Another year, another first overall draft pick for the Edmonton Oilers. The good news is that they are stocking the cupboards with some very talented young players.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Oilers could do this summer, as they try to take the next step in their rebuilding process.
While the Oilers finished last overall once again, there is genuine reason for optimism going forward because of the influx of young talent, both on the NHL roster and throughout the organization.
Consider that the Oilers had nine rookies play at least a dozen games in 2010-2011, many of whom are going to be fixtures on the team for years to come. That's a large collective learning curve underway and, with ten picks in this year's draft, the stockpiling of talent isn't slowing down yet.
An additional positive for the Oilers is that part of the reason for their terrible finish was a rash of injuries that would hopefully not be duplicated too often in the future.
One of the storylines to follow with the Oilers will be their injury-prone and most-accomplished player, Ales Hemsky.
Hemsky's now among the elder statesmen of Oilers forwards and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, so if he's healthy at any point between this summer and next season's trade deadline, it could make sense to deal him for long-term help, possibly on defence.
As the Oilers build from within, they appear to be going about it the right way, with a core group led by last season's heralded rookies Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, but there is more required than just waiting for nature to take its course as these players grow together.
Throughout the lineup, the Oilers could use more size and more players that could be classified as "hard to play against." Some upgrades down the middle, eventually, would seem necessary to bring out the best in their elite young players and, at some point, the Oilers have to find an answer in goal.
"One thing I want to be clear about is this organization is not ready to be looking for the free agent that is a US$10-million player," General Manager Steve Tambellini told the Canadian Press. "We're going to stick with the plan of developing from within, drafting, making people better who are here with the organization."
It's the era of accumulating talent in Edmonton, with hopes that the payoff will come a couple years down the road when the Oilers hope to be a playoff team year-in and year-out.
Steve Tambellini/Tom Renney
On a per-game basis, Ales Hemsky remains a dynamic offensive performer, but injuries have limited the skilled playmaker to just 69 games over the last two seasons, so he doesn't make nearly the difference that he could if he stayed in the lineup.
With a young crop of forwards ready to take the lead in Edmonton, and Hemsky going into the final year of his deal, he could be trade bait, either this summer or leading up to the deadline next season, provided he's healthy.
The first pick in last summer's draft, Taylor Hall had his season end early due to an ankle injury suffered in a fight in early March, but that didn't take away from what was a very promising rookie campaign.
As the season went on, Hall's already-abundant confidence grew and he showed that he could be a potential game-breaking scorer, finishing with 22 goals in 65 games as a 19-year-old. As he matures and gets physically stronger, Hall has a chance to be a consistent 40-goal threat.
Jordan Eberle also missed some time with a sprained ankle, but had a very productive rookie season, scoring 43 points in 69 games. He may not have the upside of Hall, but Eberle can be a top scorer for many years and the duo will play major roles in the Oilers' eventual return to prominence.
32-year-old Shawn Horcoff is a veritable greybeard among all these young forwards, so his leadership is valuable, though not worth a $5.5-million annual cap hit valuable. Horcoff missed 35 games with a variety of maladies, including knee and foot injuries, but was having a solid enough year when he was in the lineup.
He still has four years left on his deal, so Horcoff is not likely going anywhere and has the versatility to fit in a number of spots in a top nine role.
The fifth forward on the list is Sam Gagner and, stop me if you've heard this before, but his season was ended prematurely by injury. In Gagner's case, it was a lacerated hand, but it illustrates just how miserable the Oilers' run of injuries was last season.
There hasn't been a great deal of progress in Gagner's game since his 49-point rookie season but, even with four years under his belt, it's worth remembering that he's still only 21. Maybe stardom isn't in the cards, but surely he can contribute in an offensive role.
Perhaps the least-heralded of the three rookie forwards that started the season in Edmonton, Magnus Paajarvi started slowly, but came on later in the season when handed more responsibility, in part because he was still healthy enough to play significant minutes.
Paajarvi has a rare combination of size, speed and skill that should eventually mean a top-six forward role; another nice piece to the rebuilding puzzle.
24-year-old Linus Omark was older than his rookie compatriots, and started the season in the AHL, but showed some glimpses that he may be a keeper as well.
His shootout tricks aside, Omark is a creative offensive player and while his minus-16 rating in 51 games might seem an indictment of his defensive play, (according to www.behindthenet.ca) his shot differential in five-on-five situations was best among Oilers forwards that played at last 50 games. That's not to say there isn't room for improvement, just that it might not be the glaring weakness suggested solely by his plus-minus.
After a breakthrough season in 2009-2010, when he scored 37 points in 65 games, Gilbert Brule struggled then got hurt last year, finishing with a mere nine points in 41 games.
