Holding the first pick in the draft for the third straight season, the Edmonton Oilers are accumulating plenty of high-end talent, but remain a long way from a playoff berth.
Off-Season Game Plan examines the Oilers' roster and what moves they might make this summer as they try to start moving out of the lottery process.
Already stocked with skilled young forwards, the Oilers are more likely to listen to trade offers for their number one pick, but it's not going to be easy to pry away a young, top pair defenceman, even for the possibility of landing Nail Yakupov in the draft.
That doesn't mean that GM Steve Tambellini shouldn't investigate the possibilities, however. Ask the Ducks about Cam Fowler, the Devils about Adam Larsson, the Coyotes about Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Islanders about Travis Hamonic and so on. (While we're tossing out fanciful names, how about the Rangers' Marc Staal, Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian or Washington's John Carlson?)
Those calls may go nowhere, but if the Oilers are prepared to part with the top pick, it would have to be a for defenceman that can be a part of their core going forward and, ideally, a first-round pick that the Oilers can use to stock the prospect shelves.
Of course, the Oilers also have assets, other than the first overall pick, that they could move in order to improve their blueline. Surely there would be a market for Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark, among others, that could yield a defensive upgrade.
While the Oilers are killed for their defence, they allowed 30.7 shots per game, which ranked 19th in the league and that average was down to 29.3 per game in the last 24 games of the season, so there is some progress. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of room for improvement, just that the top pick in the draft doesn't have to be the only chip played in order to achieve that improvment.
After winning the draft lottery, Tambellini said, ""We articulated a plan two years ago that we felt we had to develop and draft our own. We knew that in our market that we weren't going to attract the A-plus free agents just to come without us being a good hockey club. We know that this is our only way to really, as a core, to get better."
The Oilers core is exciting and there is potential for long-term success, but at some point, the potential needs to become reality.
"If I have an option to get a solid pick and someone to help the current club, I have to strongly look at that," Tambellini told the National Post. "You listen to comments from players post-season. I think Taylor Hall was saying, 'Yeah, we've got these good young kids, but I want to win. I want to show we can win in this city now.' That's leadership."
The other issue for the Oilers to deal with is whether or not Tom Renney will still be the one calling the shots behind the bench. That decision hasn't been made public yet, so there remains a door open to possible change but, considering how much the Oilers need to improve to catch the playoff teams in the West, the coach isn't likely to make or break this team next season.
That means the Oilers shall continue their process of upgrading the talent on their roster and hope that the 2012-2013 season shows at least the same kind of improvement that they registered last season (a 12-point improvement from 62 to 74 points).
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Steve Tambellini/Tom Renney
While talk of the Oilers' bright future centres on their first overall picks, their top scorer last season was Jordan Eberle, drafted 22nd overall in 2008. He had some good fortune, scoring on 18.9% of his shots, but there is a lot to like about a slick, skilled winger who can get to the net like Eberle.
Taylor Hall is more of a driving force than Eberle, a stronger physical presence who drives hard to the scoring areas, but the overriding concern with Hall is that both of his first two seasons have been shortened by injury. He's undergone shoulder surgery and his recovery could take him right up until training camp, so it's conceivable that early returns next season may reflect a summer spent on rehab rather than training for the upcoming season.
Last year's number one pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, played very well in his rookie campaign, though shoulder injuries left him on the shelf for 20 games. As he matures, Nugent-Hopkins should better be able to handle the NHL grind, but his vision and instincts seem to assure that the poised teen will always be able to put up points.
An energy winger who has contributed 35 goals over the last two seasons, Ryan Jones is a valuable checker who enhances his value with his nose for the net.
The Oilers took a certain amount of risk by deciding to sign RW Ales Hemsky to a contract extension. Hemsky had one of his worst seasons, certainly his least productive since the lockout, yet his experience allows him to handle tougher assignments than those that have been typically assigned to Edmonton's trio of young scorers. If Hemsky can rebound, he's the kind of playmaker that can make those around him more productive.
Veteran centre Shawn Horcoff gets paid big money and gets saddled with more defensive zone starts and high quality of competition (via www.behindthenet.ca), but the results haven't been great. Until the Oilers are willing to let young centres take on more responsibility, though, Horcoff is the guy who gets those minutes, for better or for worse.
As enforcers go, Ben Eager is skilled enough to take a regular fourth-line shift. He moves well for a big man and can bang bodies on the forecheck as a result, with decent enough hands around the net to chip in 33 goals in the last four seasons.
