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
- 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
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
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.