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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Competition for the bottom six

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.

UNDER CONTRACT

Mar 1, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic (27) tries to screen Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne (35) during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

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

Feb 21, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Alex Chiasson (39) looks for a rebound in front of New York Islanders goaltender Robin Lehner (40) during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

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.

    • Beer_League_Ringer

      Can we all appreciate the forecheck turnover goal that he helped generate last game? Tiny guy finishes check centers puck for a goal. Ten games, five points. Guys who play hard stay. Guys who don’t can GTFO.

  • camdog

    Kassian just like Strome were in Todd McLellan’s doghouse. Kassian would try too hard, take a stupid penalty and then get benched. Last October there was the story out there where Kassian’s agent was given permission to talk to other teams about a possible trade. Under Hitchcock Kassian has the coaches trust and he’s played well as a result. I haven’t seen stupid Kassian since Todd was fired. When he’s mellow and in control of his emotions he’s a different player.

    Is it sustainable? We don’t know yet, but if it is that’s a pretty good forward.

      • camdog

        A disciplined Kassian that doesn’t yap at the referees, can be really good player in this league for another 5-6 years. He has the skills, he has the tools, he has the hockey “IQ”.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      I have always said that he wasn’t being used to his strengths. He was used this way in Vancouver, with the Sedins & he was a spark for the team…
      Just now (2 teams later) he is being used that way again…

    • hagar

      Zackian is a gem at 2 mill if he can keep his levels up.
      Kassian is hilarious, he is probably partially crazy, and i love it.
      That partial break away when he got held a bit, he looked over his shoulder to see the refs arm up, then just B lines it over to some guy on the boards doing his taxes and runs him over. Never seen that before.
      Still the best Zackism was in the playoffs when he smoked a player into the boards behind the net, instantly threw off his gloves, then turned around to face what was comming. That was pure gold. My kind of player.

      • NickL89

        In his pre game interview last night he said they he’s always known what he can do and that he can produce points but that the organization asked him to take on a different role so he’s been trying to do that instead. Sure you can take that with a grain of salt but to me it’s absolutely mind blowing that he’s been asked to do something other than what he’s proved to be good at. A players “role” should be based on their strengths. Otherwise what’s the point? A bunch of guys trying to fill shoes that don’t fit. This “I know a thing or two about winning” daddy knows best stupidity explains why Rieder is on the ice when we are down a goal, etc..

  • joilers

    There is zero chance I would buy out Gagner. A bit too much money yes but there is an outside chance he scores 40 to 50 if correctly as a winger. One year left on the contract and he is playing like he wants to be in the nhl and an oiler. Keep him for sure.

  • I’d hang onto Gagner. He’s an NHL-level winger and we’re a team that’s short of those. If his deal wasn’t done next offseason then it would be a different story but I think we can take on the extra $2M for a potential 30-40pt guy who works hard and plays motivated and is a great locker room guy. He’s a piece you can build the bottom-6 around or try out in the top-6 in case of injuries and what not. Some type of line with Caggiula and Gagner would’ve been the perfect bottom-6 line, it’s a shame Chiarelli wasn’t canned before the trade.

    • rnj

      It killed me when Chia defended himself saying “He’s a guy with one goal in the last month” LUCIC HAD 2 GOALS IN 4 MONTHS PETE. Not only a bad GM but just an annoying guy, clueless about hockey

  • Oil9744

    The fact that there was people including yourself Tyler who had Kassian gone at the trade deadline is crazy, he’s having a career season at 1.9 mill. Even before this season he was well worth that money for what he brought to this team. Buy out Gags?? Haaha Comon man!

    • Glencontrolurstik

      I’ll be the first to admit that I was totally wrong about Sam. Seeing him slowly decline in skill-set since he left the Oilers initially… Culminating to “rock-bottom” (or so I thought) in Vancouver. Really, he was so bad, they loaned him to the Leafs farm-team… It’s amazing how an atmosphere can influence an athlete, I don’t know what it is, but man Sam is looking like he is 23 years old again… Keep it up man, you’ve always been a favorite of mine.
      What’s Ales doing lately? haha

      • jesse says yep

        Gagner was the victim of a youth movement in Vancouver. He was only marginally better then some younger players and in their eyes it was a better move to give the roster spots to the young guys. He got loaned to TO as a favour to be closer to his family

      • Oil9744

        Ales! Hahah I forgot about that guy! Was my favourite player hands down for all those years he was here, but in all honesty if there is 1 more Oiler to bring back it would be Ebs. ONLY if the cap hit works though. Ebs at 3 mill to give you 15 to 20 goals is a good deal any way you look at it.

    • socaldave

      I honestly don’t understand why people have (had?) a problem with Kassian. He’s not The Answer, he’ll never BE The Answer, but he sure isn’t The Problem.

  • JayTee

    You’re pretty much bringing back the exact same group. NO(!)
    These are the players we should target:

    Nico Sturm, 23 | Center | 6’3 – 207 | Clarkson U (NCAA) | NHLE : 31.2

    Oula Palve, 25 | Center | 6’0 – 180 | TPS (Liiga) | NHLE : 32.1

    Nicolai Meyer, 25 | LW/RW | 5’10 – 180 | Sodertalje SK (Sweden) | NHLE : 35.8

    Malte Stromwall, 24 | LW | 5’11 – 194 | KooKoo (Liiga) | NHLE : 39.4

    Ville Leskinen, 25 | RW/LW | 6’1 – 185 | Karpat (Liiga) | NHLE : 35

    Oliwer Kaski, 23 | RHD | 6’3 – 190 | Pelicans (Liiga) | NHLE : 30.5

    • Oily Reign

      NHLE? How about players that are able to score real NHL points. We have a farm team full of shiny new toys, with plenty of NHLe points and potential. We need proven players for our team. Relying on AHL players or rookies is what got us to this mess.