At his price, $1.85-million, Brule should be more than a depth forward, but he may have his work cut out for him if he's going to play a top-nine role, particularly down the middle.
Colin Fraser is a gritty fourth-line centre who can kill penalties and was only minus-2 despite managing just five points in 67 games, so he does have the defensive side of the game down but, even in a checking role, it would be nice to get more than five points.
By managing to stay healthy, playing all 82 games for the fourth straight season, Andrew Cogliano did end up playing a significant role as the season went along, but 35 points and a minus-12 rating didn't do anything to suggest he's more than a good young checking forward whose speed allows him to fill in on scoring lines when necessary.
Liam Reddox is a try-hard winger who has 24 points in 100 career games. He's a useful penalty killer and checking forward who can help, but is suited to a fourth-line role.
A physical fourth-line winger, Jean-Francois Jacques has 17 points in 160 career games, so he's on the fringe of the roster. He can hit, will fight (13 NHL scraps in the last two seasons according to www.hockeyfights.com) and offers much-needed size on the Edmonton forward lines, but he plays so little that he's not making much of a difference.
Among the unrestricted forwards, Ryan Jones might be worth re-signing after notching a career-high 18 goals and 25 points. Jones busts his butt and willingly goes to the net, skills which should also endear him to teams other than the Oilers.
With the top pick for a second straight season, the Oilers can take whomever they like and it should be another building block for the future. The favourite, at this point, appears to be Red Deer's playmaking centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
He's a skinny kid, and maybe isn't ready to jump right into the NHL, but has exceptional vision and it's tantalizing to think about a distributor like Nugent-Hopkins feeding the likes of Hall and Eberle.
Free agency hasn't brought a great deal of value to the Oilers in recent seasons, so the most likely free agent moves, when it comes to the forward ranks, will provide good bang for the buck and likely fit on the lower half of the depth chart.
Some players that might offer size and come at a reasonable price (particularly if Jones isn't re-signed) could include Alexei Ponikarovsky or Tomas Kopecky, big wingers that can also offer a little skill too. A face-off man like Adam Hall or ex-Oiler Marty Reasoner could work, too.
While the Oilers have several quality forward prospects, the youngest ones may need some seasoning in the AHL before being thrust into NHL action. Teemu Hartikainen, who didn't look out of place in a late-season trial with the Oilers, could make the jump to play a third or fourth-line role.
Defence is a definite area of need for the Oilers, but having a healthy Ryan Whitney would help. Whitney isn't physical, particularly considering his size, but was having a terrific year (27 points, plus-13 in 35 games) before getting hurt.
If Whitney is healthy, it could make Tom Gilbert expendable, if there might be a team willing to take a chance on a $4-million cap hit for a defenceman who has scored 57 points in the last two seasons combined, after a career-high 45 points in 2008-2009.
Last year's 26 points and minus-14 rating were the worst totals of Gilbert's career but, not unlike Omark, his five-on-five shot differential was actually pretty strong compared to his Oilers teammates, due in part to his strong shot-blocking ability, so it's not like Gilbert has to go; with stronger teammates, Gilbert's numbers figure to get better.
While Kurtis Foster owns a big shot from the point, his first year in Edmonton was nothing spectacular, though he did lead the Oilers with 14 power play points.
As a protected third pair defenceman, Foster can help fill a need with the man advantage, but it's not reasonable to expect more than that from the 29-year-old who, admittedly, has shown spectacular commitment to keep his career on track in the face of extreme adversity.
Jeff Petry had some positives in his 35-game audition with the Oilers in 2010-2011, handling more than 20 minutes per game and generally performing better than his minus-12 rating would suggest.
Petry does have some offensive upside (he had 24 points and was minus-6 in 41 AHL games last season) but, like Whitney and Gilbert, he could stand to use his size more effectively.
Another mobile defenceman, Taylor Chorney, has done his time in the American Hockey League, playing the better part of the last three seasons in the minors,
He's minus-30 in 56 career NHL games, so it's fair to wonder if Chorney is going to be able to handle the job, but the 24-year-old is at least nearing the "fish-or-cut-bait" time in his career development.
Theo Peckham adds much-needed toughness on the back end, and while puckhandling isn't his strength, he has the requisite size and nastiness to be a useful contributor.
Another physical presence, 25-year-old Ladislav Smid is being groomed in a shutdown defensive role, which is good because he hasn't scored a goal since December, 2009.
Smid's shown promise, but would be even better if he could be paired with a stable veteran defensive-minded defenceman.
