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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Will Drake Caggiula be held back by a lack of even-strength scoring ability?

Just over a calendar year into Drake Caggiula’s tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, it’s clear that the decision to sign him as a college free agent was a good one in that he’s already a full-time NHL player. It’s far less clear what kind of NHL player he is.

Partially, that’s a result of circumstance. Head coach Todd McLellan stubbornly refused to run his three strong centres on three separate lines, and as a result Caggiula was often thrust into the role of third-line pivot. For an NHL rookie who primarily played wing in his last season in college, this represented a significant challenge. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that Caggiula only returned from a preseason injury in mid-November.

Thus it’s difficult to judge Caggiula’s failure in the third line centre role too harshly.

And make no mistake, Caggiula was a failure in the role. The acquisition of David Desharnais at the trade deadline was a tacit acknowledgement of such by Edmonton’s management group. The ironic thing about that trade is it kicked off Caggiula’s most productive segment of the season.

Over his first 30 games, Caggiula’s line was heavily sheltered, playing second-tier opponents and getting a major push in the offensive zone (26 more offensive than defensive faceoffs). In those soft minutes, the line barely broke even on the shot clock, was out-scored 10-7, and Caggiula himself recorded less than a point per hour at even-strength, a sub-fourth line scoring rate.

Over the next 20 games, Caggiula was shifted into a more defensive role, which included a long stint on Mark Letestu’s wing. During this period, he was on the ice for 34 more defensive than offensive draws. Edmonton managed to saw-off in the goals department (8-8) despite being crushed on the shot clock (a staggering -70 Corsi over this 20-game span). Once again, Caggiula generated virtually nothing offensively, coming in below one point every hour.

And then everything changed.

Over his last 10 games of the regular season, Caggiula scored four points at evens (2.43 points/hour) and added one each on both the power play and the penalty kill. His line wasn’t sheltered, and despite this had a narrow edge on the shot clock and outscored its opponents 6-2. It was a brilliant point in the season for Caggiula, as he delivered in all three disciplines. He even won more faceoffs than he lost, something which had been a weak point in his game all year.

The change wasn’t even McDavid-driven, though Edmonton’s franchise player certainly helped. Caggiula was on the ice for three goals for and none against over just 13 minutes with McDavid over that final segment, which boosted his numbers, but he still had positive shot and goal differential away from the captain.

Caggiula’s playoff work was less impressive, with him going pointless through nine games. He was placed on McDavid’s line late in the Anaheim series and promptly scored three goals in four games, something that will surely increase his chances of landing in that spot out of the gate next season. The difficulty is that over those four games the duo was out-Corsied 60-35, a miserable margin for any line, much less one featuring the league’s best player. I wouldn’t read too much into that, but then it’s probably a good idea not to read too much into those three goals in four games, either.

What makes Caggiula more fascinating than the typical rookie with such lousy scoring totals (overall, by points/hour he was the worst Oilers forward, behind Matt Hendricks and Benoit Pouliot) is his versatility. He’s fast, physical, and performed well on Edmonton’s second power play unit while also looking brilliant over 40-odd minutes on the penalty kill.

The interesting thing is that this does tie-in to his college career. Until his final season in North Dakota (on a super line with Nick Schmaltz and Brock Boeser), Caggiula was not a big even-strength scorer, but was effective on that team’s power play and spent a lot of time on the penalty kill. That history would suggest that year one in the NHL was not an aberration, that Caggiula may end up as a player who can help an NHL team in multiple ways, but who will always be held back by limited scoring ability at five-on-five.

It is, though, far too soon for certainty on that front, especially if Caggiula ends up as the cheap winger on a line with McDavid or even Leon Draisaitl.

(Much of the above analytics data was courtesy of puckalytics.com)

Previous year-end reviews:

  • 24% body fat

    nope, because he tries hard, and management likes that better than skill in the bottom 6, If they cant see Slep is the superior player, than this is the only reason Cags get ice time. Will does not trump skill. See Toby Peterson.

  • OriginalPouzar

    Its tough to get a read on how much offence Drake may be able to produce at the NHL level.

    He’s got a good head, is a good skater and has decent skills so he will be able to fill in during the top 6 with injuries and produce with elite players such as McDavid. With that said, he’s likely to be best cast as a 3rd line energy player with a bit of offensive upside and a solid PK. Likely able to slide up and down the lineup a bit.

    Yes, he’s already 23 but he’s just going in to his 2nd year pro so there is a bit more of development in him.

    If he tops out as a very solid 3rd liners with some top 6 fill in ability – that will be just fine and this had already been a very solid signing.

    • 24% body fat

      Exactly, and I dont mind him as a PK player, but why does he get PP time. Slep is a large RH shot. Probably the hardest on the team, and the exact thing the oilers are looking for but that time goes to the college free agent who was guarenteed ice time to sign.

    • Hemmercules

      I dont think he’s physical in the same way Lucic is but he doesn’t shy away from contact like Eberle does. As for being fast, I don’t see it either. Special teams guy, he will get all Poo’s minutes on the pk. I can’t see him getting a ton of time with Mcdavid at even strength.

    • camdog

      He engages in physical contact and is one of the Oilers most annoying players on the team. Get a few years in him, some extra size and he’ll be the closest thing this team has to a “pest”. Comparing him to Eberle in this respect is as wrong a comparison as there could be.