Checking centre Eric Belanger had been rather consistent, scoring between 33 and 41 points for eight straight seasons, before managing just 16 points in 2011-2012. He's 34, so maybe it's fair to expect a decline, but Belanger should be able to provide more than he did last season. Of course, that can be dependent on linemates and opportunities, but Belanger gives the Oilers some flexibility down the middle.
Anton Lander was overmatched as a 20-year-old in the NHL and could probably use more time in the AHL to polish his game and prepare for a role as a third-line centre. There will be other young forwards competing for a spot, including Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen and Linus Omark, so Lander might develop more playing significant minutes in the AHL for a season.
On February 2, 2012, Sam Gagner had a night for the ages, netting eight points against the Chicago Blackhawks, prompting talk of a breakthrough for the talented 22-year-old. However, after finishing the season with seven points in the final 23 games, Gagner ended up with 47 points on the season, falling between 41 and 49 points like he has in every one of his five NHL seasons.
As it is, Gagner is a capable second-line centre. 33 centres scored 50 points or more, so if Gagner is just outside that group, he's still doing enough to fit in the top six. At the same time, since he scored 49 points as an 18-year-old, expectations are that Gagner should be able to score more than he has and maybe it's a matter of finding the right mix among Oilers forwards.
Whether the Oilers welcome Ryan Smyth back into the fold could come down to cost, again. Smyth wanted to return to Edmonton last year and was very productive early (scoring 24 points in his first 25 games), but as the season went on, his production faded. Even though Smyth logged heavy minutes for the Oilers, there may not be room for him in the top six if Edmonton selects an NHL-ready forward with the first pick.
If Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Hemsky and Gagner are top six forwards, that leaves one more opening and if Smyth isn't going to be the one filling that spot, it could be difficult for the Oilers to justify his price tag, whatever it may be.
If Yakupov is added to that mix, well, the Oilers would certainly be young up front, but there would be many options to mix and match between scoring lines.
Adding to the youthful mix, Edmonton also has prospects Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen and Linus Omark bucking for regular duty. There is reason for hope and optimism with all these young forwards, yet there is also a lot more risk, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the Oilers add an inexpensive veteran or two on the lower end of the forward lines.
Free Agent Defence
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
There are few areas on any team in the league with such a glaring need as the Oilers' defence corps. That isn't to suggest there aren't NHL-calibre defencemen on hand, but none of them is particularly suited to be top pair defenceman, so the need to somehow acquire a premier blueliner hangs over the team.
Of those already on the roster, the Oilers got nice value out of Corey Potter, a 28-year-old puck-moving defenceman who had played a total of nine NHL games prior to last season. He could play less, but is currently an inexpensive 20-minute-a-night option.
Ladislav Smid is developing into a quality shutdown defender. He scored a career-high 15 points last season and was a plus player despite taking on the opposition's best lines on a nightly basis.
37-year-old Andy Sutton can be a suspension waiting to happen, but there are benefits to having a 6-foot-6, 245-pound defenceman with a nasty disposition. He's not playing 20 minutes per game anymore, but Sutton can do his part on the third pairing.
Ongoing ankle problems have derailed Ryan Whitney's career, limiting him to 86 games over the last two seasons. When healthy, Whitney is the best quarterback for the Edmonton power play, only the risk that he'll be out of the lineup has to drive the Oilers to keep improving the defensive unit as a whole, so that they don't miss a beat without Whitney.
In the Oilers' efforts to upgrade their blueline, they traded to get Nick Schultz from Minnesota. While Schultz has played in a defensive role against tough competition for a long time, he didn't come cheaply, costing Edmonton Tom Gilbert who, for all his flaws, still might have been Edmonton's most reliable blueliner. If Edmonton's defence is going to show improvement, they will need Schultz to be a big part of their shutdown effort.
Jeff Petry played his first full NHL season and the 24-year-old impressed. He's a strong skater with good size and made better decisions with the puck as the season progressed and he was handed more responsibility. If there is someone on the Edmonton defence that could be a 25-minute per game defenceman, Petry is the most likely candidate.
Being the third overall pick in 2004 is something that Cam Barker can't escape and it makes his struggle to stick as an NHL regular so noteworthy. Considering his price tag and minimal contribution, it would seem likely that Barker doesn't receive a qualifying offer from the Oilers.
As a seventh defenceman who provides toughness, Theo Peckham can fill a role for the Oilers and he's 24, so he could still develop into a solid regular who packs a punch when need be.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
The record shows that Nikolai Khabibulin's 2.65 goals against average and .910 save percentage were his best marks since joining the Oilers three years ago, though he put up great numbers early (.935 SV% through the end of November) and then fell back significantly for the rest of the season, eventually losing time to Devan Dubnyk.