Unrestricted free agents Jim Vandermeer and Jason Strudwick may not be back, but players of their type -- stay-at-home defencemen -- should certainly be under consideration. A free agents like former Oiler Jan Hejda or Radek Martinek might be a decent fit.
Sheldon Souray remains under contract to the Oilers, at a cap hit of $5.4-million, but it seems a stretch to believe that the Oilers would ever welcome him back into the fold.
Perhaps the Oilers could swing a deal for the blueliner, who will be 35 this summer and had 19 points with a plus-10 rating in 40 AHL games but, failing that, he's a prime buyout candidate.
Playing behind the Oilers' defence hasn't brought out the best in Nikolai Khabibulin, but that doesn't excuse last season's .890 save percentage, the second-worst mark in a career of ups and downs.
Devan Dubnyk played behind the same Oilers defence last season and stopped 91.6% of the shots he faced, so it would seem likely that Dubnyk gets a chance to, at the very least, split time with Khabibulin if not take the number one job altogether next season.
Khabibulin, 38, is still signed for two more seasons, but the Oilers surely need to have an eye on the future and if they think that 25-year-old Dubnyk might be a long-term answer in goal, then he should play more than 35 games next year.
The trouble for the Oilers may be finding a landing spot for Khabibulin if he's not prepared to accept a backup role. His price is still prohibitive and the Oilers would have to dig a little deeper to buy him out of the last two years of his deal rather than waiting to buy him out next summer.
||Medicine Hat (WHL)
||27-35-62,+4, 56 GP
||Timra IK (SEL)
||11-15-26,-14, 49 GP
||Prince George (WHL)
||14-42-56,-12, 67 GP
||26-56-82,+48, 62 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||17-25-42,-1, 66 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||4-13-17,+6, 59 GP
||34-49-83,+38, 65 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||2-20-22,+9, 53 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||2-15-17,+11, 73 GP
|2.79 GAA, .911 SV%, 45 GP
Tyler Pitlick, a second-round pick last summer, had a strong season in the Western Hockey League after leaving Minnesota State-Mankato following his freshman year. He's a forward with good size and speed, but it's probably asking too much for the 19-year-old to jump straight into the Oilers lineup.
A year in the AHL would probably be good for Pitlick's development anyway, allowing him to play a full pro schedule and develop his offensive game before he arrives in Edmonton.
Swedish pivot Anton Lander has four years of Swedish Elite League training under his belt and is just 20-years-old. Like Pitlick, he would probably benefit from some time in the AHL, to get accustomed to the North American game, but his two-way style makes him an intriguing prospect.
6-foot-5 blueliner Martin Marincin may be a diamond in the rough. Taken 46th overall last summer, Marincin led all WHL rookie defencemen with 56 points. He may need more time in junior, but his size and skill suggests Marincin will have a future in Edmonton soon enough.
Another of last year's second-round bounty, Curtis Hamilton has steadily improved throughout his junior career and has the size the Oilers need on the wing. He figures to need some time in the AHL.
Teemu Hartikainen is a winger with size and he adjusted well to his first season in North America, scoring 42 points in 66 games for Oklahoma City before getting a late-season call to Edmonton.
Given how he played in his short stint at the end of the year (five points, minus-3 in 12 games), Hartikainen may have an inside track on cracking the lineup next season.
Acquired in the Dusin Penner trade, Colten Teubert is a big defenceman who plays with an edge, just what the Oilers need, yet his first pro season had some ups and downs so he might need more AHL seasoning before getting his shot in Edmonton.
Lanky forward Ryan Martindale enjoyed a very productive season on one of the best lines in the Ontario Hockey League, but needs to get stronger if he's going to handle the NHL grind.
Checking centre Ryan O'Marra has offensive limitations -- he scored two goals in 53 AHL games last year -- so he may never have anything more than fourth-line value, but he can earn call-ups as an injury fill-in.
A first-round pick in 2007, Alex Plante is a physical defensive defencemen with good size, which would seem to make him a natural fit for the Oilers, but his lack of mobility is an issue.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2009, goaltender Olivier Roy has played 200 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, so he's probably ready to take his game to the next level. Not yet 20-years-old, Roy should expect at least a couple of years of grooming in the minors before considering the NHL.
Forward Chris Vande Velde and defencemen Jeremie Blain and Brandon Davidson also add to the Oilers' organizational depth.
Check out a projected 2011-2012 Oilers roster, with some approximate salaries on restricted free agents, on www.capgeek.com here: http://bit.ly/ijfqeY
1st - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Oilers have approximately $37.6M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defencemen.
What I said the Oilers needed last year: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen.
They added: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Colin Fraser, Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, Theo Peckham.
TRADE MARKET Ales Hemsky, Tom Gilbert, Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule, Taylor Chorney.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.