    • Redbird62

      He can’t help that he is 5’10” and listed at 185, but of all forwards who played in the NHL, he is in the top quartile for hits per game. It is far from a perfect stat, but it only gets counted if your hit causes a turnover. That placed him 5th among Oiler forwards and those ahead of him (Lucic, Maroon, Kassian and Hendricks) all weigh 210+. He plays a tenacious game and he is at least an average skater. If he can find some of the scoring touch he had in College, he can be an effective 3rd line player.

    • Jonathan Willis

      He’s an above-average skater, which practically makes him greased lightning on this Edmonton team. And he’s both extremely good at playing in traffic and physically aggressive for his size – he can’t help that he’s not 6’4″ but he does go looking for contact.

  • ScottV

    With a number of forwards out of the way, hopefully Drai in the 2c slot and less need for McL to be constantly hitting the forward blender button – maybe guys like Cagguila will be able to settle in where it makes sense, to work toward consistent positive results.

    It’s very difficult on forwards who are constantly in and out of games or in and out of lines, or in and out of different positions. It’s tough on vets – let alone rookies.

    Some coaches lean toward blending for elusive chemistry and some lean toward more set lines.

    I’m not a fan of McL on this point. Overly blending creates more harm than good, as forwards have to force things to make a quick splash or they know its in the blender again. Gone are the benefits of familiarization, trial, error, adjustment, video review, talking things thru on the bench and working it out toward more consistent positive results.

    There is a balance in there, but seeking short term quick fix blender chemistry ought to be the exception – not the rule.

    Is see Cagguila more as winger in bottom six, and with a solid 3c man and complimentary winger – maybe some reasonable 3 rotation production.

    • madjam

      With close to 6 centers (if you include Jokinen) on main lineup , blending should be advanced this season , and should be effective to be honest . It should create additional positive results for club and make defending us more difficult on the opposition . Todd seems to like that type of play , and realistically 6 centers gives club many viable options not found in traditional 4 set lines . Most successful clubs are now blending , as pace of game is increasing and variety of attacks is more necessary .

      • ScottV

        Creates more chaos than you may be considering. For every attack there is a counter attack. A forced attack – creates a dangerous counter attack. Just cause you have some extra c’s doesn’t mean you have to play them in a whole bunch of different line scenarios.

        • Hemmercules

          Looking at the current roster, there will be some major blending going on from top to bottom next season if you ask me. So many guys that can play other positions, a few guys looking to jump higher in the lineup, Sekera’s injury and a few new faces to slot in. I expect to see a bunch of line combo changes to start the season. Maybe they get it out of the way in pre season but I doubt it.

        • madjam

          Blending is also very beneficial in away games where we do not have first change as well as getting away from unwanted matchups throughout game . Diversity is good in todays game and far harder for opposition to defend . Helps getting rid of effectiveness of shadows such as Kessler, etc.. Center strength is paramount in todays game .

      • Coaches need to find whatever advantage they can over the opponent. A team with more centre/wingers has more versatility, hence the signing of them by Chiarelli. Centres get called off draws all the time, so it’s an advantage to have another centre on the wing. Centres are also more mindful of two-way play than set wingers. Further, every opposing team is different, but they often adjust their lines depending on the matchups. Hence moving Draisaitl to 2C against Anaheim was so effective because it gave him room from the Ducks hard checking line on McDavid. Changing the lines mid-game creates confusion for the other coach. Yes, chemistry is important, but if that usual chemistry isn’t clicking in a game for some reason, better to have more versatile players who can move throughout the lineup where long-term chemistry doesn’t matter as much. The Oilers now have a pretty solid top 9, heck all 12, that can play almost anywhere at any time for short stints where necessary.

  • ScottV

    That being said – not overly a fan of Cagguila at least for the short term vs other forwards that hopefully pan out.

    Nuge at RW, Puljujarvi, Jokenin, Strome, Kass, JJ, etc. are better priority bets in my mind.

    Not all that much of a fan of Slep either. Too scattered – too many useless shot attempts etc.

    • Hemmercules

      They are paying al lot of coin to a few players. Need guys like Slepy an Drake to step up while on cheap contracts.

      Why the Slepy hate?? No superstar but I think he does well with his minutes. When you dont have a ton of skill, pucks to the net and crashing gets it done a lot of the time.

  • TKB2677

    In fairness to Caggiula. He was coming off an injury in camp. He was a raw rookie. The jump from college to to the NHL is a BIG jump up in play. He was asked early on to play as a center when he is primarily a winger. That is a lot to ask of a raw rookie.

  • Cowboy Bill

    I don’t see Caggiula being held back at all . He can play all three forward positions . If that isn’t versatility I don’t know what is ? He has shown he can be slotted in anywhere in the lineup . However I believe he is still developing as a player and will most likely slot in with Letestu & Kassian on a very good fourth line , with the ability to fill in higher up in the lineup if required . That is a very valuable player on any NHL team .
    As far as Slepyshev and Puljujarvi are concerned , playing with a veteran center mentor like Jokinen on a third line will benefit in their development . The pieces fit together just fine . While the top six will be pretty obvious with all sorts of depth behind them .

  • Redbird62

    Since many like to make comparisons of the Oilers to Penguins, maybe Caggiula fills a role on the Oilers that players like Sheary, Rust and Guentzel do on the Pens. All 3 are under 6 feet and between 175 and 190 lbs. All played college hockey. None made the jump to the NHL until they were at least 22-23 and these players were very useful contributors to Pittsburgh’s success the last 2 years. And of the 3 only Guentzlel immediately became a meaningful offensive player playing with Crosby.