Dallas Eakins gave a wide-ranging interview from the Oilers summer orientation camp on Thursday, but understandably much of the discussion focused on the young centre that Edmonton took third overall in June’s draft. Can Leon Draisaitl help fill the hole in the middle of the Oilers’ forward depth chart as early as next season?
Eakins made it clear that he was keeping an open mind as to Draisaitl’s on-ice capabilities.
“It’s hard for me to have a really hard opinion,” he said. “I saw him play an afternoon game against the Oil Kings. I’ve seen him play not even 60 minutes of hockey; he probably played in that game 21 minutes. I’m not going to lay down my opinion on a viewing of a player in one game.”
While Eakins wasn’t willing to commit himself one way or the other on a player he really hasn’t had much opportunity to see play, he was willing to speak in general terms about the position and the proper development route for a young player.
Hiding a Centre
Asked about whether it was easier to shelter an inexperienced forward than a defenceman, Eakins agreed but with a caveat.
“I think the guy that has it the easiest, that you could maybe hide, would be a very young winger,” he said. “After that it would be a centre, [then] the D. You’ve got to be careful. Leon’s a centreman, he’s got great responsibility on the ice, but we’ll see how this goes. I have expectations for our high picks; that they turn into very good NHL players. I have no expectations about when that will be.”
It’s not a surprise to hear Eakins say what really represents conventional wisdom about NHL hockey. When Craig MacTavish mentioned in his July 1 press conference that had Sam Gagner returned it would have been on the wing, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines there; Gagner had long-time difficulties with the defensive responsibilities of the position, and the Oilers had got sick of waiting for the mountain to go to Mohammed.
It goes without saying, of course, that it’s much more difficult to shelter a young centre when one of the other top-nine players at that position is the winner of a battle between Mark Arcobello and Anton Lander, which would likely be the case in a world where Draisaitl made the team (barring further additions by Edmonton, which will presumably come if at all possible).
Competition & Development
Eakins hinted at the need for another addition at centre – a need MacTavish has already publicly recognized – with his comment on the essential nature of competition for an NHL roster spot.
“There needs to be competition,” the coach said. “We don’t want to be handing spots in an NHL lineup to players who haven’t earned it by default. They need to battle and the other thing is that they need to be ready. I think when you rush players in you’re setting them up for failure and we don’t want to do that.”
If, as expected, the Oilers add another established NHL centre, Draisaitl won’t make the team by default. In that scenario the Oilers will have three spots locked down, and just one open for the winner of a race between Draisaitl, Arcobello and Lander. It seems reasonable to think that one of that trio should be able to fill the role, particularly with Boyd Gordon given the heavy lifting in the defensive zone and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins taking the power-vs.-power assignment.
Eakins also acknowledged that he doesn’t believe in a hard-and-fast rule about when a player should make the NHL.
“There are great examples around the league of players who maybe should have been sent back to junior,” he said. “And there are lots of players out there who weren’t sent back to junior who have had unbelievable careers. In the end, all this gets settled at training camp; you can see as you get through those exhibition games and the spots that we put them in if they’re going to be ready or not.”
It’s a decision the coach had to make last season with the Oilers’ seventh overall pick in 2013.
“Last year, Darnell [Nurse] wasn’t ready,” he noted. “It was a tough day for Darnell; I still remember it vividly, sending him back. These players are very young, they’re inexperienced, and we want to protect them right now.”
“At least we can give them a fair shake in training camp,” he added, emphasizing the same point that Robin Brownlee made on this site earlier today. “If they’re not ready they’ll go back and if they are ready they’ll stay; it’s as simple as that.”
The Oilers have already brought in enough NHL’ers to make the competition for a spot on defence fierce; really only one job exists for the trio of Nurse, Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom to grab, with Marincin the obvious favourite. It’s a similar story on the wings, where only one spot on the fourth line appears to be open for contest out of camp. One more NHL centreman would do the same for that position, and leave the Oilers in good shape heading into camp.
At that point, barring a significant injury, Draisaitl would have to fight extremely hard for a shot at an NHL job in 2014-15.