Looking at the Oilers depth chart as it stands right now, it’s not hard not to notice that they’ll likely be starting the season with a major lack of experience on the wings. That said, there are some intriguing prospects that will be fighting for jobs and that opportunity is going to show where they stand real quick like.
On Thursday, Dustin Nielson took a swing at what the line combinations might look like when we kick things off for the 2018-19 season so I’m going to use those, for now, to keep things simple for the purpose of this article (feel free to put your own line combos down in the comments section). As we all know, Coach McLellan loves to pull out the blender on a period by period basis and things are certain to change, but this is a reasonable guess at who will be slotted where. Deal? Cool.
|Nugent-Hopkins (457GP)||McDavid (209GP)||Rattie (49GP)/Yamamoto (9GP)|
|Lucic (811GP)||Draisaitl (269GP)||Caggiula (127GP)|
|Rieder (312GP)||Strome (340GP)||Puljujarvi (93GP)|
|Khaira (94GP)||Brodziak (847GP||Kassian (387GP)|
Looking at the numbers above, the bulk of the experience among Oilers forwards comes down the middle, especially if you consider that Nuge (or Draisaitl) will likely be playing out of his natural position for much of the year. Between McDavid, Draisaitl, Strome, Brodziak and Nuge, the Oilers have 2122 NHL games worth of regular season experience in their centremen and those are guys that will be expected to calm any troubled waters that come up. At face value, that’s the kind of depth that any team would love to have but what we don’t know is whether or not having those experienced and skilled centremen will be enough to compensate for any mistakes or learning curves made by the wingers.
As compared to the available wingers, where there is double the number of players available in those slots, the Oilers have only 1950 NHL games worth of NHL experience with the vast majority of those games belonging to Milan Lucic. If you take out Lucic and Kassian’s 1198 games played, you’re left with a group that has played only 752 combined games, which works out to just under nine seasons of aggregated NHL experience between them. To go a step further, take out Tobias Rieder from that second group and the experience is shockingly low. Needless to say, the Oilers are going to be very young on the wings and they’re going to need some of these guys to probably fight above their weight class if they’re hoping to get back into the playoffs. Even so, I think there’s still hope to talk about.
Now, before you jump on me for being an idiot (which I am, so there), I understand that there is plenty of work left to do before this team can legitimately be considered a contender, but I still think that they have the tools needed to be better next year. The question, though, is how much better can they be? A lot of things went badly last year, so I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable to believe that some of the guys that struggled will have better seasons coming up. I also think that some of the younger guys (Puljujarvi and Yamamoto specifically) could be set to carpe some diem and turn in the kind of unexpected season that we always seem to be waiting for.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS
I’ll start with the bad news because it’s obvious to everyone with a functioning brain box. If the Oilers are going to get themselves back into the playoff mix then they’re going to need a lot of young guys to make impacts whether they’re ready for the challenge or not. The Oilers will need the likes of Puljujarvi, Caggiula, Khaira and possibly Yamamoto to take sizeable steps forward in their development while also hoping that players like Lucic and Rieder can bounce back to being the more productive versions of themselves. The reality is that the Oilers need a lot of things to go right if they’re hoping to climb out of the league basement and that’s not a great spot to be in. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s certainly less than ideal.
The good news is, and I wanted to try and even things out with some positive vibes, the Oilers are going to have an array of young, skilled players that will be hungry to make an impact with the opportunity in front of them. They’re also going to have some proud veterans that will be busting their asses to have better seasons than they had a year ago. I mean, if Milan Lucic is an Oiler by the time the new season rolls around, and I think it’s likely at this point, then I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see him get himself back to a 40-45 point pace as opposed to being the guy that fell off the cliff like we saw in the back half of last year. The guy shot at about half of his career shooting% last season so I’d guess it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that will go back towards his normal range. Same goes, albeit to a lesser extent, for Tobias Rieder who put up 25 points last season after registering 37 and 34 points in the two previous years respectively. Rieder made a pretty ballsy bet on himself with a one-year contract and I’m guessing that he’s going to be happy he did.
For a younger player like Puljujarvi, I’m going to go on record and say that his second full season in the league will be his most productive and one where he finally starts to look comfortable in his own skin. I know that Puljujarvi has taken some heat so far during the offseason, but I strongly believe that it’s still way too early to give up on this kid and that he can still make things happen if he’s put in a spot to succeed. I’d even go so far as to bet that Puljujarvi will be closer to 20 goals next season than he is to the 12 he ended last year with — what do you think about that? Kailer Yamamoto is another guy that could be a wildcard on the wing this season, as he looked very good at development camp and will come into the pre-season with a roster spot on his mind and a chip on his shoulder. People have bet against him his whole life but he’s managed to find a way to succeed in spite of it all and I’m guessing that we’ll see some of that SIUTBOHC attitude this year in the NHL as well. He got a taste of the pros last year and now he’s got the itch.
At the end of the day, there are definitely question marks on the wing that need answers, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s also the potential that a couple or more of these guys could climb on a rocketship to the moon! Okay, so maybe that’s excessive, but I still won’t believe you if you try and tell me that group of Lucic, Rieder, Puljujarvi, Kassian, and Yamamoto won’t score more than the 41 goals they had between them from a year ago.
Call me a Kool-Aid drinker or whatever you want, but I’m starting to feel a little bit better about next season as we move along here. In addition to the expected individual improvements and steps forward that I’ve outlined above, I’d also bet Gregor’s money on the fact that the Oilers will be better on their special teams next season which, in itself, will add wins to their totals and maybe even some confidence to the minds of players that need it. Feeling good matters and having some team aspects of the game (like special teams) ending up with better results than last year should make a difference in more than just those specific scenarios.
Maybe I’m high on offseason optimism because I can’t wait for hockey to come back, but I’m banking on both improved performances and the idea that the Oilers won’t repeat their ineptitude on special teams as easy ways for the team to improve despite having essentially the same roster. If some of the wingers can get back to playing to their potential and others can take even the smallest steps forward, then I truly believe that we won’t be feeling the same levels of sadness as we were by the time the season wrapped. Is that really too much to ask? I don’t think so. Then again, maybe I’m a dreamer?
Anybody agree? Disagree? What say you, Nation?