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What is the solution to the hole at fourth-line center for the Oilers?

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
7 months ago
With their current cap situation, the Edmonton Oilers will be forced to run a 21-man roster on opening night, which will include 12 forwards, 7 defencemen, and 2 goalies. In general, their entire opening-night roster is nearly set. Barring injuries, the only spot still up for grabs is the twelfth forward spot.
The major players currently competing for that spot include Brandon Sutter (PTO), Raphael Lavoie, Lane Pederson, and Adam Erne (PTO). Technically, Sam Gagner (also on a PTO) is also competing for that spot, but as he continues to recover from hip surgery, Gagner will not play in the pre-season. He’s expected to be reevaluated in a month, and could potentially start the year in Bakersfield. From there, he could be a recall option for the Oilers.
Coach Jay Woodcroft’s ideal 12th forward seems to be a center. Considering that Edmonton prefers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Derek Ryan on the wing, Edmonton’s current players projected to play center include Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan McLeod, meaning there’s a spot open at 4C.
As a result, it seems that one of Sutter and Pederson, both centers, has a good chance at making the roster. However, that means 23-year-old winger Lavoie would have to be placed on waivers.
So, what’s the solution to Edmonton’s hole at 4C? What does it mean for Lavoie?
*All NHL stats via Natural Stat Trick, all AHL stats via pick224 unless stated otherwise

Some options with the players guaranteed to make the roster

Play Derek Ryan at 4C

Barring injuries, here are the 11 forwards currently projected to be on Edmonton’s opening night roster: McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Kane, Hyman, Brown, McLeod, Foegele, Ryan, Holloway, and Janmark.
Of these forwards, the most obvious candidate to play 4C is Derek Ryan. Last season, Ryan alternated between center and right-wing, and ended the season at RW on a line with McLeod and Foegele.
In 446 5v5 minutes away from Edmonton’s four other players who played center (McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH and McLeod), Ryan produced an exceptional 56 percent goal differential and a 55 percent expected goal differential. In total, he took 335 faceoffs at 5v5 and won 173 of them, equating to a 51.6% faceoff win percentage.
Although Ryan turns 37 in December, he remains a very useful bottom-six forward, at both center and RW. I believe he can be a perfectly capable 4C, making this a very solid option.
However, my guess is that the Oilers would prefer Ryan at RW for two main reasons. Ryan shoots right, and the team has a lack of right-shot forwards and right wings on their roster; just three of the eleven forwards expected to play on the opening night are right-handed. For this reason, my guess is that the Oilers would prefer deploying Ryan as an RW.
Secondly, Jay Woodcroft seems to be leaning towards a third line of Foegele – McLeod – Ryan. Those three players primarily played together as the team’s third line in the playoffs, posting a 50 percent goal share, and 77 percent (!) expected goal share in that limited sample. With McLeod having a minor injury, that line hasn’t been able to play together in training camp / pre-season thus far, but Lane Pederson has often centered Foegele and Ryan, potentially indicating that Pederson is a placeholder for McLeod.
Ryan at 4C remains a viable option, but I’m not sure if the Oilers decide if he’s their 4C.

Run McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, and McLeod down the middle

Currently, Nugent-Hopkins is expected to start the season at LW, likely on a line with Draisaitl. However, with the current players projected to make the roster, Edmonton also has the option of deploying McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, and McLeod as centers, having each of them center their own line. This solves their 4C issue. The major advantage of this option is that the line-up is more spread out, and would result in a better bottom-six with RNH in it, facing third-line competition.
However, I don’t think Edmonton’s winger depth is deep enough to make this the best option, and I believe RNH is much more suited as a LW than a center at this point of his career. Another disadvantage of this option is that it reduces McLeod’s role, as he would have be forced to play very limited minutes as Edmonton’s 4C.
It’s an option, but I don’t think it’s the most ideal or preferable one. 

A look into the battle for the 12th forward spot; will the Oilers choose a center over Lavoie?

