Pity the poor forwards trying to crack the Oilers’ roster

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We got our first look at how the Oilers’ revamped hockey operations staff views it’s (also somewhat revamped) forward corps yesterday as training camp opened. Todd McLellan’s day one lines were intelligent and make it painfully clear how difficult it’s going to be for Edmonton’s fringe NHL types to hang on to roster spots.

Day One Units

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  • Benoit Pouliot – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle
  • Taylor Hall – Connor McDavid – Teddy Purcell
  • Leon Draisaitl – Anton Lander – Nail Yakupov
  • Matt Hendricks – Mark Letestu – Lauri Korpikoski

First, a quick note on construction here. Last year we saw Pouliot have real success in a top-line role during Hall’s absence, so starting him on that line again and sticking Hall with McDavid has always made a certain amount of sense. Equally sensible is sticking Purcell on the wing of that latter line, as it gives Hall/McDavid a veteran backstop and puts Purcell in a position where he’s had real success in the past. It also means that Yakupov gets to start the year in the soft minutes scoring role he played so well in last year, a role which seems like a natural fit for Draisaitl and leaves Lander playing the role of safety net. Finally, that fourth line can play any kind of minutes; it’s the kind of Swiss Army knife any coach would appreciate having at his disposal.

A lot of talk so far has focused on pairs, with the consensus wisdom on the blogs seeming to be that Nugent-Hopkins/Eberle, Hall/McDavid and Draisaitl/Lander are the logical ones. I wonder about that, because it mixes wings; it seems more likely to me that the pairs will focus on centre/left wing duos. That allows McLellan to stick Eberle with Hall/McDavid when he wants a loaded offensive line, and it allows him to bump up Yakupov when the Russian is going or bump up Korpikoski when he wants a little more meat in the top-nine.

Cracking the Roster

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Of those top-12 positions above, which seems most vulnerable? Right wing looks locked down in a lot of ways; the new general manager just added Korpikoski and his $2.5 million cap hit to the roster and he’s perhaps the most vulnerable of those four players. Centre features veteran NHL’ers, the superlative McDavid and Lander; the latter is the only one who looks remotely in danger at this juncture. The “easiest” spot to win in this top-12 is probably the one Draisaitl is penciled in for, and winning a spot away from a third overall pick in that player’s second pro campaign is nobody’s definition of easy.

Judging from McLellan’s words to Bob Stauffer at the start of the month, a 13th forward is pretty much guaranteed a job, too:

I’m expecting [Luke Gazdic to work his way into the Oilers’ top-12]. I believe in him as a player. He did have a tough time last year. The game is changing, so if Luke or anybody else around the league just shows up thinking that they will be used in that enforcer role it doesn’t work that way anymore. You have to be an effective player that can contribute solid minutes at both ends of the rink, you have to be a very good teammate and for me in watching Luke perform last year and listening to people around the organization he has those assets. He needs a chance to perform healthy, to gain some confidence. I understand that he’s worked extremely hard over the summer and he’s going to be physically ready to play. We want Luke Gazdic the player and physical player, and not necessarily Luke Gazdic the enforcer all the time. That’s what we’ll be looking for.

That’s 13 forwards penciled in, and anyone counting on capturing a roster spot is going to have to win out over one of those 13 because there may not be a 14th spot open. Peter Chiarelli told TSN last week that they could carry three goalies, though it was unlikely, which would leave only 13 spots open for the forwards. Alternatively, Edmonton ay well end up carrying eight defencemen, given that there are 10 legitimate candidates even before we get to the training camp surprises or unorthodox possibilities like running Brad Hunt as a power play specialist. My guess is that barring injury, the Oilers exit camp with 13 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies, which leaves a long list of aspiring forwards out of the equation.

Out in the Cold

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Our list of players on the outside looking in on Day 1 is long, and it’s talented enough that we just might see somebody play so well as to be impossible to ignore. The list includes:

  • LW Rob Klinkhammer. A 6’3”, 220-pound 29-year-old on a one-way contract, Klinkhammer suffered after being miscast at right wing last year. He has exceptional mobility, a robust physical game and put up 20 points in a fourth-line role in 2013-14.
  • RW Tyler Pitlick. When he isn’t injured, the 2010 second round pick combines speed with a competent two-way game and decent size.
  • LW/RW Iiro Pakarinen. A 6’1”, 215-pound winger who earned rave reviews from Todd Nelson for his professionalism, Pakarinen earned 17 NHL games last year in a checking role and never passed up a hit or a shot along the way.
  • C/RW Andrew Miller. Miller posted six points in nine games with the Oilers last year, mostly playing on a line with Lander and Hall. He’s undersized but extremely fast and a clever playmaker.
  • C/LW Bogdan Yakimov. A physical specimen, the 6’5” centre is down to 224 pounds from last season’s 232 and he’s coming off a rookie year in which he fared pretty well. He’s a tank and he can play an offensive game; he’ll be hard to ignore in training camp.