With one year remaining on Khabibulin's ill-advised contract, he could be shopped, but is most likely an insurance policy in case Dubnyk can't handle the number one job.
Dubnyk has taken some time to develop since being selected in the first round in 2004, but a .915 save percentage in 82 games over the last two seasons suggests it's time to take off the training wheels to find out if he can handle a starter's workload.
With a heavier workload after the All-Star break, Dubnyk posted a .919 save percentage in 24 games and, at 6-foot-6, he's got the imposing size of the modern goaltender.
There is always unpredictability with goaltending, particularly with young puck stoppers, and how Dubnyk plays could go a long way towards determining the Oilers' fate. If he stops 92% of the shots he faces, they could make dramatic gains in the standings.
If he stops 90%, the Oilers could be lining up for another first overall pick, so what's most important for the Oilers, long-term, is finding out if Dubnyk is the guy that they can count on to carry this team for 55-60 games.
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||7-18-25, +8, 34 GP
||2-0-2,-1, 33 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||6-10-16,+4, 18 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||14-18-32,+1, 51 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||7-16-23,-1, 62 GP
||11-29-40,-7, 58 GP
||6-21-27,+9, 59 GP
||Oklahoma City (AHL)
||2-8-10,+7, 46 GP
||9-46-55,+41, 60 GP
||42-42-84, +22, 60 GP
Magnus Paajarvi went through a sophomore slump, not scoring a goal in his first 33 games, which resulted in a demotion to the AHL, but all is not lost. Paarjavi is a strong two-way player already, so he can contribute even if he's not scoring. It would be nice if he would score 20-plus goals (he tallied 15 as a rookie), but in the meantime, there should be a role for Paajarvi to fill in Edmonton again next season.
Defenceman Oscar Klefbom has been playing against men in the Swedish Elite League for two seasons and while reports have been favourable on his combination of size and skill, Klefbom has a total of four points in 56 games over the last two seasons, so more seasoning is likely required before he can be an impact player, even for the defence-hungry Oilers.
Linus Omark played sparingly in 14 games for the Oilers, scoring three goals and, after being sent down to the AHL and missing time with a broken ankle, is growing frustrated with Edmonton, it seems. He's skilled enough to play in a scoring role. The question is whether it will be in Edmonton or elsewhere.
Big winger Teemu Hartikainen has compiled 10 points in 29 games with the Oilers over the last couple seasons and he should have a leg up in competition for a job next season. Hartikainen can be a physical presence and that alone can earn him playing time on a checking line.
He's only 20-years-old, so there's no rush to judgment, but Tyler Pitlick may not be a scorer at the next level after managing 23 points as an AHL rookie. Pitlick still has time to develop and earn a scoring role in the minors before he's given a chance in the NHL.
A lanky defender with lots of skill, Marincin has high upside, but plenty of risk if he can't refine his game. A few years in the AHL should tell the tale.
David Musil is a safer prospect who doesn't have the potential of Marincin, but is easier to project into a shutdown role when he is ready for the NHL.
Physical blueliner Colten Teubert got an extended audition with the Oilers, seeing action in 24 games, but his ice time was managed so that he didn't have to face the most difficult opposition. The 22-year-old is closer to the NHL than any other blueline prospects, so he could see time this season, but he could also use another full year of AHL development.
Tall Slovakian defenceman Martin Gernat could be a bargain, taken with a fifth-round pick in last year's draft. He needs to round out his defensive game, but he has time and the skills to make it worth the wait.
German-born Tobias Rieder was a fourth-round pick in 2011 and enjoyed a strong season in the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 84 points in 60 games, then adding 13 goals and 27 points in 16 playoff contests. He has skills to potentially be an offensive contributor with a few years of seasoning.
Goaltender Tyler Bunz, left winger Curtis Hamilton and defencemen Jeremie Blain and Brandon Davidson also add to the Oilers' organizational depth.
1st - Nail Yakupov, trade down.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Oilers have approximately $41.0M committed to the 2012-13 salary cap for 14 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Oilers roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, one or two top pair defencemen.
What I said the Oilers needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defencemen.
They added: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Lennart Petrell, Anton Lander, Darcy Hordichuk, Jeff Petry, Corey Potter, Cam Barker.
TRADE MARKET No. 1 pick, Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, Nikolai Khabibulin.
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.