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Monday Musings: Oilers Need Forward Depth

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.

QUICK HITS

  • 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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  • WhoreableGuy

    All I hear are proposals to trade Eberle for a defenseman and this would make the Oilers RW options even thinner.

    What about trading for another RW like Ryan Strome? He has hit the 50 point plateau before and I can see him coming up with Eberle type regular season numbers on the Oilers.

    I think the main issues would be difference in salary (Eberle makes $3.5 million more per season) and if the Islanders are ready to part with Strome who I think still has tremendous upside.

        • QuitForRealThisTime

          I have been reading here for a while a consistent theme is Ebs has zero trade value and many think he should just be exposed to the draft. If Hall got you Larsson, Nuge for Hamonic is on par. If Grabo is cleared to play he fills the 3c role for next year if not then he goes on LTIR.

        • QuitForRealThisTime

          I have been reading here for a while a consistent theme is Ebs has zero trade value and many think he should just be exposed to the draft. If Hall got you Larsson, Nuge for Hamonic is on par. If Grabo is cleared to play he fills the 3c role for next year if not then he goes on LTIR.

          I like it but I am also happy I am not the GM of the Oil. 🙂

  • OriginalPouzar

    I 100% agree on Pouliot and have been vehemently against all suggestions of a buyout.

    I see no reason to buy the player out this sprint and add two extra years of term/cap hit during the McDavid 2nd contract.

    I can’t imagine there isn’t a market for this player for this player at a $2M – $3M cap hit. I actually think we could likely get a decent asset back at that price point (middling prospect/mid-round pick).

    • FISTO Siltanen

      Agreed. And the need for cap space really begins in 2019. Pouliot impacted the PK and has had two decent years the previous seasons. If he isn’t taken by Vegas I would keep him one more year, hope for a bounce back season and deal him next year.

    • SRELIOFAN

      Honestly I think Pouliot deserves to be the goat more than Eberle. At least Ebs put up some points in the regular season. What the f has Pouliot brought to the table?

  • QuitForRealThisTime

    “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.”

    This is the kind of trade I think would interest Vegas as they could end up with a number of 23-24 year old players but really they would want 18-20 year olds….will be interesting to see who they get.

    • Yelak

      I think Andre Burakovsky fits the bill here. Right age and a good player coming into his own at 22 years old. A RFA currently and could be signed to a nice bridge deal, played a year of junior with McDavid. Washington is up against the cap and is going to have issues signing their RFA’s and some of the UFA’s they want to bring back. Trading 22nd overall pick for Burakovsky would be great in my mind. Maybe even add onto the deal and get Brett Connelly as well, I think he had a pretty good season in his limited role and would provide another option for RW depth up and down the lineup. If we have to give up a good prospect or another pick for him that would be ok. This would also free up the option to move Eberle for a dman if Chiarelli wanted to pursue doing that. Only downside is that these moves would cripple our expansion draft plan so would have to be done after the expansion draft. Could be looked at as an option by Washington though depending on who they lose in the draft.

  • Aron S

    Gregor,

    I’m beating a dead horse, but not explicitly mentioned in your article: the lack of depth is directly attributable to giving up the 16th and 33rd overall picks for Reinhart. Also not getting an extra asset back (2nd rd pick) in the Larsson deal was a mistake when NJ has so many extra picks. I fully expect the Oilers to go heavy on forwards at this year’s draft.

    • Jason Gregor

      Oilers likely weren’t getting $2 million in cap savings and a pick in the Larsson/Hall deal. And yes, the Reinhart deal still doesn’t look great. If he isn’t here, then they’d have depth issue on D as well. Chiarelli inherited many issues.

        • NoBuBlackOPS

          I agree with you on Reinhart we gave up to much especially when you consider he’s played 30 NHL games for a 1st Rd and a 2nd Rd draft pick. Also look at who NYI drafted in Brazal who I thinks going to be a sold pro one day. But I think the emergence of Benning made Davidson expendable wether you like the trade or not.

  • Spoils

    i’d add a 1 year FA gunslinger over the summer, try Eberle with McDavid to see about raising his value, and potentially making him a part of a big deadline trade. This way you get his regular season scoring, get his value up, and optimize for the playoffs.

    • MGD

      Don’t you remember last year? They tried Eberle with McDavid for half the year and Eb’s pooed the bed. It did NOT raise his value; in fact, spending that much time with Connor and not producing probably lowered his value a lot!

  • Action Jackson

    Why move Pouliot if you have to retain 50%? We would pay $2 mill of Pouliot then need to pay $2 mill for the man who replaces him in the roster. He is not this bad.

  • Hemmercules

    Chia said it himself, he has a year to play with. I don’t think there is a huge panic to ditch anyone immediately, let alone retain salaries or ditch a guy for nothing. Chia has surprised us before though. If theres a deal out there he wont be afraid to pull the trigger.

  • Gordie Wayne

    There are many ways to increase the depth of forwards in your organization outside of drafting.

    Good college free agents will want to come here as the Oilers get closer to the cup.
    Unrestricted Free Agents (and not just the top free agents) will want to come here as Oilers continue to get better and win.

    Also, it is always WAY easier to get forwards than it is defencemen in free agency.
    How many good defencemen even make it to free agency these days???

    Teams do not just give their defencemen away in deals (refer to Larsson trade), they always hold more value than forwards in trades. I am also OK if the Oilers take more defence than forwards in every draft – if they have an abundance of good to great D, then they are dealing from a position of strength and can then trade fore the type of forwards they need at the time.

