Building next year’s bottom five

While the Oilers have no shortage of problems in their top-nine forward group, things get really ugly afterward. How should the fourth line and the reserve forwards change next season?

The Scoring Chances

I’ve taken the scoring chance numbers I recorded this season and split the Oilers into three groups: the top line, the middle six, and everybody else.

  • Top Line (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle): Out-chance opposition 53-to-47
  • Middle Six (Gagner, Yakupov, Hemsky, Paajarvi, Smyth, Horcoff): Out-chanced 58-to-42
  • Everyone Else: Out-chanced 64-to-36

The top line is fine, the middle six needs a significant overhaul, and the rest of the forward corps is an absolute trainwreck. Most of the discussion this off-season has dealt with the middle six; we’re focused on “the rest” here.

The Incumbents

The chart above shows how the incumbents performed; Ryan Smyth is included as he’s doubtless bound for a lesser role on next season’s team – his performance is also split into games where he played wing and games where he played centre.

On The Outside

Let’s start with the ‘definitely gone’ crowd. Darcy Hordichuk never really got a chance and was replaced; he won’t be back. Lennart Petrell’s contract is up and despite excellent work on the penalty kill, he shouldn’t be back and likely won’t be. Eric Belanger has another year on his deal but seems likely to be bought out. Chris VandeVelde was very carefully used by Krueger (he actually led the Oilers forwards in offensive zone starts), couldn’t score in the minors, and his contract is up.

Anton Lander should start 2013-14 in the minors; not only does he give the Oilers depth but he hasn’t done anything to force his way on to the NHL roster. Ben Eager likely starts there too, assuming he isn’t bought out, given his demotion earlier in the year. Mark Arcobello too seems bound for the minors, assuming he gets another contract.

The Model

Assuming the Oilers run 14 forwards next year, what positions will they play? Obviously, there will need to be one winger for each side and a centre in the starting lineup. There are two spare slots: one will likely go to a tough guy and the other is the reserve forward. Given what happened this year, that reserve spot should probably go to a centre. So ideally, next year the Oilers enter the season with two centres, two wingers, and they probably leave a spot for an enforcer.

Ryan Smyth will get one of the winger spots; Craig MacTavish has already said he’ll be back, and he was significantly better at left wing this season than at centre. Mike Brown is under contract for another year; he often seems a ‘stick optional’ player around the puck but the Oilers have employed far worse players at the enforcer position; he’ll likely get the job. That leaves one winger spot for Teemu Hartikainen and Ryan Jones; Hartikainen has scored in the minors and might yet have upside, while Jones is an unrestricted free agent. The Oilers could trade Hartikainen, but given his minor league performance I would argue it makes sense to give him another chance: his trade value isn’t likely to be especially high and they may as well see if he has more to give. I like Jones on the fourth line, despite a poor year, but the Oilers need the versatility offered by a centre so it likely makes more sense to go out and get one rather than keep Jones.

That leaves two centre spots open. I was surprised how decent Jerred Smithson’s scoring chance numbers were; it’s basically a result of the Smyth – Smithson – Brown line going +17/-13 down the stretch (with Brown occasionally skipping shifts in favour of a different winger). Smithson’s long-term record isn’t all that impressive, but as a reserve centre he might be fine – he’s big, wins faceoffs and kills penalties. If the Oilers can get him cheap and don’t see somebody else they like more, he’d be a somewhat okay 13th forward.

That leaves the fourth-line centre position open, and that’s one the Oilers should be able to address via free agency. Somebody relatively big and capable of killing penalties, with some offence and the ability to play a cycle game would be ideal; Maxim Lapierre in Vancouver is the obvious name available via free agency but he isn’t the only possibility. In addition to other unrestricted free agents (Marty Reasoner, Kyle Chipchura, Adam Hall, Jeff Halpern, etc.) a quality player in the AHL or Europe might appeal, too.