There are others we might name, but those five are all on the bubble and logical candidates to push for NHL work immediately. This is going to be an ugly camp for forwards trying to break into Edmonton’s plans, but it ought to be a fun one for fans to watch. There’s going to be desperation from players like Klinkhammer and Pitlick who in different ways are trying to hang on to NHL careers, and there’s going to be hunger from emerging options like Pakarinen and Yakimov, along with a host of others not named above. Right now, things seem clear-cut; it’s going to be up to those people on the bubble to muddy the waters and make Todd McLellan’s decisions difficult.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

    • For Pete's Sake!

      Yeah, you’re dreaming, but it’s a good dream! I don’t think you’ll wake up in a cold sweat around the middle of November and realize you’re in a nightmare, as has happened the last couple of years, lol.

    • Randaman

      The problem hasn’t really been the Forwards so much, it’s the fact that they have had ZERO confidence in the D-line and Goaltending being there to support them in recent years.

      It’s a lot easier to think about playing the puck forward when you don’t have to constantly worry as much about what will happen when the play goes back the other way.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    I really like Rob Klinkhammer. He’s big, he’s strong and he’s a very good skater for his size and he’s a veteran who knows what his role is on the team. Exactly the type of fourth line player you need in the tough western conference. Luke’s only advantage, is he’s a better fighter but is that enough in today’s league?

    • For Pete's Sake!

      That’s another story of course. Because of performing so poorly in the past, I think the Oiler’s much maligned defense is actually slightly under-rated. Defense is a team concept, and it won’t get any better on the Oilers until the whole team “buys in,” from the forwards right through to the goalies. I’m really optimistic that Todd Mclellan and his coaching staff will have a much better chance instilling that “buy in” than Eakins and his crew did in the past, e.g. “The Swarm.”

  • Dan 1919

    It’s nice to at last start a season where spots in the forward group are hard to come by, as oppose to badly needed. This scenario does not, for once, expect everything to break right. Moreover, it has plan B,C,D, and E if the wheels fall off here.

    It also has a lot of depth to cover for injuries. I do not think we will see Hall needing to play top line C for some time, if indeed ever again.

    Having Drai start in an arguably easier wing position on the third line, and also put Yak down there where the pressure is off, is so nice to see.

    But, I don’t think there is no room for movement. Purcell, will either be gone at the deadline or at the end of the year, which opens a top six RW spot. That will go to Yak, or Drai, or maybe even a Pitlick or Shlepyshev as early as the spring.

    This in turn will open up a spot on the third line for maybe a guy like Yakimov, or again Shlepyshev, or Pitlick.

    I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it now again.

    EVENTUALLY, I would not be surprised if the top 9 was

    Pouliot – Nuge – Eberle

    Hall – McDavid – Draisaitl (let’s face it, the kid likes to pass off his back hand)

    Shlepyshev – Yakimov – Yakipov.

    With Lander, and others on the fourth line,

  • Dan 1919

    For me the big question is the third line of Draisaitl, Lander, Yakupov… Can they do more than be young prospects or decent third liners(Lander). If they can actually be an effective, producing third option, I think having those three waves of lines will be too much for most teams to handle the majority of the nights.

    Depending on that third forward line, and if Kelfbom can take a big step and provide a top pairing option with Sekera, I think we could possibly see playoffs this year. If either of those cogs don’t pan out, I will be pleased with modest improvement this year with around a 9th-11th competitive finish.

  • Dan 1919

    Was it really only a year ago that we saw Will Acton as a shoe-in because there were no better options? Wow.

    If I recall correctly when Boyd Gordon was acquired the writers at ON said the Oilers would be a playoff team when Gordon is 4th on the centre depth chart. I would say we are now there except its Letestu in place of Gordon.

    Now its just a case of getting Schultz 5-6 on the depth chart on the blue line and its looking like we are projected to be there a year from now once we sign our #1RD next off season and Nurse makes the team as a top 4. Things are looking much better.

  • blark

    People keep saying things like “Purcell was successful with skilled line mates in the past, meaning he should be good with McDavid/Hall.” I’m wondering what the stats say about what Purcell brings to those “skilled” lines. It always sounds like “this will make Purcell better” instead of “putting Purcell on that line will help the team.” Make sense? Or am I just frustrated with semantics?

  • Dan 1919

    “Equally sensible is sticking Purcell on the wing of that latter line, as it gives Hall/McDavid a veteran backstop and puts Purcell in a position where he’s had real success in the past.”

    Purcell is a fringe player and he and his salary don’t belong on this edition of the Oilers if the objective is to finally make the playoffs after 9 consecutive seasons on the outside looking in.

    “the new general manager just added Korpikoski and his $2.5 million cap hit to the roster and he’s perhaps the most vulnerable of those four players.”

    What was Charelli thinking when he signed more fringe players. It reminds us of MacT’s mistakes.

    As to earlier remarks about the D, God help us. Ference, Nikitin and Schultz will drag the squad down. Thin gruel.

  • Joy S. Lee

    I suspect Purcell may ride shotgun on a line like McDavid/Hall for a bit, but that is where the opening will come from in the group, when Chiarelli moves him and his contract for futures while he’s putting up his most impressive numbers during the season; or at the deadline. But I wonder if that player wouldn’t be more in danger than even Draisaitl’s less certain spot? Funny thing is, playing with a prodigy can change a players’ trajectory completely, and that is definitely something worth watching.

    BJ MacDonald or Brett Callighen, anyone?