Todd McLellan obviously isn’t going to make firm decisions on his opening night lineup until he’s had a real chance at training camp to get a feel for the players in his charge. But it’s equally hard to believe that he has no idea of what he’s going to do; he’ll already have looked at the video and put quite a bit of thought into his team’s makeup.
In this week’s WWYDW, we ask: If you were McLellan, what would your full roster plan look like right now?
Centre. The Oilers have some options here. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is obviously going to start down the middle on either the first or second line. Some prefer that Connor McDavid start the year on the wing, though my read is that most will also have him down the middle. After those two, Anton Lander showed well for the Oilers last season and Mark Letestu is an established NHL veteran with a range of skills. Leon Draisaitl could start the year down the middle, at left wing, or in the AHL. Some will also want to consider Bogdan Yakimov for centre ice positions.
Left Wing. Taylor Hall is No. 1 with a bullet at this position and will land on a scoring line. Benoit Pouliot showed extremely well last season and brings a size/speed combination that would be welcome on any team in the league. Lauri Korpikoski (who can also play RW) is another winger with size and speed, although he’s struggled in recent years. Matt Hendricks (who can play any forward position) is a defensive specialist who plays the game with a nasty physical edge. Rounding out the established NHL group are Rob Klinkhammer (a natural LW who played RW last year) and enforcer Luke Gazdic.
AHL vet Ryan Hamilton might make a case for himself in camp, while prospect Anton Slepyshev (who can also play RW) is coming off a good KHL run.
Right Wing. Like Hall, Jordan Eberle stands apart from his teammates at this position; nobody else on the roster is close to him. Nail Yakupov (a left shot who has spent time at LW too) made some late-season strides on a sheltered scoring line and is a bit of a wild card. Teddy Purcell (can also play LW) has had success in the past as a complementary player on a skill line but is coming off a tough year.
Beyond those three, there are a number of players hoping to break into the NHL full-time. Tyler Pitlick brings speed and a physical dimension. Iiro Pakarinen (can also play LW) does much the same, though the fact that he can be sent down without clearing waivers probably hurts him out of the gate. Andrew Miller is the most offensive of the three and while he lacks size, he’s a speedster.
Defence and Goaltending
Left Defence. Newcomer Andrej Sekera (who can play RD) is the obvious candidate to take over the No. 1 job in Edmonton, regardless of which side he plays on. Oscar Klefbom is likely right behind him on the depth chart; he’s big and fast and capable at both ends of the rink, though he’s still prone to youthful errors. After that, it gets tricky.
Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference are both veteran NHL’ers hanging on to their jobs by a thread (if at all). Both can switch to the right side, and both are looking to overcome difficult seasons. Nikitin’s $4.5 million contract makes a minor-league assignment awkward, while Ference’s no-move clause makes one for him impossible.
Darnell Nurse is the team’s best prospect, but may start his pro career in the AHL. Newly acquired Griffin Reinhart (played a lot of RD last year) already has an AHL season under his belt and was clearly acquired with NHL minutes in mind. Brandon Davidson isn’t as highly-touted as either of them, but must clear waivers to be demoted this year and showed well in a 12-game cameo last season.
Prospects Jordan Oesterle and David Musil will also be worth considering. Oesterle brings speed and ability with the puck; Musil brings size, strength and an intelligent defensive game to the table. Those looking for a power play specialist may want to consider Brad Hunt. Both Hunt and Musil can play either side.
Right Defence. Justin Schultz is the incumbent No. 1, but the shine has come off his game considerably and the idea of trying him at right wing has become increasingly popular as he’s struggled at defence. Mark Fayne is an established NHL’er, a meat-and-potatoes defensive defenceman with a limited ceiling but what Lowetide likes to call “calm feet.” Eric Gryba, acquired from Ottawa this summer, plays a tough physical game but speed/puck issues will likely limit him to third-pairing work.
Goaltending. Cam Talbot is almost certainly going to start the year as the Oilers’ No. 1 goalie, but the backup role is up for grabs. Ben Scrivens, coming off a disappointing season, will battle with newcomer Anders Nilsson for the No. 2 job.
We’ve briefly run through the options; the question now is what our projected opening night lineup should look like. I’ll run through mine first:
- Line 1: Pouliot – Nugent-Hopkins – Eberle. This trio worked well last year when Hall was hurt and spreads the offence out, which is important because it creates match-up problems for the opposition.
- Line 2: Hall – McDavid – Purcell. Lots of people don’t like the idea of Purcell here, but my reasoning runs like this: Purcell has had success in any role with good players, while Yakupov had success late last season against lousy competition. In McLellan’s shoes, I’d prefer to ice Yakupov on a soft minutes-killing line to start the year and stick Purcell in a role where he’s been successful many times before.
- Line 3: Korpikoski – Lander – Yakupov. I like the duo of Lander and Yakupov, and I like the idea of starting Yakupov off on a carefully sheltered third scoring line that gets a lot of soft match-ups because he killed that assignment late last year (with the plan being to move him up if he hits the ground running). I’m not convinced Korpikoski belongs here, but unless Draisaitl blows the doors off, there isn’t an option I vastly prefer.
- Line 4: Hendricks – Letestu – Pitlick. This is a fourth line that can handle tougher minutes and has two good faceoff men. I fully expect Letestu to make a case for third line work.
- Spare Forward: Klinkhammer. Klinkhammer’s been good whenever he’s played LW in the NHL, so I’d keep him around. Every bit of evidence I’ve seen suggests enforcers don’t do a thing to prevent injuries, so there’s no room on my roster for Gazdic.
- Pairing 1: Sekera – Fayne. Fayne has been most successful paired with a puck-mover, and both these guys can handle tough minutes. This would be the shutdown tandem.
- Pairing 2: Klefbom – Schultz. It’s not ideal, but Schultz’s best run as an NHL defenceman came with Klefbom. It would be nice to bump Schultz down to the third pairing but I just don’t see it happening.
- Pairing 3: Reinhart – Nikitin. I suspect we’ll see a bounceback year from Nikitin if he’s healthy; he won’t be worth the money but he’s a good penalty-killer and in a third pair role at evens should be okay. I watched all of Reinhart’s NHL games from last year and he looks ready to me, and sending him down to the minors really creates a logjam down there.
- Spare Defencemen: Gryba, Ference. Starting Gryba off in the No. 7 slot isn’t a big deal to me; he’s a third pair defenceman so if he gets some nights in the press-box I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Ference certainly deserves a shot in camp but looked done late last year.
- Goalies: Talbot – Scrivens. The balance of Scrivens’ career is better than the balance of Nilsson’s career.
That’s what I’d be looking at entering training camp, but what about you? WWYDW is all about the comments section, after all, so please present your own ideas (and feel free to yell at me where I got it wrong)!
RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS
- Why Daniel Briere isn’t remembered as a Coyote
- Andrew Ference, Central Scouting and the Pittsburgh Penguins
- Leon Draisaitl, Keith Primeau and development curves
- Unsigned second-rounder Marco Roy joins Edmonton’s AHL team
- Musil, Moroz & Pitlick: Which second-round pick was best?
- Is Anton Lander a long-term fit with the Oilers?
- Follow Jonathan Willis on Twitter