Smyth, Hartikainen, Brown, and two new centres. As long as the Oilers find qualified help at centre, that should be a good enough group to get the job done at the bottom of the roster, and giving Hartikainen a year playing a regular shift with Smyth isn’t likely to be a bad thing for his development long-term. The one caveat: the new centre they add for the fourth line might be worth investing some money in, because unless Smyth recovers from a poor year or Hartikainen takes a step forward, he may well be the first option to move into the top-nine when injuries hit.


Don’t forget that it’s not too late to play StreakCred – the new playoff pool game from the Nation Network. You can win a trip for 2 to Oktoberfest in Germany among the awesome prizes up for grabs. Now it’s only $10 and a portion of the proceeds go to Edmonton Charities. Sign up here.

Recently around the Nation Network

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks fired head coach Alain Vigneault, as well as his assistants. In his writeup on the dismissal, Thomas Drance offers this assessment of Vigneualt :

Alain Vigneault is the winningest coach in franchise history, and a stellar bench boss – in my estimation – who will presumably be hired by another NHL franchise in short order.

 Click the link above to read the whole piece, or feel free check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation:

  • Eddie Edmonton


    The sloan pocession paper I referenced on Lt’s site last week and you wrote about today:

    Clearly shows a dump and chase systems leads to being outchanced

    Face off win % has a high affect on Goal differential.

    The dump and change has a negative goal scoring difference of 20GA-1GF.

    we need a high Face off count from our centers

    A reverse/hold pocession game, instead of dump change, driven by higher pocession forwards.

    Our forwards:
    Smithson 55.4% #11C
    Hall 54.7% would be 15th for centers
    belanger 53.7%
    Lander 49.1% 50th
    Horcoff 49.05 51st
    Gagner 43.9% 2nd last
    RNH 41.9% Last

    Gagner lacks the FO ability to be an outscoring center.
    Thus MacT’s idea of moving him to Wing.
    RNH does not look any better!

    • Rocket


      It seems dumping the puck in is what players do on the end of their shift when they want to get off the ice. Puck possession into the opposing zone establishing a cycle seems to work better for scoring chances.

      Winning faceoffs in the opposing zone obviously also helps a lot. Just look at Joe Thornton in game 4 vs. The Kings.

      I would cut RNH some slack though, I think he’ll get better at draws.

    • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

      A well executed dump and chase works pretty well. Especially against a strong forechecking team. A poor dump and chase is simply a dump-in with no speed or support to chase after the puck. It also doesn’t really work against the trap.

      The dump and change, on the other hand, is a complete waste of possession.

      The Oilers are guilty of both. They certainly need to address their puck management ideology.

      • Actually, even a very well-executed dump and chase is substantially inferior to entering the zone with possession. I have numbers to back that up; you name a team that executes the dump and chase well and I guarantee that every time they’ll do a worse job scoring goals than the Oilers do entering the zone with the puck.

        • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!


          I have no stats to back this, but as I watch the playoffs, it seems like the hard pass-tip-into-zone-from-centre is the play of choice. Statistically, it may be more potent to carry the puck in, but during a series it may well be that pounding another team’s defense may lead to victory.

          Thoughts on the overall influence of dump-and-chase vs. the outscoring probability of posession hockey?

        • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

          I’m not saying dump and chase is a superior way to enter the zone. I’m saying that there’s a optimum balance between dumping and chasing, and entering the zone with possession. As well, that there’s a good and bad way to dump and chase.

          I don’t have any numbers. But I’d be interested to see the numbers you have.

          I’m certain the Oilers would be a much more effective team if they knew how to effectively dump and chase, and knew when to utilize each zone entry method. The Oilers are actually a good example of why a team should alternate those methods.

          Or am I off my rocker?

    • You’re wrong. Faceoff wins have a tiny impact on goal differential. Of the 131 goals the opposition scored this year, only 18 came off the possession following an offensive zone faceoff. Of the 123 goals the Oilers scored, only 18 came off a faceoff possession.

