Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

State of The System: There’s plenty of competition for positions among Oilers forwards

A major area of concern for the Oilers over the past couple of seasons has been a lack of depth up front. Behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, there hasn’t been much to write home about, and spreading those three aforementioned players to maximize the lineup has been a challenge.

One of Ken Holland’s biggest challenges as Oilers’ general manager is to navigate and clean up the salary cap mess that Peter Chiarelli left behind. While many hoped that Holland would make a mid-level splash in free agency to shore up the top-six (somebody like Brett Connolly or Gustav Nyquist), Holland instead opted to add a bevy of cheap depth up front. In doing so, Holland has created quite a bit of competition for roster spots among Oilers forwards and it ensures that no prospects need to be rushed to the NHL level to fill holes.

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Right now…

While the Oilers’ blueline heading into 2019-20 is fairly easy to predict, the way the forwards are going to shake out is really anyone’s guess. Above is my guess at how the organization’s depth chart looks at the end of training camp.

It makes sense to continue rolling the Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian trio on the top line. McDavid and Draisaitl are too good of a pair to split up at this point and Kassian proved to be a nice complement to the team’s top forwards. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will then be tasked with turning James Neal around along with reliable veteran winger Alex Chiasson.

After that, the competition among scratch tickets really begins.

Holland added skilled and versatile forward Markus Granlund, AHL stud TOMAS JURCO, penalty kill specialist Josh Archibald, and European forwards Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard to the mix this off-season. Those five additions join the likes of Sam Gagner, Jujhar Khaira, Colby Cave, Kyle Brodziak, Joe Gambardella, Josh Currie, and possibly Jesse Puljujarvi for roster spots and playing time in the bottom-six.

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The key here for Holland was creating internal competition. While these additions may be unspectacular, they represent legitimate NHL depth and it ensures there are always players pushing each other for playing time. If Brodziak rolls into camp and struggles, Gaetan Haas is right there to take his spot as the team’s fourth centre. If Sam Gagner isn’t providing depth offence, Tomas Jurco or Joakim Nygard can take his role.

Beyond that, it also ensures that prospects like Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, and Tyler Benson don’t have to be thrown into the deep end. Something we’ve seen way too much in the past is the Oilers rushing prospects in order to fill holes because the team is devoid of depth. That won’t be the case with Holland around. We could easily see any of those aforementioned three prospects play for the Oilers this season, but it’ll be because they forced their way onto the team.

The future…

It’s hard enough to guess how the Oilers’ forwards are going to look in October let alone how things are going to shake out over the next few years. I think that’s a good thing. It represents how much flexibility Holland has moving forward.

The team only has three current roster forwards under contract beyond the 2020-21 season and there’s a very real chance one of those three, James Neal, could be bought out. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl really are the only sure things when pondering the future of the Oilers’ forwards. After this season, Sam Gagner, Zack Kassian, Markus Granlund, Kyle Brodziak, Josh Archibald, Joakim Nygard, Gaetan Haas, and Tomas Jurco will be unrestricted free agents. After the following season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson’s contracts will also expire.

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Unlike on the blueline with Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg, the Oilers don’t really have any bluechip prospects up front. Cooper Mraody, Tyler Benson, and Kailer Yamamoto will have an opportunity to break their way onto the roster this season and solidify themselves into roles for 2020-21, but these players are more middle-six, quality depth types than game-changers. Of course, internally-developing quality depth is massively important in the salary cap world, so it’s great the Oilers have a trio of solid young forwards working their way up. The next wave of interesting forward prospects after those three is Ryan McLeod, Kirill Maksimov, and Ostap Safin, who are making their transition to professional hockey in 2019-20. After them is 2019 second-round pick, Raphael Lavoie.

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One thing I touched on in my State of The System post about the blueline last week is selling from a position of strength to fill a position of need. Five years ago the Oilers were loaded with skilled forwards but lacked defencemen. Now they have a wealth of blueliners and a lack of quality forwards. While aforementioned prospects Marody, Benson, and Yamamoto could add quality depth, the team needs another game-changing talent up front, especially with Nugent-Hopkins just two years from free agency.

