Finding a player fast, smart and skilled enough to skate alongside the best player in the world is never an enviable task. And it’s not the fact that No. 97 needs any help in the production department, but that you want to maximize the output from the guys who play with him.
The Oilers have lived these perils first hand over the past couple of seasons, realizing just how tough it is to outfit Connor McDavid with a winger that doesn’t just elevate the play and compliment the skillset of their captain, but who also boasts the ability to consistently retrieve loose pucks, find McDavid in open space, and who can finish, finish, finish.
It’s a tough mix to obtain, and wingers with some or all of these abilities are extremely hard to find. Naturally, experimenting with a few options before finding the right fit — just as the Penguins had to do during the first few years of Crosby’s career — is an expected and necessary part of the process.
Over the past couple seasons, McDavid has seen the most success with Patrick Maroon and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins (who should, in my humble opinion, be a permanent fixture alongside McDavid going forward), but there’s been no indication yet of whether or not The Nuge will remain on the No. 1 unit with Leon Draisaitl slotting into the permanent 2C spot for the long haul. He definitely should, but that doesn’t mean he will.
Despite the fact that the back-to-back scoring champion is clearly doing just fine without that elite piece beside him on a consistent basis, finding that guy who will help bring McDavid to even greater heights while taking a bit of the load off of No. 97’s plate is a top priority for Edmonton this offseason.
The team still has to find another guy to fill out the line whether RNH sticks with Connor on the top line or not, and Chia and Co. have a few options to consider this offseason. This isn’t a shot against Ty Rattie at all, but the blender comes out a lot in Edmonton and it would be nice to have more than one option for when slumps and injuries inevitably occur.
(Note: Most of these would be subject to salary cap implications that would have to be resolved — top-line wingers don’t come cheap)
James Neal, 30.
2017-18 Cap Hit: $5M
A left-handed shot with a quick release from his off-wing, Neal is one of the better high-slot shooters in the game and has shown with his run of ten straight 20+ goal seasons that he can absolutely bury the puck — finally giving McDavid a pure finisher on his wing. He’s fast enough to keep up with the kid, too, and the physical presence he brings without sacrificing any of the offensive upside makes Neal extremely valuable in multiple areas of the game.
James Van Riemsdyk, 29.
2017-18 Cap Hit: $4.25M
Arguably the most lethal guy in the league from the hashmarks down, James Van Riemsdyk is pretty one-dimensional — but when that one dimension is something as coveted as proven, consistent goal-scoring ability, it’s a lot easier to swallow. He would open up tons of space down low for McDavid because of the attention he draws in front of the net, and is clearly able to light the lamp when the puck finds his stick. JVR would add a whole new dimension to the Oilers power play, too.
Patrick Maroon, 30.
2017-18 Cap Hit: $2M
Bringing back Patty isn’t a game-changer for McDavid or the Oilers, but with Maroon clearly benefiting from playing alongside No. 97 with the best year-and-a-half stretch of his career during his time in Edmonton and Connor producing the way he did with Maroon by his side, tossing $2.5-3 million at the 30-year-old with the intention of slotting him alongside RNH and McDavid wouldn’t be a terrible risk.
Michael Grabner, 30.
2017-18 Cap Hit: $1.65M
Grabner brings a ton of speed (he’d instantly be one of the team’s 2-3 fastest), and has traditionally scored at a high rate, especially 5-on-5, despite never really finding consistent minutes in a top-six role. He’s posted back-to-back 27 goal seasons, and is likely come cheap after struggling the last chunk of the season after being traded to New Jersey. And, if he doesn’t work out on the top unit, Grabner slots very nicely in the bottom-six and can provide secondary scoring along with a heavy presence on the penalty kill.
Andreas Athanasiou, 23.
2017-18 Cap Hit: $1.4M (Would have to acquire VIA trade with Detroit)
The Red Wings can’t seem to figure out exactly what to do with this guy — and maybe it’s a sign of something — but at just 23 years old and as one of NHL’s fastest skaters with the puck on his stick outside of McDavid, Athanasiou is definitely one of those guys who could benefit from a change of scenery — and a move to the wing. With the Oilers stacked down the middle, taking a flyer on AA and converting the natural centreman into a winger and slotting him alongside RNH and No. 97 would give Edmonton the most explosive first line in the Western Conference.
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