      • Wax Man Riley

        To be fair, that is still almost 15% of goals. More faceoff wins may have led to more goals.

        On the other hand, rickthebear is convinced RNH is the wrong pick since his goals/points ratio is less than 30%

        • Yeah, it is significant, but there’s more than just winning the faceoff in that data too – when you consider both the Oilers and their opposition scored the same number of goals in those situations, and the Oilers were an awful faceoff team, it’s hard to point to faceoffs as vital.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    Smyth is done two years ago?
    1. Go to
    2. Select player stats for 2011-2012 season.
    3. Select LW
    4. Select points Report
    5. Choose Even points. A team needs even production.

    What you will see is smyth tied for 24th with Nash, Landeskog, ladd with 38 points.

    this year he played half the year with Brown Eager and Petrell.
    his season pace was 9 EVP and -26.

    With everyone else he was on a 35 EVP +6 season pace.

    I won’t let him being forced to play Center with those three even black holes ruin my understanding of his play on the wing with real players.

    Plus he was the 7th best PK GA winger in the game last year. Replace the 7th best.

  • Tikkanese

    Why all the hate on Smyth? If he stays on the wing and not stuck in the Belanger Triangle he is still an effective player, very good at the PK still, can do the Smytty in front of the net on the 2nd PP sometimes… let alone it’s Ryan Freaking Captain Canada Smyth and is the exact attitude and work ethic we need to pass onto the kids. I’ll take 5 more years of the “slow” Smytty(he’s been slow his entire career…) over the Petrell’s, Vande Velde’s, Reddox’s, Belanger’s, Stortini’s, Hordichuk’s, Eager’s any day.

    He wasn’t to slow to play with Seguin and Krejci in the Spengler Cup before the season started last year and looked quite good with them on the bigger ice to boot. He can still play, just not with Belanger or at center.

  • Tikkanese

    Any guesses where Brad Richards ends up next year? I can’t believe he’s a healthy scratch in the playoffs.

    If they use a compliance buy out on him, I could see him in Ottawa to replace Alferdsen. It’s also highly likely he would take a contract hit and would sign to a team for a much more reasonable 5.5 mill.

    If he is any way shape or form available, that is who I hope the Oilers go after.

  • Rocket

    15 pts would make Steckel the second highest scoring 4th liner out of the 4th lines of Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

    If points scored cost salary, in a cap world I think the ideal bottom 6 and bottom half D are players that can actually play, and contribute on PK, with decreasing offense the further down the depth chart they are.

    The decreasing offense is what makes them affordable. Hopefully they commit to the team emotionally and sign value contracts. Otherwise keep them away from good players in contract years.

  • Rocket

    Steckel and Hall are interesting. small upgrades to be sure but they might help. I always kinda liked Reasoner but if we’re trying to bring back ex-Oilers, why not target Stoll instead? Probably because of his contract but still.

      • Spydyr

        12 Fights all year. Some players had more than 12 fights.

        Do you think perhaps toughness helps in winning. Just look at the Oilers record the last few years.

        • Rocket

          Yeah no kidding. Being tough to play against seems like the most obvious thing to address for any team yet this message got lost on the way to upper management. Hopefully MacT can sort it out.

        • Rocket

          That’s actually not much of an argument. The Red Wings are rarely out of the bottom of the league in fights and they seem to do just fine.

          A hard hitting winger that can play? I’m all over that. Brown includeded. A knuckle dragger that can barely keep up in the play? Not so much.

          • Spydyr

            Think I said toughness. Never mentioned anything about knuckle draggers.

            Why does the Detroit comparison always come up.In case you have not noticed the Oilers management team is not quite as good as the Wings management team.

          • Truth

            Poor example JW……….Detroit is a tough team with at least three defensemen that throw big hits and dont back down, especially in scrums.

