It’s a concern that comes up every year and goes something like this: The ‘Oilers forward corps’ isn’t big enough, isn’t defensively-oriented enough and lacks the ability to win hockey games. There are counterarguments – Chicago isn’t much bigger and they do fine, a better group on the blue line will make everyone look better, better goaltending will make everyone look better – but let’s acknowledge that nobody would complain if Edmonton’s forwards could get bigger and be more attentive to defensive detail.
How, exactly, might that happen?
The Oilers’ Top-Nine
Complaints about size and defensive competent on the fourth line are pretty rare; Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks and Rob Klinkhammer/Tyler Pitlick all have decent size and a reputation for playing a responsible game. So we’ll confine our focus to players with a real shot at top-nine work next year in Edmonton:
I’ve used four criteria here: height, weight, NHL experience and usage on the penalty kill. If we imagine that a 6’2”, 200-pound forward with five full seasons of NHL experience and at least 30 seconds of penalty-killing time per game is a good baseline for a big, defensively responsible forward, how many players does Edmonton have that hit those four criteria?
- Four-for-four: Nil.
- Three-for-four: Benoit Pouliot (H, E, PK), Teddy Purcell (H, E, PK)
- Two-for-four: Nil
- One-for-four: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (PK), Anton Lander (PK), Leon Draisaitl (W), Derek Roy (E)
- Zero-for-four: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov
It’s not hard to figure out why Craig MacTavish valued Pouliot and Purcell; both bring size, experience and defensive acumen to a forward group that lacks those qualities.
We have 10 candidates for top-nine work here, so we have to start by dumping one from next season’s roster and then any big, experienced, defensive addition to the group will require further cuts. Who should go if Edmonton wants to change its makeup?
The first obvious casualty is Roy. He’s undersized and despite a long NHL career isn’t really regarded as a defensive asset. After that it gets harder.
Pouliot isn’t going anywhere; he was a nice fit in Year 1 and helps with a lot of these issues. Purcell is a popular buyout candidate because he’s seen as a soft player, but he’s also an experienced hand who plays a two-way game; he can be dumped but he’s more solution than problem if the question is size and two-way play.
McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and Hall obviously aren’t going anywhere. The Oilers can hope for development there; Nugent-Hopkins is already a defensive stalwart and it’s not hard to imagine McDavid as a 200-pound two-way threat given that he’s currently 195 pounds and the best junior prospect since Sidney Crosby. Hall isn’t small, plays a fast, aggressive game and has elite offensive ability.
It doesn’t make sense to dump Draisaitl. His only issue is experience; he’s already the biggest guy in the top-nine and shows clear signs of developing into a two-way forward with sufficient experience.
Lander is a possibility, despite his obvious defensive value and the fact that he plays bigger than he is. He’s also dirt cheap, coming in at less than $1.0 million per season. He’s a hard candidate to nix, though he could be pegged for fourth-line duty at evens once Boyd Gordon is moved on down the line. If we cheat and bump him outside the top-nine and into the Gordon role (with an added power play element) we can open up one spot.
Is one spot on the third line enough, or do the Oilers need to make room in the top-six for a big, experienced, responsible forward? If they do, there are really only two options: Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov.
Yakupov isn’t really that small; at 197 pounds he’s close to our 200-pound baseline and he hits to hurt. He’s also on a reasonably cheap deal ($2.5 million for each of the next two seasons) and it’s debatable how much trade value he has. All of those are arguments for keeping him. On the other hand, there isn’t much question that he has defensive issues.
Eberle is more experienced, and while not a shutdown guy he’s better defensively than Yakupov. He’s also a far more proven offensive producer. He is small, weighing in at less than even Roy, and he’s not a physical player. He’s getting paid $6.0 million for each of the next three years, so he’s expensive; he’s also accomplished enough that he will have real trade value for some team out there.
If the Oilers’ top-six needs to be bigger and better defensively, it probably comes down to a choice between Eberle and Yakupov.
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