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Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths and Weaknesses: The Oilers Forwards

I called this past summer the most important offseason in franchise history for the Edmonton Oilers and honestly,  it’s hard to tell if it was successful or not. GM Ken Holland made a few moves that I really, really liked but there are also a few areas where it’s not clear if this team is better than last season.

Today, I’m starting with the positive moves. I think this Oilers forward group has the potential to be the best in the NHL and that in part because of the moves that Holland made this summer. They lost the likes of Dominik Kahun, James Neal and Alex Chiasson and replaced them with Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, and Derek Ryan. Those are three clear-cut upgrades and pretty substantial ones at that.

The Oilers forward group is incredibly versatile and no matter how you slice it up, it’s pretty easy to see how they could have three very good scoring lines.

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Their forward group will only get even more dangerous if a player like Ryan McLeod can take a step forward in his rookie season. The big, speedy centreman looked like he belonged during his first 14 games in the NHL but he never found a way to produce offense. The tools are all there if he puts them together, it will give the Oilers a really good third-line centre.

On top of that, they could use bounce-back performances from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian, and the newly signed Kailer Yamamoto

For Kassian, he needs to first prove that he can still be a fiery bottom-six winger with the potential to produce some offence. If he does that, then I’d have no problem with him getting another chance on a skill line, but he needs to prove himself in the bottom six to deserve that opportunity. If he doesn’t find the level we saw from him at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, then this season might be his last in Edmonton.

Yamamoto is fresh off signing a one-year deal and if he wants to get a significant raise next offseason, he has to start finishing off the high-quality chances that he gets. The guy works his ass off almost every time he’s on the ice and that results in him creating a lot of turnovers and despite his small stature, his relentless forechecking actually creates space for the skilled players on his line. 

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Still, he needs to have a better scoring touch. He popped home 11 goals in 27 games while shooting 25% back in 2019-20. Obviously, there was going to be a bit of regression and I certainly wasn’t expecting him to score at a 33 goal pace again. But, he ended up with just eight goals in 52 games last year and that’s nowhere near where he needs to be if he wants to keep his spot alongside Leon Draisaitl in the top-six.

It wasn’t for a lack of scoring chances either. Anyone who watched the Oilers last season knows just how snake-bitten Yamamoto was when it came to high-quality chances. He missed a lot of breakaways and chances in the slot. If he improves that this season, then I think he could get close to the 25-goal mark, which would be huge.

The nice part about this Oilers forward group though is that they have a lot of players who can play multiple positions. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can be a left-winger or a centreman, Derek Ryan can play down the middle or on the right side, as can Devin Shore. They also have Warren Foegele and Zach Hyman who have some experience playing both wings. There’s also always the option to move Leon Draisaitl up to Connor McDavid’s wing. 

The point I’m trying to make here is that there really isn’t a lot of pressure on any one Oilers forward to step up and have a huge bounceback season because if one or two players really start to struggle, Dave Tippet will have more than enough depth and lineup versatility to still put together a really strong top-six. 

I really have zero concerns when it comes to this Oilers forward group. Some might say that their lack of a proven third-line centre is a little worrisome but last season the Oilers played an averaged of 50:30 of even-strength hockey every game. Connor McDavid averaged 17:46 of even-strength TOI per game while Draisaitl was at 17:15. So just over 35 minutes of the even-strength hockey in every game should be covered by the Oiler’s top-six. That means they really only need like 6-10 minutes from each one of their bottom two lines. 

I’m confident in the group they have right now being able to give them those kinds of minutes. Some combination of Ryan, Shore, or McLeod will be just fine for what the Oilers need from them.

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I understand that it would be nice for the Oilers to get more production from their bottom six than they’ve had in the last couple of seasons, and I think they will. The boost they get from their bottom six will come from the additions they’ve made on the wings, not necessarily from them being significantly stronger down the middle. The caveat I’ll add to that is that they could opt to play Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a centreman, which would really change the way that they deploy their wingers.

This forward group is looking dangerous, there’s no denying that. They don’t really need anyone to have a bounceback or breakout season. They basically just need the majority of this group to produce at their career average and they’ll be fine.

You can’t say the same when it comes to their blueline and their situation between the pipes though. I’ll have more on that in the next few days.