  • Glencontrolurstik

    One thing I learned last night (& I kinda knew before, but last night confirmed it) is that I love those “blue, home jerseys”. The team seemed to have more swagger & pride… At least let the team close the home season with some sense of Oiler Pride… I really hope we wear them against the Leafs tomorrow. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, sure. But damn they look good… That’s my take anyway. If they are going to win, at least win looking great, not like a “box of laundry-soap”.

  • Total Points

    The new GM, if there is one and not a OBC nominee, should get rid of most of the forwards, bring in skill.

    These forwards are playing with no pressure (come’on does anyone really think they will make playoffs including the players them selves and if they do will they even win one game).

    Many changes have to occur or it will be more of the same, start out in preseason very well and after about 20 games start the usual sliding down the standing and out of it by Christmas.

    • jesse says yep

      There is always pressure for an NHL player to perform and the idea that playing down the stretch with a playoff spot within sight is somehow easier is ludicrous. Add to that that most of the teams they are playing are also still in the fight make it even harder. You are not giving this team enough credit.

  • TKB2677

    Lucic. Call me crazy but with Chia gone, Lucic was his boy, I just have this feeling that somehow the Oilers trade him. I think they have to retain a big chunk like 50% but at 3 mill, he’d be alright.

    Kassian has played himself back on the team.

    Brodziak, if you can trade him do it, he’s not expensive. If not, I see him in the minors. They have a way cheaper replacement in Cave who I could see as a 4th line center next year.

    Khaira, I would bring back.
    Currie could be a tweener player.
    Chiasson I would resign provided it’s not a huge number.

    Rieder I am shocked by. The guy was a consistent 12+ goal, 3rd liner for 4 years in a row. If he signed for league minimum, maybe I would consider it as a depth guy but I don’t see it.

    Rattie. I had high hopes but if the only way you can look like an NHLer is if you are with McDavid, that is a problem. Kassian is lighting it up with McDavid but if he wasn’t with McDavid, he’s at least a legit NHLer.

  • OilersBro

    I wonder if we don’t qualify Reider but offer him a small one year contract. No one in the league is going to want him and this is the perfect “buy low” scenario where his value is at an all time low but he could put up 30 points and be a PK guy

  • jesse says yep

    Find good players and keep good players. Keeping players like Kassian, Brodziak, Khaira and Gagner who are under control is the only smart move for the Oilers to have any depth in their lineup. The Ty Rattie and Reiders of the world can move along and hopefully be replaced by someone who can produce some points.

  • Hockeytalkguy

    Florida up 3-0 on Minnesota! Landeskog out for rest of the year. What was Hitch saying, something about hockey gods? Doesn’t Kassian look like Lloyd Xmas (Jim Carey) from dumb & dumber. Hope he keeps it up, he is playing well.

  • Stallions #35

    What about this line up?
    Drai-McDavid- Kassian
    Gagner- RNH- Chiasson
    Lucic- Khaira – Rattie
    Currie – Cave – Malone

    …..I just want to see Gagner and RNH maybe get a little chemistry for next year

  • madjam

    Can the Oilers seriously hope to make playoffs supporting a minus 28 differential up till now ? Top and bottom six need to be better defensively in order for that to happen , along with defence and goaltending . Like to hope it is possible , even though it is highly unlikely .

    • McHitch

      It was also unlikely Oilers would put up points in 8 of their last 9 games, but here we are.

      Team seems to be playing much better since Talbot(mr.first shot) was traded and Sekera has returned.

      For all the Koskinen haters, this guy is the real deal. His contract is going to be a steal.

  • McHitch

    The Lucic contract is tradeable.

    How about this idea.

    Retain 1.5 million and trade Lucic and a 2nd round pick to the Coyotes or Sens for a Zach Smith(been on waivers, passed up by the league) type player.

    Than the Sens or Coyotes retain 1.5 million and ship off Lucic to a team that needs 4th line toughness for a late pick.

    Lucic real salary will be 0 million, 1 million, 2 million, 1 million. He will still carry a cap hit of 3 million, but at that rate he is easily moveable.

    Coyotes or Sens will get a 2nd and a 4th for taking a 1.5 million cap hit. Oilers lose a 2nd and retain 1.5 but get out of the contract.

    According to CBA, a player can have salary retained by TWO teams for a maximum of 50% of their contract. So this is a plausible solution to free up 4.5 million in cap space.

    • FutureGM

      Lucic, JP and Russell for Bobby Ryan. They get players to get to the cap floor and we get a skilled player.
      His cap hit does not change btw. Only actual money paid out changes. The reason his contract is ‘untradeable’ is because he makes almost as much in real cash as his cap hit in the late years. If he was paid 35 million already and only had 2 million of actual pay vs a 6million cap hit it would be easier to trade him

  • FutureGM

    Buying out a contract is like putting dirty laundry in the bottom of your closet. Stupid to choose to ignore the problem than dealing with it. Stupid, Stupid, stupid. There is a reason that good teams ship out picks so that other teams have buyout players on the book.
    Meanwhile, no one in the media roasted Chia Pete for buying out Pouliot and then search for a PK player for the worst PK in history the next yr…