Part of the reason Peter Chiarelli viewed Jordan Eberle as expendable, I think, was what appeared to be a glut of secondary scoring on the wings ready to take a step forward. One of those wingers expected to take on a bigger role on the team after the Eberle trade was Drake Caggiula, Edmonton’s big college free agent signing from summer 2016 who was coming off a solid rookie season.
Caggiula had a dream 2015-16 season with the University of North Dakota. Along with Brock Boeser, Troy Stetcher, and Nick Schmaltz, Caggiula’s Fighting Sioux won the NCAA Championship. Caggiula earned tournament MVP and a wealth of other NCAA awards, making him one of the most sought-after college free agents on the market that summer.
He inked a two-year, entry-level deal with the Edmonton Oilers and was expected to immediately jump into a top-nine role in the NHL. He started the 2016-17 season on the Injured Reserve and, when he returned, was thrown into a difficult role as the team’s third centre. His natural position is on the wing, but the Oilers had a need down the middle as Leon Draisaitl had found incredible chemistry on the top line with Connor McDavid.
In 60 games, Caggiula put up seven goals and 18 points, which isn’t great, but reasonable considering the role he was thrown into. In the playoffs, the Oilers rolled with McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their three centres, pushing Caggiula back to the wing. He scored three goals in 13 games and was a consistent offensive threat.
But, like a handful of players who looked pretty good in last year’s playoffs, things didn’t transition perfectly to the 2017-18 season. Caggiula’s role as the third centre was filled by Ryan Strome, but he never really found a consistent position on the wing. He bounced up and down the lineup, in and out of the press box, and ultimately put up a pretty disappointing 13 goals and 20 points in 67 games. His 0.30 points-per-game last year was identical to his production in his rookie season.
So, through his two seasons in the NHL, Drake Caggiula doesn’t really have a role on the team. We all knew that his time as the third centre on the team wasn’t going to be a permanent thing, but we did expect him to have a better time than he did when back in his natural position.
One thing I find a little damning about Caggiula is how he wasn’t able to gel with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Both of Edmonton’s two centres were much, much better without Caggiula on their line than they were with him on their line. (Note: These are Caggiula’s top three centre linemates based on even strength minutes, I didn’t include Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because the sample size was too small)
Caggiula w/ McDavid: 39.5 CF%, 45.5 GF% – McDavid w/o Caggiula 52.6 GF%, 62.0 GF%
Draisaitl w/ Caggiula: 49.6 CF%, 43.8 GF% – Draisaitl w/o Caggiula 51.7 CF%, 50.6 GF%
Caggiula w/ Strome: 52.6 CF%, 35.7 GF% – Strome w/o Caggiula: 50.0 CF%, 56.4 GF%
Like I said, both McDavid and Draisaitl were much better with anybody else on their wing than Caggiula last year. Caggiula’s best results came in a checking role on the third line with Ryan Strome as the two put up a strong shot attempt differential, though they did struggle to find the back of the net.
Expectations that Caggiula could jump into the top six and replace an all-star like Eberle’s production were clearly too lofty. Still, this is a 24-year-old player with only 127 games of NHL experience. Last year was really his first in the NHL as a winger and he spent it being jumbled around the lineup. This is the kind of player the Oilers need to show some patience with. Too many times in the past have they expected a player to take on a role bigger than their capability and then they’ve given up on them when they failed to perform.
The Oilers need cheap players to plug into their lineup, and coming off an entry-level deal with a salary of $925,000, Caggiula will be inexpensive to qualify and keep around. He still hasn’t carved out a niche, but giving him a consistent role, perhaps on the third line with Strome, would be very helpful for his development.