I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw Holland pull the trigger on a deal that involved sending out a good defenceman for a good, young forward. The Oilers will have a lot of flexibility in the next couple of summers to overhaul their roster, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, trying to make too many major additions via free agency can be a disaster. The last thing we want to see is Holland patiently navigate out of Chiarelli’s salary cap disaster just to create a new one.

    • Dallas Eakins Hair

      I agree with you, I would think some time before the trade deadline hits I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Russell or Benning with a new team especially if some of the AHL guys really push for a job in the bottom pairings

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    The whole problem with the bootom 6 last year was the couple guys that were producing a little got hurt and the others well not much was coming from them. One of the things Haolland seem to do this year was look for guys with some offence side to their game and that were good in other roles, aka PP PK etc. As we all know secondary scoring was lacking last year and hopefully some of these guys will provide some of that.

    Nygard has some wheels and likes to make plays so there is a very decent chance for some scoring out of him, Haas isnt a slouch either. Currie is another guy I think that could really have a good shot, I didnt understand why when he was called up last year the Oilers gave him limited minutes when the guys has an offensive upside,its was kinda of baffling as to why he was on the 4th line, but I hope in camp he can show what he can do. Marody I think has a pretty decent shot at grabbing a spot, the kid is a gamer and he wants to prove he can play at this level and he flat out said he plans to push for a shot on the team in an interview with Gregor. Benson and Gambardella have a decent shot as well, but I give Marody the edge.

    Kharia I think will have a bounce back year, he had such a great year before and last year, I never heard it for sure but I thought there was a fight or a hit where he took one hard and it seem like he had a concussion possibly, because after that he didnt play at all like himself and then he got injured later on and his season never got on track, but man that year before the guy was just on it, I hope he gets back on track this year

    The nice thing is if guys dont pan out that are on 1 yr deals they can be traded or not resigned, so not a lot of risk

  • Vanoil

    Hahahahaha …. Kyle Brodziak is likely the last player on the depth chart. Gaten Haas is on a one way contract and is almost 10 years younger. Even Marody would be ahead of him. Just because you have never seen a player, doesn’t mean the organization hasn’t. Too funny. Did you watch any games last year? Brodziak will have trouble staying on the roster in the Bake. He is more of a fourth-line player-coach for Bakersfield at this point.

  • Copper

    I couldn’t read past “rushing prospects” again!
    1st overall picks play in the NHL period! Eberle played 2 more WHL season before NHL Lander? 4 years in SEL as a teenager and excelling. Still played more AHL then NHL. Paajarvi ? 2 years SEL then split next 3 years between AHL/NHL. Klefbom? Yup SEL and AHL. Draisaitl. NHL then back to Juniors before AHL. Nurse? 2 more OHL then on to AHL. Blame coaching all we want but, should McDavid have had AHL time? Hall? RNH? If you are good enough to make the team, you have earned that spot

  • Bond 0097

    JP and Neal to Cowtown for Tkachuck, solves their cap problem and solves our JP problem, plus we get a snivelling trouble maker. Don’t laugh, we already pulled the wool over their eyes in the Lucy deal, KH could do it again after all it IS cowtown

    • The future never comes

      probably one of the more optimistic posts I’ve read in a whi…naw, sorry man I have to call a spade a spade and say this is one of the least intelligent ideas I’ve read in a post, unless you’re trolling, then good job? But if I were you, I would pretend it was a troll job and not serious…

  • hagar

    Why do the Oilers need one more big name on forward? How many big names does a team need to compete? 2 of the top 4 points producing forwards In the league are on the team, and nuge would be considered a top four player on any team.

    Holland isnt just doing all these small signings and moves because we have no money, it’s because our team has none of the secondary scoring good teams have, and require to compete.

