Thursday’s game against San Jose was notable in a few different ways, and one of them was the changes to the forward lineup. The arrival of Zack Kassian and return of Nail Yakupov, combined with the waiving of Rob Klinkhammer gave Todd McLellan a few more options up front and the Oilers a better shot at a functional bottom-six.
There’s more work to be done, though.
Edmonton has had 16 forwards play at least 100 minutes of even-strength ice-time this season, and I tend to divide them into two groups, based on scoring ability. If we array them by points/hour at five-on-five, they break down neatly and in this order:
- Scorers: Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Teddy Purcell, Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
- Supporting Cast: Lauri Korpikoski, Matt Hendricks, Iiro Pakarinen, Mark Letestu, Rob Klinkhammer, Jujhar Khaira, Luke Gazdic and Anton Lander
The former group gets most of the attention, but I wanted to dig into the latter group. With Edmonton now seven points back of the Sharks (with San Jose holding three games in hand) it seems fair to turn our focus to next year and ask which, if any, of the latter group should be back.
The Supporting Cast
Korpikoski leads the group in terms of points/hour, but every line he joins gets destroyed on the shot clock. Letestu’s Corsi drops five points (from 47.3 percent to 42.3 percent) the moment Korpikoski joins his line. Lander’s Corsi drops 10 points (50.2 percent without, 40.3 percent with). Both Letestu and Lander start more shifts in the defensive zone when playing with anyone other than Korpikoski. The Finn is gritty, has some finishing ability and is signed for another year, but he’s been a millstone in the bottom-six and should not be back to complete his contract. He’s a poor man’s Ryan Jones.
Hendricks has been fantastic, and not just as a physical guy, faceoff winner and penalty killer. He has a whopping 52.1 percent Corsi and 38.1 percent zonestart away from Korpikoski. I was highly skeptical when the Oilers acquired him; I was wrong. He’s been a great fit in Edmonton. At age 34 he’s not going to be around for the long-term, but he has another year on his deal and unless someone comes in with a shockingly high offer at the deadline he should stick around.
Pakarinen has had his moments, and like most of the guys on this list his shot numbers are pretty good away from Korpikoski (four percent increase). He’s big, physical, only 24 years old and shouldn’t cost much coming off his entry-level deal. I like him as a fourth-line right wing.
Letestu has two years left on his contract. He wins faceoffs, he helps special teams and if he could score a bit at even-strength there would be no reason for concern about this contract. To me he looks more like a fourth-line centre than third line guy, but he will be back and he can help.
Klinkhammer cleared waivers this morning, and I wonder if his NHL career is at an end. I wonder how much injury affected him this year; he missed a lot of time and never really found his legs. At his best he’s big, physical, fast and cheap but was utterly ineffective this season and turns 30 in August. Lots of fringe NHL’ers end up falling out of the league at around this point in their careers.
Khaira is just 21 years old and at the beginning of his career; he’ll be back though it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he started next season in the AHL, particularly since he’s finally starting to show some offensive game and since Todd McLellan hasn’t been shy about scratching young players in the majors. He’s big, physical and if he can be even a serviceable two-way guy he’ll play for a long time.
Gazdic has had a good season when he’s played, so much so that he held on to his NHL job over Klinkhammer on merit. He’s in the last year of his deal with Edmonton and may or may not be back; it’s hard to fault him as the No. 13/14 forward but with enforcers well on the way towards extinction the Oilers may prefer to use his roster spot on a special teams guy (running 11 forwards and seven defenceman with Brad Hunt in the offensive role didn’t work badly, as an example). I wouldn’t bring him back, but it would be hard to be too upset if Edmonton did.
Lander misses Todd Nelson. He’s been brilliant for his long-time coach at both the minor and major league level, but under any other coach his offensive game has disappeared more completely than D.B. Cooper. He wins faceoffs, he’s a strong penalty killer and he’s a fierce competitor. He’s cheap enough to slot in as the No. 5 centre, which is why I’d bring him back for the last year of his deal but it will be tough to argue if he gets sent to the AHL at some point.
Outside of perhaps Letestu, nobody on this list is absolutely safe. For next season, I’m in favour of a fourth line featuring Hendricks, Letestu and Pakarinen, with Lander potentially back as the No .5 centre because his cheap one-way deal has a final year to play out. Nobody here should be promoted to more work, several should be allowed to depart and something should be done to get rid of Korpikoski.