This late season run was supposed to be an opportunity for some of the Oilers top AHL prospects – players like Anton Lander and Tyler Pitlick – to show they belonged in the NHL.
Instead, Lander’s floundering in a feature role and Pitlick can’t string half a dozen healthy games together. But that doesn’t mean nobody’s taking advantage of the opportunity.
Steve Pinizzotto’s in a rough spot. He turns 30 this summer, and while he’s a scrappy, do-it-all kind of forward he’s at an age where a lot of teams are going to look right past him. When the Oilers first traded for him and assigned him to Oklahoma, I asked him something along the lines of how vital it was to make an immediate impression on the organization.
“I’m getting to an age now where there are guys that I am probably 10 years older than,” he replied. “The door can’t stay open forever. I can’t look at next year; like you said I have to worry about this year and hopefully catch some eyes.”
Through four games, he’s been pretty decent for the Oilers. He’s not a pure enforcer, but like Matt Hendricks he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty (HockeyFights.com has him at eight tilts this year, after he fought six times last season) and at the AHL level he’s been a secondary scorer and a penalty killer. He’s tougher than Tyler Pitlick and a better hockey player than Luke Gazdic.
Surprising, at least for me, has been the play of Philip Larsen. Over his last five games, all at right wing, the Oilers’ fourth line has had a slight edge in scoring chances (8-7) with Larsen on the ice. He has three points in that span, too, and has looked better as a forward than he did at any point this year as a defenceman.
There’s a part of me that really likes the idea of the last skater on the roster being a swingman who can play on either the back end or on a forward line. I find myself wishing the Oilers had tried him at right wing earlier in the year – though of course there was no way Dallas Eakins and company could have known he was going to make the transition so seamlessly.
Finally, Will Acton’s had a pretty reasonable five games, too. He’s not producing any offence, but the fourth line has done a far better job of late in terms of out-chancing the opposition, and he’s been around for that. Like Lander, Acton got stuck at the start of the year with lousy linemates; unlike Lander he doesn’t have the pedigree that would get him a cameo on the higher lines. I’m not saying that’s wrong – Lander had earned his shot with strong AHL play – but any fair evaluation of Acton notes who he’s played with.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the five fringe players – Pitlcik, Lander, Pinizzotto, Larsen and Acton – currently getting NHL minutes up front.
I do think that Pinizzotto – a pending unrestricted free agent – would be a really nice fit on a two-way contract next year, and it wouldn’t bother me at all to see him in the fight for one of the bottom spots in training camp next fall. Worst case scenario, he’s a useful AHL’er and a reliable call-up; best case scenario he can fill a depth role in the NHL.
Larsen, Lander and Pitlick are RFAs. My expectation is that the Oilers decline to qualify Larsen, but retain both Pitlick and Lander (unless one or both find their way into a summer trade). The wrinkle here is that both players should probably be in the same boat as Pinizzotto: signed to two-way deals and asked to come in and win a job in training camp.
Acton’s the lone guy under contract for next season, and he looks like a nice fit for the Chris Vande Velde role: the checking line in Oklahoma City and occasional call-ups if/when injuries warrant.
But those are just my guesses, and with only one of the five guys under contract the Oilers have the ability to go in an entirely different direction.