Once again, the Edmonton Oilers are facing tough decisions at centre ice. A year ago, they talked themselves into going with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Boyd Gordon and a bunch of uninspiring maybes. This year, the maybes are a little more compelling, but the basic choice remains the same.
Edmonton’s centre position has come up recently in a few different places. I read Lowetide religiously; he commented on the depth chart this morning:
Oilers are probably running Nuge—Roy—Lander—Gordon next season as their default position. What could change that depth chart? Drafting McEichel or a strong, strong camp from Leon. That’s about all I can think of, unless they decide to bring in a David Legwand but MacT didn’t do that a year ago so one assumes that won’t happen this year. I have to say Lander’s advance this year (his 5×5/60 and Corsi aren’t terrible) have me wondering if Roy—Draisaitl might be enough. Thoughts?
My colleague over at the Cult of Hockey, David Staples, had some mixed comments on Derek Roy in particular. After noting that he’s small and not very good defensively, Staples highlighted his offensive success and offered a limited endorsement:
As second line centers go, Roy isn’t at the level of Gagner in 2010-11, Horcoff 2011-12 or Gagner in 2012-13, but he’s putting up more contributions per game than Gagner last season, or more than young Leon Draisaitl or Mark Arcobello did this year. So keep him, I say, at least if he’s willing to sign a short term, discount contract. At worst, he’s a fifth liner. At best, he’s on a support attacking line and his presence can help Draisaitl by allowing him to develop on the wing or in the minors, if that’s the best bet for the young German.
I don’t want to put words in either writer’s mouth, but I interpret those comments pessimistically. There seems to be a lack of faith in the Oilers’ willingness to go out and get help, and a belief that Roy might be a useful piece to have around as insurance. I tend to think there’s a lot of truth in both comments.
Edmonton’s centre depth chart for next season includes the following internal candidates, ranked by ice-time this season:
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 20:53 per game (significant time in all three disciplines)
- Derek Roy, 16:58 per game (significant time at evens, second-unit power play assignments)
- Anton Lander, 14:06 per game (minimal time at evens, spot duty on the penalty kill, lots of power play time)
- Boyd Gordon, 13:29 per game (minimal time at evens, spot duty on the power play, lots of penalty kill time)
- Leon Draisaitl, 12:41 per game (minimal ice-time at evens, second-unit power play assignments)
Nugent-Hopkins is the most pivotal player at any position on the Oilers’ depth chart, and that depth chart virtually guarantees ruination if he’s out for any length of time. There simply isn’t any player positioned to take on his load at even-strength.
Roy is the current option for eating up minutes at even-strength, and he isn’t a good one. By eye, he’s a wreck defensively, and that’s backed up by number no matter what system to which one subscribes. His Corsi is staunchly mediocre despite a gorgeous 61.9 percent zone start and weak quality of competition. Using Staples’ scoring chance numbers, no forward on the team commits as many errors on chances against; incredibly only two regular defencemen (defencemen typically commit more errors by nature of their position) have worse averages. He’s also minus-11 in 35 games with the Oilers, not that anyone should be putting stock in plus/minus. Edmonton is out-shot, out-chanced and out-scored at an alarming rate when he’s on the ice. Getting along with Nail Yakupov is not an acceptable substitute for competence in the role.
Lander’s been pretty decent in the aggregate over 27 games this year, but four of his six goals and six of his 13 points have come on the power play and his even-strength work is more questionable (though we should allow for wretched linemates for much of it). Given the short span of his success and the limitations of that success, it’s ludicrous to suggest him at this point as a second-line even-strength pivot.
Draisaitl was stupidly given the benefit of the doubt this past summer/fall and that shouldn’t happen again. Penciling him into the No. 2 role would be more justified this year than last but at some point the Oilers have to stop looking at draft position and assuming a player is ready to solve all their problems just because he has pedigree.
Gordon is an established NHL player, but a sharply limited one. He’s a fantastic defensive specialist and a godsend to the Oilers this year (though they certainly paid for the privilege) but that excellent performance should not lead to him being cast in an offensive role to which he is poorly suited.
An NHL team has to be built with clear vision and a ruthless disposition. The clear vision part means accepting players for what they are, not allowing wishful thinking to take over. The ruthless disposition is necessary for taking the actions made evident by that clear vision.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing both Roy and Lander back in 2015-16, assuming of course that the price is reasonable. But there should only be one job in the starting 12 available to that duo, and it shouldn’t be the second line centre position. One of them can take Lander’s current position, the other can assume the No. 5 centre role and wait for an opportunity. That leaves Draisaitl in Bakersfield, but there’s no harm and potentially a good deal of benefit in that.
It also leaves a hole at the No. 2 centre position that needs to be filled. The Oilers talked themselves into leaving the position vacant in the summer of 2014, to the team’s great detriment. It was an inexcusable decision. It will be even more damning if they repeat it.