Per Bob Stauffer on The Panel: “It’s going to come down to Sutter or Pederson as to who’s going to be the 4C.”
I’m not a fan of Sutter. Here’s a look at his on-ice impacts in Vancouver, which were generally quite mediocre:
Aside from his unsustainable PDO heater in 2017-18, Sutter’s only above-average season at 5v5 with the Canucks came in 2019-20. In general, his on-ice impacts were substandard for most of his tenure with the Canucks, and his overall relative GF% and xG% throughout those five years is a net negative. While he did have solid faceoff results, they’re not enough to outweigh the fact that Vancouver’s results significantly improved with Sutter on the bench. 
Sutter was a strong penalty-killer in his first three seasons with Vancouver, but that aspect of his game declined in the later half of his tenure on the Canucks, as they averaged 57 shorthanded chances allowed per hour with Sutter on-ice, compared to an improved 53 chances allowed per hour without Sutter.
Overall, Sutter’s results were never pretty at the NHL level in the first place. At age 34, and after two seasons without playing, I’m highly doubtful if he can be a capable and useful regular forward on a cup contender today.
As for Lane Pederson, he’s a fringe NHLer. While Pederson did have 17 goals in 18 AHL games last season, his AHL production has not translated to the NHL. Among the 470 players with a minimum of 700 TOI at 5v5 in the past three seasons, Pederson has produced just 0.82 points per hour at 5v5, ranking 459th in the league.
His awful production rates, combined with poor 5v5 on-ice results (37 GF%, 45 xG%) and the fact that he has little-to-no experience on special teams at the NHL level, make it doubtful if he can be a useful regular NHLer on a cup contender. 
If the Oilers decide to sign Gagner and start him in Bakersfield, he’s also a recall option to play 4C later in the season. However, as of now, he’s not going to be the 12th forward on opening night.
The other PTO currently competing for a spot in training camp is Adam Erne. However, unless he blows it out of the park in the remainder of his pre-season games, it’s nearly a guarantee that Edmonton doesn’t choose him over a 4C or Lavoie on the opening-night roster.
So, is it worth signing Sutter or keeping Pederson on the roster over Lavoie? My answer would be no, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, here’s a look at Edmonton’s bottom six and their results throughout McDavid and Draisaitl’s tenure in Edmonton:
For years, Edmonton’s bottom six was atrocious, as the team was consistently getting out-scored by a massive margin when both McDavid and Draisaitl were not on the ice. 
However, their goal differential immediately and significantly improved following Jay Woodcroft’s arrival in 2021-22. This past season in 2022-23, the bottom six was fantastic, out-scoring opponents at a ratio of 74 to 60 when their two superstars were not on-ice.
There were numerous reasons why the bottom six improved, with Jay Woodcroft evidently as one of them, but another factor for their resurgence was the fact that the bottom six finally began finishing their chances. Their most prominent finisher was Klim Kostin, who scored at a rate of 1.17 goals per hour at 5v5, ranking third on the Oilers, and 39th in the entire league.
With Kostin on-ice, the bottom six produced a 65 percent goal differential, while they were at 51 percent without him; 51 percent is still a net positive, and a massive improvement from what they had before, but it’s clear that a finisher made a big difference. 
Of course, Kostin’s shooting percentage ranked 7th in the entire league, and it was nearly 20 percent. His scoring rate was unsustainable, and it was difficult to keep him on the roster at a cap hit of $2M, which is why it’s understandable that the team was forced to let him go. However, the fact remains that a finisher can make a significant impact on the success of Edmonton’s bottom-six.
This is where Lavoie comes in. In 2022-23, Lavoie led the Condors with 25 goals in 61 games and ranked 17th in the league in even-strength goals. As Lavoie was coming off knee surgery at the beginning of the season, his numbers were even better towards the second half of the season as he began feeling more healthy. 22 of Lavoie’s 25 goals came in his final 46 games, and 13 of those goals came in his final 24 games.
Unfortunately, Lavoie hasn’t thrived in pre-season yet, but then again, it’s just two games thus far.
Edmonton’s current bottom-six doesn’t contain enough players with scoring potential, and I’d argue that Lavoie may have more scoring potential (strictly speaking in terms of goals) than nearly all of their current bottom-sixers. Perhaps Lavoie can be the scorer that the bottom-six needs. At the very least, I believe he deserves a chance to show what he can provide at the NHL level, as he doesn’t have much left to prove in Bakersfield.
Furthermore, out of all of Edmonton’s options for the 12th forward spot, Lavoie is by far the youngest at age 23, and has the highest upside. If the Oilers don’t have him on the opening-night roster, they’ll be forced to waive him.
I wouldn’t be shocked if he clears waivers, as numerous players are put on waivers around this time, but it’s a risk I prefer not to take.
The team is currently in need of a scoring right-shot winger. It would be a shame if Edmonton loses the second-round pick RW they’ve spent four years developing for nothing without giving him a single chance in the NHL, while they potentially replace him with a declining 34-year-old fourth-liner who hasn’t played in two years.
So, if the Oilers keep Lavoie on the roster, who plays 4C?

Perhaps the Oilers may not need a 4C in the first place

What if I told you that the Oilers may not actually need another fourth-line center? That’s because they may already have a 4C on their roster (aside from Ryan); Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Hear me out.
Last season, the Oilers had a record of 25-15-4 when playing 12 forwards and 6 defencemen, equating to a 0.613 points percentage. When playing with 11 forwards and 7 defencemen, they had a 23-8-3 record, equating to a 0.721 points percentage, considerably higher. With the latter alignment, McDavid and Draisaitl would be double-shifted as the fourth-line center and/or the 12th forward.
The 11F/7D alignment has a couple of advantages. Not only does it allow much more flexibility with the defensive pairs, but the TOI of the 12th forward is replaced with extra McDavid and Draisaitl TOI. This allows McDavid and Draisaitl to have more time to create offence and potentially obtain shifts against opposition fourth-lines. The 11/7 format makes match-ups much more difficult for the opposition.
Of course, the obvious disadvantage of this is that running 11/7 for the entire season could tire their two superstars by double-shifting them every game. You don’t want to wear them out before the playoffs.
To solve this issue, Edmonton should alternate between 12F/6D and 11F/7D throughout the regular season. They can primarily run 11F/7D in the playoffs, as they have the most success with that alignment. When running 12F/6D in the regular season, the Oilers can deploy Ryan at 4C, while they can put him back on the wing when they play 11F/7D, allowing them to still have another winger like Lavoie on the roster.
So, consider that Edmonton is most successful with 11/7, the alignment in which they don’t have a regular 4C. Is it worth signing Sutter or keeping Pederson over Lavoie on the opening night roster just for the sake of a 4C, and taking the risk of losing Lavoie for nothing on waivers without even giving him a chance in the NHL?
Giving Lavoie an opportunity as the 12th forward, and rotating between Ryan at 4C and 11/7 throughout the regular season, is the route that I would personally go with to start the season.
Another option, but much less likely, is to waive Mattias Janmark, and have both a center (perhaps Gagner?) and Lavoie on the roster. This option would also accrue more cap space for the trade deadline, and I believe Janmark is a very replaceable player, but realistically, I don’t see it happening at all. Janmark was signed to a $1M contract even prior to the start of free agency, and Woodcroft seems to be fond of Janmark, so I would definitely expect him to be on the eventual roster.
With less than two weeks until opening night in Vancouver, it will be interesting to see what Woodcroft and Holland ultimately decide to do.
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