            Our team has no hitters on the back end ( Peckham was benched most of the season and is the only tough guy on the back end) and whenever there is a scrum, no one sitcks around.

            Having toughness changes the way smaller players play and gives them courage. I’m not talking enforcers but toughness throughout the line up.

          • Spydyr

            You have to be hard to play against to win.Toughness wins and that does include standing up for yourself or a teammate and dropping the mitts.Sure it happens less in the playoffs and team toughness is much more important but a good scrap can ignite a team.Watch the benches after a good fight.Every player standing and most banging their stick on the boards.It awakes emotion and passion.

            The Oilers are the weakest team in the NHL.Detroit has much more team toughness a way better management team and they actually have their players learn the pro game in the AHL.Unlike the Oilers who ordain players roster spots nine months before training camp.Every player should learn the game and earn their roster spot.

          • Spydyr

            1)Detroit has team toughness.Detroit has a lethal power-play.Detroit has the best coaching and one of the best management teams in hockey.Now lets talk about the other 29 teams.Most feel the need to defend themselves and their teammates dropping the mitts from time to time.Not being pushovers and easy to play against.

            2)Ask Hemsky if he would not have minded some backup when Regehr and Boogaard(rest his soul) were trying to run him through the boards injuring him over and over again.Every player feels better if his teammates have his back.It also forms team bonds and that in the long run builds winning teams.Too many times this year an Oiler player was in a scrum with three opposing players roughing him up with no Oiler coming to help.It happened to Hall more then once.

          • Truth

            I agree,you can’t play timid,edmonton has too many players ,that when push comes to shove they are staring at their skate laces,they need more guys that will give you the hairy don’t need to fight but you will.I wonder how Eager played in OKC ? he is definitely fast enough.

          • Truth

            If Detroit didn’t feel the need to address toughness/grit/irratibility they wouldn’t have signed Tootoo for $1.9M/yr for 3 yrs. Even the only team in the NHL that doesn’t feel the need to fight feels the need to have the option available.

          • “12 Fights all year. Some players had more than 12 fights.

            Do you think perhaps toughness helps in winning. Just look at the Oilers record the last few years.”

            You look to be drawing a pretty clean line between fighting, toughness and winning.

            I’m saying that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between fighting and toughness. Slam our management all you want, Detroit is an example of a tough team that doesn’t fight. You don’t really need 30 or 40 fighting majors to be a good team.

  • Rocket

    Interesting about B.Richards . They’ll try to trade him before ever buying him out . Is he worth a 7th round pick with that albatross of a contract he has ?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Oilers and Flyers could do each other a favour. Breire (5 mill remains) to the Oilers for Horcoff (7 mill remains), and each team buys (comp) each player out. Then the original team is free to re-sign the player at a greatly reduced rate if they wanted to. Both players are due similar amounts over the last two yrs of their contracts.

  • Perspective : Look at who we might get to replace current core that is not helping us get to the next level , and that includes those is in the system now . Beyond the so called fab 5 we could stand upgrades -preferably with more size and grit to go with talent .

  • Truth

    Cal Clutterbuck is an RFA in Minnesota. Their cap is at $55M for next year without including UFA’s Backstrom, Bouchard, and Cullen. They have the two monster contracts for eternity, and according to some on this site, the best set of prospects since the dynasty Oilers that will be looking for a contract in the future. What would it take to grab him? I would love to see Clutterbuck in an Oilers jersey.

  • Tikkanese

    With some size and grit on bottom 5 we might consider a player like an Antropov , Ponikarovski , Downey , Carcillo , Fiddler -all of the cheaper variety .

  • Truth

    Detroit obviously felt a need to get more abrasive in signing Tootoo last off-season. A finesse player he is not. The Oilers need a wrecking ball like him, not a heavy weight. Someone who isn’t afraid to stir things up and not be afraid to cross the line every now and then.