    All we need is juju and a few of the new guys or farm guys to step up, the goalies to do their part, and ita a normal nhl team talent wise.

    I dont see the recipe requiring another high paid forward talent.

  • OilCan2

    This is the season the Oilers turn the corner. Last year was historic in poor performance from the bottom nine and a coaching crash and burn even by our low standards. We are stocked with good role players thanks to Ken. He got us a coach who can turn lead into gold. We will have call up depth for the first time in a long time. I sure hope Calgary is prudent with the third rounder we give them when Neal lights it up.

  • Oil Vice

    It’s refreshing to not be so dependent on the rookies to lead the way like so many years prior. Now we’re looking for maybe one more game breaker and, probably more importantly, some secondary scoring. That’s what killed us last year. It’s much easier to draft and develop these types of players and it’s better to have competition and not be rushed for the players. Connor was a grand slam and Leon was a home-run. Now we’re just looking for another few decent hits to follow that up. I like our chances with Benson and Yamo sooner than later and Maksimov after that. Having players develop together like this was lacking forever with this organization. When they finally got all their ducks in a row with the AHL and ECHL it was a big step. Unfortunately drafting didn’t pay off initially but this was part of the long term re-build plan. We still hoped we could make the playoffs each year but I think most of us knew the depth just wasn’t there. As painful as it’s been, the long term plan is working. Maybe we don’t have enough forward prospects but we have more than we have had in a long time, plus we have a good supply of defence prospects.
    Secondary help is coming and it will make the Oilers a better team.

  • RaimoSummanenLives!

    There is a lot of competition for the forwards…in a bottom 6 role. The top 6 is still awfully thin. The Oilers will end up playing some “true” bottom six forwards in the top 6.

    • hagar

      What? Am I in some bizzaro world or are you guys flames trolls?

      How is leon mcdavid and kassian then nuge Neil and someone else on the second awful thin?
      Boy I sure hope the negativity of years past doesnt show up while improving.
      If we have people calling the top 6 thin.. gotta be trolling

  • Arfguy

    I think I want Nygard on RNH’s left wing. RNH cannot be effective with two fairly slow wingers. If it was even Nygard-RNH and Neal on the RW, I think it could work. I do not like the lack of speed of the second line in that projection.

    • The future never comes

      Well to be fair, none of us have seen Nygard play a game live, nor has he played an NHL game in his career to date. So how could you write something in ink so confidently?

      • Arfguy

        I don’t know…Nikita Gusev has never played a single NHL game and he will start the season being paid $4.5 million AAV. Artemi Panarin had never played a single NHL game prior to being awarded $6 million AAV for 2 years. Tobias Rieder was scoring an average of 11 goals per season before he was given $2 million AAV and ended up scoring 0 goals.

        No one knows anything for sure. I was confident of only one thing: I did not like the lack of speed on the second line from the projected lines above.

  • Kevwan

    Lots of talk on Twitter about the Oilers getting Brassard. Georges Laraque says its a done deal on a 1 year term and he’s well connected. Depending on $ could be a GREAT signing.

  • Bob Lawblaw

    I am so stoked about having Ken Holland as the Oilers GM !

    I’m absolutely biased but there is a calmness that I feel when I think about the future of the Oilers. Mr. Holland is building a team that elite teams can compete with (I know, glass half-full philosophy). I have complete confidence in any hockey decisions he makes. Holland has a proven track record of over 20 years as a GM but he’s been a hockey man his whole life.
    From day one, when there was an endless drone of missing the playoffs 12 of the last 13 years, at the initial press conference he stated the positive saying the Oilers made the playoffs once in 13 years. Not very positive at all but at least it wasn’t 100% negative.

    I try to see as many games live as I can. That being said, Oilers hockey is my real TV and, quite frankly, it’s been a soap opera for far too long. I believe, with Holland in charge, the Oilers future will be brighter.

    Go Oilers Go !!!