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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.