Earlier this week I listed off the five things I’ll be watching as the Oilers season comes to a close and one of those items was how the current crop of Oilers bottom six forwards would perform for the remainder of the season.
The Oilers have a lot of players that I still consider legitimate NHL players, but are clearly destined for bottom six roles. The issue is that they have too many of them and this summer, they won’t all be brought back.
I’ve set the players into two groups, those with contracts for next season and those who will be free agents this summer, simply because each group has less on the line and I’ll be looking for different things from them as the season winds down. Really though, these final games should be treated like a try-out for these guys. Memories are short in the NHL and if a player can come in and be effective for this last stretch, it might be enough to impress whoever takes over as Oilers GM and it may earn them a spot on the team to start next season. After all, that’s essentially what Ty Rattie did last year.
Here are my thoughts on each player competing for a spot, and what I want to see from them.
MILAN LUCIC: Sigh. Buying out Lucic makes close to no sense and it would take some serious creativity to trade him off. It’s very likely that Lucic is back with the Oilers next season. Last year was a nightmare and it didn’t seem like it could get any worse. Well, he still scored ten goals last season and this year, he’s on pace for around seven. It somehow got worse.
Since January, he’s looked better away from the puck, I’ll give him that. But the Oilers need more. Maybe he’ll be sparked by a new third line centre next season, but I doubt it.
For the rest of this season, it seems like we’ll just to settle on the fact that #27 is just a $6 million checking forward who can’t score. I don’t think we’re going to get a late-season heater.
ZACK KASSIAN: I was all about dealing Kassian at the deadline but his recent hot streak has changed my mind a little bit. He’s a hot and cold player, we all know that by know. When he’s on, he usually injects some energy and offence into the bottom six. Or in some rare cases, he slides up on a skill line and starts producing like the former first-round pick he is.
The issue: at almost $2 million, can the Oilers trust Kassian to be consistent for 82 games next season? Whether he’s in the bottom six or the top six, he needs to bring it every night. That’s not something he’s been doing for the past two seasons.
With that being said, the Oilers held onto him at the trade deadline and if he can keep up this current level of play, there’s no chance they deal him at the end of the year. He’s put himself in a great spot and the other thing he’s done is taken away a top-six opportunity from another player competing for a roster spot. A strong finish to the season will mean he’s in Edmonton for one more year.
KYLE BRODZIAK: He can win faceoffs and kill penalties but I think he’s too slow to compete in today’s NHL on a regular basis. He’s under contract next year and honestly, I think he can be a fine 13th forward, he’s just expensive. Buying him out makes no sense since they can pretty much bury his entire deal in the minors, so I expect he will get a chance to crack the lineup next September.
There really isn’t much he can do to change this perception before the end of the regular season, but he could come back next year a little bit quicker. He doesn’t need to necessarily skate faster, but he needs to prove he can keep up with the play and make quicker decisions. There’s a difference between the two.
SAM GAGNER: He’s been one of the few feel-good stories for this Oilers team. The fan favourite has returned and been much better than Ryan Spooner ever was. In ten games, he has three goals and an assist. Now, he has been getting put in some prime spots with skilled players, but credit to Sam for taking advantage of it.
My issue with Gagner is how appetizing it is to buy him out. He’s due $3.1 million next season and the Oilers can free themselves of $2.0 million of that if they buy him out. I think they could get creative and actually find another team (Ottawa) to buy him out for them, but that’s a conversation for another piece and would be very tough.
While Gagner has contributed and looked good, I think the extra $2.0 million will be too appetizing for the next GM and he could get bought out in June. It’s a shame and if he wants to avoid it, he will need to find his way onto a skill line for the rest of the season and stick there.
COLBY CAVE: This is an interesting case for a few reasons. I think he has an advantage because he only makes 650k so even if he is just the 13th forward, it can be justified. The flip side of that is that if he slips at all, his contract can easily be buried in the AHL and he would probably clear waivers.
I’ve liked Cave since he came to Edmonton earlier this season. The offence isn’t there as he’s scored just once in 18 games but he does a lot of things well. He’s a pretty strong skater, brings some physicality to their forecheck, and he’s won over 50% of his draws this year. Despite the fact he only starts 40% of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone, the Oilers still get 53% of the scoring chances when he’s on the ice.
If he can bring a little more offence, I think the Oilers will find a spot for him.
JOSH CURRIE: He’s been a tremendous story and watching him this season has been a breath of fresh air in a season that’s been covered in a smog of negativity. He has offensive talent which is always welcome and he competes every single shift. He’s under contract next year at league minimum. Like Cave, if he proves to be a regular NHL forward next year, that’s a massive win for the organization.
Right now, he has four points in nine games. I don’t think that’s sustainable, but if he can produce at half that rate for the rest of the year, I will be very impressed. We usually see players hit a bit of a wall after they’ve been in the league for 10-12 games, Currie needs to avoid that.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
ALEX CHIASSON (UFA): After going close to 20 games without a goal, he’s scored two in a matter of three games. If you would have asked me in November, I would have said he’s lined up for a multi-year, multi-million dollar extension. His play over the last few months has likely taken that off the table, but I still think the Oilers should consider bringing him back.
He can kill penalties, be a net-front presence on the top powerplay unit, and give you solid minutes in a depth role. On top of that, we know what he can do when he gets going on a hot streak.
The last stretch of games will probably determine how aggressive the Oilers are in bringing back Chiasson, but I do think they’ll offer him some sort of contract.
JUJHAR KHAIRA (RFA): I still think Khaira has some upside as a potential top-six player. I’m not sure if he can handle it on a full-time basis, but he’s always looked solid when called upon and put next to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He had a really rough start to this season and then after a few strong stretches, he got hurt.
The only reason I don’t say Khaira is a lock to be back with the Oilers next season is that there were some rumblings that they had trade discussions involving him at the deadline. That can be tough to predict though, so I will say that barring a trade Khaira will be resigned by the Oilers.
He’s a big body with decent offensive skills and he can kill penalties. The Oilers need more guys like that on good contracts.
His play over the final stretch will determine how much money he gets. If he stays largely ineffective in a bottom six role, then I could see him signing a one year deal worth around $1 million. If he snags a spot in the top six and produces some offence, I could see his next deal being up around $1.5 million.
TOBIAS RIEDER (RFA): Unless he scores 20 goals in the final stretch of games, he won’t be back. I doubt he’ll even be in the NHL next season. End of story.
TY RATTIE (RFA): The curious case of Ty Rattie continues. When he’s up with Connor McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he gives me hope that he can be an everyday NHLer. When he’s put in the bottom six, he looks like an AHLer. When I look at the guys he has to compete with, I just can’t see any GM thinking he’s more valuable than the other candidates for roster spots on the Oilers.
When I look at bottom six players, I like to find players who are versatile. Can they bring energy to the bottom six and kill penalties? That’s almost a prerequisite. If they can slide up into the top six and produce at times and possibly contribute on the second powerplay unit, then they’ll have a spot on the team. Unless things change in a hurry for Rattie, I can’t see him being an Oiler in September 2019.
I tend to favour guys like Colby Cave and Jujhar Khaira because they can play both centre and the wing. Zack Kassian, Sam Gagner, and Alex Chiasson have all proven at different points they can step up onto a skill line and produce, so you have to think that gives them a good chance of being around next season. Lucic is here to stay as well. Josh Currie is a career minor leaguer who’s currently making league minimum, that will work in his favour as well.
There are plenty of candidates for bottom six jobs next season, which makes this final stretch of games even more important when it comes to determining who might get NHL jobs with the Oilers next season.