 2013-14 (assuming no new lottery picks between now and then)?
- 40+ games (12 players): Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Teemu Hartikainen, Magnus Paajarvi, Eric Belanger, Ryan Jones
- 25+ games (2 players): Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk
- 1+ games (6 players): Anton Lander, Chris VandeVelde, Mark Arcobello, Tyler Pitlick, Dane Byers, Curtis Hamilton
There’s lots more room to play around with the depth here than there was when we considered the defence; the status of individual prospects and the turnover of veterans in the minors will change the picture considerably.
For the most part, depth is not the problem for the Oilers’ forward crops. Underachieving veterans and still-callow youth are the primary areas of concern, as is the potential for pressure from the salary cap. But these are one-for-one type trades; the team might need to trade Shawn Horcoff, for example, but all they need to get in return is another version of Shawn Horcoff (slightly better, or slightly cheaper, or whatever). They don’t need to infuse depth and maturation should take care of talent issues.
Depth is just less of a concern up front than on the back end, and the Oilers are faring pretty well.