The biggest question mark surrounding the Oilers is their organizational depth at the forward position. They are blessed with elite skill at the top in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who will be the catalysts for as long as they play in Edmonton, but you need depth to hoist the Stanley Cup.
They have a good mix of veterans and young forwards, but most of their best prospects in junior or in the AHL are defensemen.
General Manager Peter Chiarelli’s biggest challenge moving forward will be finding ways to improve his NHL club and bolster his organizational depth.
The Oilers only used 13 forwards in the playoffs. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Mark Letestu, Zack Kassian, Drake Caggiula, Benoit Pouliot and David Desharnais played all 13 games. Anton Slepyshev played 12 games and Iiro Pakarinen played one.
Desharnais won’t return this season, and his roster spot could be replaced by Jujhar Khaira. Anton Lander signed in the Europe so the Oilers have no other NHL-ready centres in the system. Kyle Platzer is currently their top centre in the AHL. He had one goal in 51 games this past season.
One of Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins will be moved within a year, possibly even this summer, so that creates another open spot. Jesse Puljujarvi played 28 NHL games as a rookie and he is their top wing prospect who didn’t finish the season in Edmonton, but his timetable on when he will be a productive NHL winger is open for debate.
After Puljujarvi, the next scoring forward on the depth chart is likely Joey Laleggia. Laleggia was the 123rd pick in 2012. He was drafted as a defenseman, but switched to forward midway through this past year. He tallied 20 goals in the AHL and according to head coach Gerry Fleming, he was one of his most reliable forwards for the final three months. Laleggia deserves a lot of credit for making the switch, but being their second best AHL prospect after only playing forward for three months illustrates the need to re-stock the forward shelves.
Bakersfield doesn’t have much offence after that. Josh Currie scored 22 goals, but isn’t on an NHL contract. Patrick Russell played all 68 games, the only player to do so, but his footspeed and competitiveness make him a long-shot to play an NHL game.
Tyler Benson is their best forward junior prospect, however, he’s only played 63 the past two seasons due to injuries. His main focus is to stay healthy and play a full season in the WHL this year. When healthy, he projects to be a solid top-nine forward. I don’t see him as a high-end finisher. He has a great work ethic, is very competitive and could move up and down your lineup, but he’s not a dominant offensive player. He has 34-81-115 in 125 WHL games.
The Oilers won’t need elite offensive players, because they have McDavid and Draisaitl, but they will need to develop some competent, consistent producers.
Today, the biggest weakness of the Oilers is their lack of forward depth in the system. In order for Chiarelli to move out some of his proven scorers, like Eberle or RNH, he will need Caggiula, Slepyshev, Puljujarvi and Tyler Pitlick, if he can stay healthy, to produce offence.
There is a good chance a few of those four aforementioned players can become regular 15-18 goal scorers, and if they become more, great, but when injuries occur the depth chart becomes almost non-existent.
- The Eberle trade rumours are rampant right now, but what would a deal look like? The Oilers will be taking back at least $4 million in salary, likely more, but don’t be fooled into thinking he has no value. He’s a proven point-producer, and even in a down season he still topped 50 points. Whatever the package is, I’d focus on getting a RW who can play, or a one who is a decent prospect. The Oilers RW depth chart without Eberle is void of any proven NHL scorers.
- The lack of depth is another reason I doubt the Oilers trade the 22nd pick in the draft, unless they use it to move down and gain another second or third round selection. In the past decade, teams have drafted Eberle (2008), Max Pacioretty (2007), Claude Giroux (2006) and Olli Maatta (2012) at #22. The need to use the pick wisely and I’d be surprised if they don’t select a forward.
- If Chiarelli could swap the 22nd pick for a player who is 22 and younger and ready to contribute in the NHL, I’m sure he’d look at it, but only a team with cap troubles would contemplate that move.
- When I take a step back and assess the Oilers entire organization, I understand why Chiarelli was still cautious at his end-of-season presser. The Oilers’ depth is still shallow. The Oilers are heading in the right direction, no doubt, but Chiarelli recognizes he needs more depth, and will need a few players who can fill spots in the coming seasons when the Oilers likely shed some salary because of McDavid and Draisaitl’s new contracts.
- I’m getting more intrigued with the expansion draft every day. The possibilities are endless, and I’m interested to see how much teams will give up just to shed some salary. We’ve seen trades like this before — Bryan Bickell to Carolina, where the Blackhawks included Teuvo Teravainen and Carolina only had to give up a second round pick. The expansion draft has made the off-season much more interesting.
- If Benoit Pouliot gets moved this summer, I see him going via trade to a team where the Oilers pay 40-50% of his salary. Pouliot is a proven NHL player. He is a bottom six forward who can kill penalties and chip in 12-14 goals when he has confidence. He had a down year, but I don’t expect him to go 30 games without a goal again. His contract is his main issue. Despite many analytics people suggesting otherwise, this was an obvious overpay from the start. He can contribute to a team, just not at a $4 million/year level. For me, it would make more sense to pay half his salary to play for another team rather than buy him out and have two years of wasted cap space in 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.
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