  • harborman

    Go hard after prospect Spencer Foo. After what I saw of Iginla in those 2 games he played against the Oilers after his trade to the Kings, I was impressed. Would he sign here for 1 year and maybe play with Connor? Eberle is as good as gone and will be traded.

  • TKB2677

    The one thing I hear about all the Eberle talk is the argument “In a bad year he had 20 goals”. Fair point. Then I hear the argument that he is a proven 25 goal man based on the numbers taking this season out. Also fair and true point. At 6 mill, I personally don’t think 25 goals is enough to justify his salary. If you are going to pay a one dimensional player with the holes in his game like Eberle has, he better be 30+ for that salary. When he signed the contract, Eberle was coming off a 34 goal, 76 pts season. So the Oilers paid him to be that player. He’s never been close since.

    But here is a question that no one asks or talks about. The assumption is that Eberle will just automatically go back to scoring more than 25 goals next season. My question is how? At the start of the year, he was on the #1 line and the #1 PP unit. He scored a PP goal in game 2. He went on to score 4 PP goals total. So 3 PP goals from game 3 on. The Oilers PP unit struggled. Eventually they took Eberle off the #1 unit and put Letestu on it. The PP took off. Letestu got 11 PP goals. Eberle also found himself taken off the #1 line and dropped. His usage continued to get less and less later in the year and even less in the playoffs. So where are the extra goals coming from if his role is being diminished and his mins diminished? The Oilers would be stupid to take Letestu off the #1 PP unit.

    • Glass

      Same could be said of Nuge. Taken off 1PP in favor of McDavid & Draisaitl, no complaint about that. Given linemates that were struggling (Pouliot, Eberle, Lucic is inconsistent). Will continue to be given D zone starts and tough assignments. Unless he gets time with McDavid, or Draisaitl is tasked with driving his line, I don’t see him having a big rebound season.

    • crabman

      Eberle was taken off the top line and 1pp because he wasn’t finishing his chances. I wouldn’t be suprised to see him get another opportunity next year. He had a carrer low in s% and if he had his carrer average in s% this year he would have had 27 goals even with his diminished role. And if he was scoring at that rate i doubt he would have lost his spot on the top lines and may have had a shot at 30. Confidence and puck luck are a funny thing. Players have bad stretches and Eberle had a down year. But with a carrer low s% he is a prime candidate for a rebound year back to carrer averages. Not saying I believe he will for sure but if he does that’s the answer to your queation “how”

  • Oil9744

    I think Edmonton needs a top 6 winger even if they don’t trade Ebs, They still need a pure right handed shooter and Ebs just ain’t that guy, and if they don’t get that winger they will play Drai on the wing again, which means another 3rd line centre will be needed cause Deharnier ain’t that guy either, There is some more Depth needed, I’d like to see Boyle picked up for centre and Kovalchuk or Oshie picked up for a winger, I’m pretty happy with the D even with Sekera out but if a solid 2nd line Dman is available for a trade maybe Meyers, Hammonic or Trouba then that would be another huge pick up

  • toprightcorner

    Makes almost no sense to pay half of Pouliots salary in a trade. It would cost $2 mill to replace his spot on the team and now you are paying the same for a player of equivalent ability but likely less upside. If he has a bounce back year, he could fill a big hole on the 3rd line.

  • fasteddy

    I find it interesting how we throw out “build through the draft”, and “no scoring depth coming up”, comments……I took a quick glance at a few team’s drafts; in 9 drafts since Toews by my quick count the Hawks had 1 or 2 players that would be say top 6 F/ top 4 D. Pens? 12 drafts since Crosby have turned up about 3 impactful players if I include Staal. Kings? I believe it was 2 or 3 in 8 drafts post- Doughty.

    We talk like this is just a given that picks turn into great players, or that “the other guys” have been so much smarter…..doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

    • crabman

      Building through the draft is very important for finding cheap depth players to surround the main roster. All 3 teams you mention already had a good portion of their core top end players by the time they got Toews, Crosby,and Doughty. But added valuable pieces through the draft. Chicago drafted Schmaltz(2014) and Hartman(2013) who were young/cheap fulltime players this year. Saad(2011) and Shaw(2011) both played a important roles for Chicago before being traded because they weren’t affordable anymore. And Kruger(2009) still an important part of the team. They also drafted Teravainen(2012) but had to trade him to get out from under the Bickle contract.
      Pittsburgh hasn’t faired quite as well but as you mentioned Stall(2006) part of their 1st 2 finals. Rust(2010) part of this year and last cup run adding depth scoring. Maatta(2012) top4 when healthy. Pouliot(2012) still more prospect than player but could be important in the future. Murray(2012) cup winning goalie last year and maybe again this year. And Guentzel(2013) huge part of this years cup run.
      Kings, 7 fulltime players from this year have been drafted by them since 2009. Clifford(2009), Nolan(2009), Dowd(2009), Forbort(2010), Toffoli(2010), Shore(2011), Pearson(2012)
      They also drafted Schenn(2009) and traded him for Richards a big part of cup runs and Miller(2012) a part of the Lucic deal.
      So I would argue all three teams have had success drafting for depth at all possitions and supplementing their core with good young/cheap players and some turned into impact players. That is drafting for team depth to me.

  • jayf95

    First time commentor. Great article as always Jason. However, you mention that we should retain salary on Pouliot rather than buy him out. If we retain 40% salary, as you mentioned, then that means his retained contract would contribute $1.6M to our cap hit over the life of the contract. It would also probably mean that we’d have to give something up to dump salary. However, if we bought out Pouliot, then it’d only cost $1.33M for the life of the contract (as per Capfriendly’s buyout calculator). Am I missing something here?