    Yzerman’s Red Wings had a few of the best grit guys around at the time. Maltby, Draper, McCarty, Kocur, the all time best Brendan Shanahan, and more. I know it was another time, but they also employed some of the best all-time goons including Bob Probert and Stu Grimson.

    Detroit has been the go-to example for the argument that a goon is unnecessary, but it has been on the backs of Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, etc. Top, top level talents.

    Who are Boston’s best players right now? Does Chara cross the line? Does Lucic cross the line? They don’t have a Datsyuk, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom, but they have a more recent cup win than the Red Wings.

    The Oilers need a new identity. Small, fast, skilled, soft, and easy to play against is not cutting it. Detroit is puck possession, skill, puck possession, defense, puck possession, skill and it shows.

  • bwar

    When you really look at the Oiler’s cap numbers, I think management will have to take a long hard look at buying out Horcoff. 5.5 mil for probably your 4C is absurd. I know he plays an important role in the locker room but really we could probably sign Brad Richards or someone similar for 5.5 mil.

  • Truth

    Thinking along the lines of second of third line
    center up grades. acquiring via trades./UFA etc.
    ..and not knowing if these guys would be available to come:

    Bolland , Ott, Hanzal, Peverley, Weiss.
    I would give up Hemsky for any one of these if need be.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    The Oiler’s spent so much time in their own zone, but the time they got the puck out it was dump and change by necessity. Some of this may be the system but the system might be in place because of the personnel.

    Though this season was much better than the season before

  • Jonathan

    As to the Middle Six (Gagner, Yakupov, Hemsky, Paajarvi, Smyth, Horcoff), how many of these players could have made the roster of an actual playoff team this season? I’m not speaking about the Oilers roster, a 24th place team and, depending on your point-of-view, either very lucky or unlucky to be in this position as it has diminished its first draft choice.

    This is about the playoffs, where the intensity, speed and physicality of play and players increase substantially over the regular season games.

    Maybe Gagner and Yakupov. Not so much Hemsky, not reliable due to being often injured, Paajarvi hasn’t measured up yet, and Smyth and Horcoff are over-the-hill veterans.

    Would Jones and Brown have made the roster of playoff teams? The answer must be no as I don’t believe Jones would make a playoff team and Brown was traded to the Oil from the Leafs as he wasn’t in the Leafs’ future plans to be contenders for the playoffs.

    As for buy-outs, why would the Oilers waste a buy-out on Belanger at his low contract while Hemsky and Horcoff are in the $5 million and plus range?

    I can only hope that MacTavish is realistic on his assessment of the compete level of this sorry roster. Otherwise, it will be eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.

  • Horcoff + Rajala + one of our second round picks for Hanzal? That would be terrific, but I doubt it could happen. However, I don’t agree we have nothing to offer for a trade with Phoenix. In fact, I think it would we one of top 3 most probable trade partners.

    • DSF

      Martin Hanzal led all PHX forwards in TOI/G and scored .59 PPG.

      He’s 6’6″ 240 and signed is signed for another 4 years at $3.1M.

      If you want Hanzal from Phoenix, start with Eberle and then add a lot more.

      Horcoff (and his toxic contract), an AHL player and a second round pick?

      Good grief…why would Phoenix do that?

      • djc

        Okay. The deal he proposed was terrible. But yours is hilariously terrible.

        You’re saying if EDM wants Hanzal, a guy who’s never topped 35 points, they’ll need to send Eberle, a guy who had 76 points in 2012 (albeit a little lucky), plus a lot more.

        Geez. I knew you were a troll, but I didn’t know you were dumb too.

        aye aye aye

  • Lots of names been mentioned on this site , but rest of league also interested in most of them . Overpaying for outside help does not seem to logical with big contacts coming up soon on our youth . Flames are probably mulling over the same names we are coming up with . Everybody is bargain shopping with size and grit in mind , not just us . MacT. may find the pickings far less than he expected , at a cost that is overly high and does not make good economic sense .

