Last season, Edmonton started the year with right wing as its strongest position. Jordan Eberle led a group that included the NHL’s rookie scoring leader, Nail Yakupov, and the always useful Ales Hemsky. Fighting for the fourth-line job were a trio of players with some nice points – training camp standout Jesse Joensuu, enforcer Mike Brown and minor-league scorer Ryan Hamilton (who primarily plays left wing).
It was a pretty good looking group, but it took some hits over the course of the season. Now the Oilers face a summer that will see further changes to the group.
There has been no shortage of trade speculation involving Jordan Eberle over the years, and I’ve written some of it myself. The departure of Hemsky and the struggles of Yakupov should put an end to it; right now Eberle is indisputably the best right wing on the team and the only sure thing at the position. He isn’t a perfect player but he is a legitimate first-liner and a very nice piece of this team.
Nail Yakupov should probably slot in here, too. He has a long way to go as an NHL player, but he’s also capable of plays offensively that only a tiny fraction of NHL players can pull off. His development is a key story for the Edmonton Oilers; it might even be the key story of Dallas Eakins’ tenure as coach. He should slot in on a protected scoring line with some quality help.
The Oilers need to add a player who can take on the minutes Ales Hemsky was capable of playing. Ideally, he’s a little bigger and a little tougher and he doesn’t need to have quite as much offensive skill, but the big thing here is that he’s a guy capable of playing tough minutes while providing some scoring. It’s worth mentioning that David Perron could well slide over to fill this slot if the Oilers have more luck in finding a left wing with those qualities.
That’s really the only add the Oilers need to make; they have no shortage of internal candidates for the fourth-line role, a group which by my count includes the following:
- Jesse Joenssuu. The big Finn was brilliant in training camp last season, got hurt, and never returned to form. He has the frame the Oilers want, is willing to go to dirty areas and isn’t scared of the puck but for long portions of last season he didn’t look like an NHL player.
- Steve Pinizzotto. The pending UFA is as mean as any of the options the Oilers have at their disposal here, he’s an accomplished penalty-killer, and he’s been quite a decent minor-league scorer over his career. At 6’1”, 200 pounds he isn’t as big as other guys and at age 30 he’s an awfully late-bloomer, but he can skate and he can hit and he can play.
- Tyler Pitlick. A big, fast forward who finally had a breakthrough season in OKC, Pitlick looked pretty good during his NHL recalls. The problem is that he’s been perpetually injured, and this goes back at least as far as his rookie pro season. He might be a very nice player but he can’t be counted on.
The Oilers could also employ centres Anton Lander or Mark Arcobello at right wing, or move left wings like Matt Hendricks and Ryan Hamilton to right wing. Additionally, if the team (as I suspect) wants to bump Matt Hendricks down to the fourth line, it’s possible either that Hendricks slides over or that enforcer Luke Gazdic gets some shifts at right wing.
Philip Larsen probably isn’t long for the Oilers organization, and if he is it’s probably at defence, but I think it’s worth noting that he might have played his best hockey last season during a stint at right wing.
So What Happens?
Jordan Eberle gets the feature role, outside hire (or David Perron) takes on tough minutes behind him, and Nail Yakupov gets the spot on a sheltered scoring line that he needs to succeed.
Unless the Oilers cull the herd significantly, there should be a dogfight for the fourth-line job and Dallas Eakins and his staff will have the luxury of picking the guy who best complements the players at centre and left wing. I’ve started wondering whether Anton Lander’s shifts at right wing late last season were an audition for this job; if so he didn’t show very well. As Lowetide hinted earlier today, this might be Mark Arcobello’s route to a job in the starting-12, though it’s worth remembering that the coaches didn’t have much time for him as a fourth-liner last season.