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:

  • 15w40

    I would think Boyd Gordon would be a viable option as well for a 3/4 centre.

    For an in-house shuffle, move Peckham up to 4th line winger (been mentioned before by different posters numerous times).

  • Klima's Mullet

    Seen a lot of Lapierre and not a fan. I’m not sure that his chirping, turtling, diving, etc. and overall attitude is what you want on the ice or in the room. Too bad because otherwise he’s an effective 4th liner.

    For UFAs Gordon and Chipchura have come out of the Phx “defense first” world. Thinking outside the box Wellwood on a 1 year could give you some nice flexibility if the plan is to slot him between Smyth and Harski b/c he could play up for short spells if needed. Can’t PK, but he’s good on the dot.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    4 – 93 – 14 — Smoooooffff like butta!

    91 – 89 – 64 — Sooooooffff like I never see before!

    ?? – 10 – 83 — Old and busted, and even missing a piece…

    94/56 – ?? – 13 — This is just carnage!

    ?? – ?? — Oilers should just hold open try outs…

  • bwar

    First off : I’d be disappointed if we have to use Horcoff as first or second line center . So he drops into bottom six if we hope to progress. Hopefully Hopkins will emerge as legit first or second line center . Last year he was not ready yet .

    Bottom six I have Horcoff and possibly Paajarvi , and hopefully we can upgrade the rest . Manupulating the others around doesn’t appear to be the answer to bottom six , and will most likely lead to poor results again next season .

  • bwar

    I was kind of thinking Horcoff would either be bought out or be the fourth line center next year. I guess that will really depend on who we can get in free agency. Should be a few options available for a 3/4 center.

    • Klima's Mullet

      I like the idea of looking for a quality 3rd linr center and sending Horcoff to the fourth. I wonder what the price would be for a guy like Martin Hanzal.

      • 15w40

        Hanzal would be awesome at #2 for the Oilers but I don’t think the conversation even starts without either #14 or #64 as part of the deal.

        That’s even if they didn’t just hang up when his name is brought up.

        Hanzal is a fast, big, heavy, responsible centre and they are hard to get unless its through the draft.

        For what he is, his contract is reasonable at just over 3 mil and Phoenix I don’t think would be looking to add $$ to their bottom line at this point.

        If Edmonton can add him for a deal that works then it should happen like yesterday.

        • The Soup Fascist

          An adequate veteran for Ebs or Yak.

          Is this Garth Snow?

          Look I don’t mind Hanzal but you are out to lunch mentioning either of those guys. Overpay of all overpays.

          • 15w40

            Not saying I would make the deal either, just thinking about Phoenix’s situation with money and what Hanzal means to their team.

            I don’t see a transaction where the Oiler’s have something that would fit the Coyote’s bill for what they would let Hanzal go for.

            It would go both ways – what the Oilers would be willing to offer wouldn’t be good enough for Phoenix and what the Coyote’s would want the Oilers wouldn’t part with.

            My point was if there was a trade that would work for both teams, Hanzal is exactly the type of center man they could use.

          • The Soup Fascist

            I agree, I like Hanzal big time. Huge guy with some skill. I just would not give up either of the players you mentioned for a 35 – 40 point forward. Not even close.

            You are correct his contract is somewhat reasonable at $3.1 mil through 2017, so it would take something to get him out of Phoenix. Just far less than one of the kids.

            I think people underestimate how valuable Horcoff’s contract is to teams trying to spend to the floor. For $7 million in real dollars you get $11 million in cap hit (over the two remaining years) and he is a serviceable bottom six player.

            He HAS value. Horcoff and something could get you Hanzal IMO, especially if Phoenix is watching their dollars (aren’t they always). Whether MacT would pull the trigger ….?

          • 15w40

            If that deal of Horcoff plus an asset would get you Hanzal then I would think MacT would make that trade instantly – well at least I would depending on what the something was.

            Horcoff + Lander??
            Horcoff + Arcobello or Rajala??

            If they could swing a deal like that and still have the other players in play (Gagner/Hemsky) to help shore up the defense – that would be ideal IMHO.

        • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

          The conversation doesn’t start with Ebs or last year’s 1st overall pick for Martin Hanzal. It ends with them when MacT hangs up the phone with extreme prejudice!

  • Klima's Mullet

    I was really hoping Brown wouldn’t be looked at as a viable option for the Oilers.

    You figure the Oilers would have seen enough out of him last year to tell them that he doesn’t bring anything of value…

    • GVBlackhawk

      What are you talking about? The Oilers were 7-2 when Brown fought (according to Don Cherry). That’s all I need to know.

      And Smithson was really good in the faceoff circle one year in the playoffs…..

    • Klima's Mullet

      Agreed…I think Pitlick and Rajala will get at least a cup of coffee in the show when the inevitable injury bug strikes. Pitlick is effective when he plays physically and Rajala is a pain the rear to play against. His emergence may soften the blow if some bodies are moved out for a #1 D (Gagner, Paajarvi, etc).