    It’s pretty easy to pick upgrades no doubt , but far harder to deal for them . MacT.’s 6-8 changes may be more of 6-8 players released from system than actual acquisitions .

    • DSF


      If the Oilers get into a bidding war, they’re going to lose and they likely wouldn’t want to live with the consequences of winning either since they’re going to have to pay Hopkins, Schultz and Yakupov in the near future.

      A couple of player the Oilers should look at are Derek Roy and Mason Raymond….both are UFA.

      Roy would be an upgrade at #3C while Raymond is an excellent penalty killer and would be an upgrade as a winger on the 3rd line.

      • Definite pass on Derek Roy, unless he comes as a cheap replacement for Gagner (and Gagner is moved out for a defenceman). I like the guy but if you bring him in the only place you can slot him is the spot Gagner currently plays.

        Raymond, meanwhile, is a smallish winger who gets out-shot in depth minutes; pass period there because he’s the wrong fit for Edmonton.

        • DSF

          Roy scored 32 goals and 81points at Gagner’s age.

          No comparison.

          If you’re looking at 3 scoring lines, Roy is a better investment that either Gagner or Horcoff.

          Mason Raymond is a clear upgrade on Ryan Jones and can do spot duty in the top 6.

          Are they ideal? No. they’re not.

          But I doubt ideal is coming for a visit this fall.

          • djc

            Sam Gagner was 23 years old last season.

            The season when Derek Roy was 23 years old, his stats were 21G 42A 63 points in 75 games.

            Gagner’s points this last season prorated for 75 games would have been 22G 37A 59 points. Ya, no comparison at all.

            Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story though …

          • DSF

            59 to 63? no comparison

            also I hear when Wade Redden was 28 he was really good so EDM should trade J Schultz for his rights

            Roy just had 28 points. Not exactly a huge upgrade of immeasurable comparisons on Gagner’s 38P

  • Would not surprise ma to see Oilers try for 2- 3 bigger names that may fall by way of buyouts . Example Heatley , Lacavalier , or B.Richards if available . One spot I reserve for a Weber or Subban type trade . Acquire 3 and the rest of team gets shuffled around . Finish building the top before filling out the bottom which is much easier and less costly .

  • Marty Reasoner 3.0 . Mact’s boy and a good soldier for the Oilers in the past.A competent center and Pk guy. He with Smyth and Brown on the fourth line will be at worst even.I like Horcoff with Bickell and MP.Gagner with Yak and Nickysomeone. Hall Ebbs and Nuge.Jones is my 13 forward and gets 55-65 games in as a energy guy. Smyth should be limited to 50 games and Brown to 45 ish. Rotate them in and out to keep them fresh.

  • MacTavish sounds like every other GM in the NHL we need to get bigger faster blah blah blah really .

    Another talker .

    Deja vu all over again

    Can’t wait till next year when fans want the Coach Gm and Pres fired.

    All they need is the GM to say we need to get better.

  • DSF

    Can’t be the worst team in the NHL since the lockout of 2004 with good players. Most of the team is overrated . Results speak louder than words.
    This is a bad team.

    What are we suppose to think when MacTavish says we need to get better. Good thing he got an MBA or else he might of said something stupid.

  • DSF

    The longer it takes MacT. to start dealing ,the more I tend to believe it will be a marque player at center or defence . Something to excite the fans to renew their season tickets .

  • How many minutes will the bottom 5 play each night, maybe 5-6 minutes. The majority of those minutes, in the soft moments of the games, offensive zone face-offs, or when the games is won or lost ( more than 3 goal differential) or when the other team send our their “tough/energy” line.

    I like
    C- Smithson
    W – Brown, Eager, Hordichuk, Smyth

    Expect them be tough, hard hitting, i.e. Completely different than what you are expecting the top 9 provide.

    Keep your PK and PP players from your top 9