Every NHL team has fringe players — players who barely hang on to NHL employment and are one bad week, maybe one bad game, away from losing their spot to another player. At any time they could be demoted, traded or waived by their respective NHL clubs. The Edmonton Oilers are no exception and this year, with improved depth throughout the lineup, competition for jobs is fierce. In 2016-17, a few specific Oilers players are playing for more than just wins — they’re playing for jobs.
Versteeg is on a PTO (professional try-out) with the Oilers and by definition, is trying out for a job that isn’t guaranteed. The right-winger is a veteran NHL player with 550 regular season games under his belt, two Stanley Cup Championships and just so happened to score more points last season than all other current Oiler wingers not named Milan Lucic or Jordan Eberle. Technically, he can’t be called a fringe Oiler, but to say his odds of earning employment are good should be understating things.
That doesn’t mean Versteeg won’t have to out-compete a couple of NHL regulars and one highly-touted rookie to earn his spot. Should he do so, he’ll be given a minimal one-year contract. From there, he’ll be watched closely all year for signs of decline and he’ll have players nipping at his toes, just waiting for and opportunity.
What may be of concern is a possible injury. Even with a current clean bill of health, Versteeg was denied full insurance coverage in the Swiss League where he looked to continue his hockey career. As a result, he’s back in the NHL looking to prove he still has what it takes.
Is Versteeg fully healthy? Were his issues with the Swiss League just a matter of paperwork? In a way, that’s what Versteeg’s PTO is meant to determine.
One of the players that Versteeg will be competing against in camp is Nail Yakupov. Perhaps the most discussed Oiler over the past three seasons, Yakupov hasn’t lived up to his billing as the Russian-sniper he was projected to be. Drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2012, Yakupov’s first season saw him play 48 games and score 17 goals and 14 assists for 31 points. It was a good start to a young NHL career.
From there, things have imploded. He has 80 points in 204 games since his rookie year and only 33 goals in that time, which for a “goal scorer” isn’t enough production. He’s been shuffled around by different coaches, played with numerous centers and recently requested a trade through his agent. He just can’t seem to catch fire with the Oilers.
Related: Where to Deploy Nail Yakupov
Keep seeing some bloggers/fans insist that Yakupov MUST play with McDavid. IMO that ship has sailed! Time for Yak to prove it… on his own!
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) September 8, 2016
Debate exists regarding where to fit Yakupov into the lineup. Give him one last shot on the top-line with Connor McDavid, or as Bob Stauffer suggests, make Yakupov earn that opportunity? With NHL expansion to Las Vegas looming and with enough seasons under this belt as proof he should be a more productive player, this may be Yakupov’s last chance to demonstrate to the Oilers that he’s worth hanging on to. If he doesn’t start producing, Edmonton won’t hesitate to dump him at the trade deadline or leave him exposed in the expansion draft.
Yakupov is an RFA at the end of this season and it will be up to him to earn his next contract. Signing Versteeg, drafting Jesse Puljujarvi and competing against a potentially resurgent Zack Kassian, or rookies like Drake Caggiula and fringe players/prospects like Tyler Pitlick and Iiro Pakarinen won’t make it easy for Yakupov.
The “Monster” was signed as a backup goaltender to starter Cam Talbot, but there are some questions about Gustavsson’s status as a second-tier goaltender, mainly due to his 70th-best ranking for 5-on-5 save percentage over the last four years. Many questioned the logic behind the signing, but Chiarelli has some history here and likely gave the edge to Gustavsson over other goalies in a buyer’s market.
The Oilers signed Gustavsson to a one-year deal on July 1st. He is coming off of a less than ideal run in Boston where he played in 24 games and posted a record of 11-9-1. His numbers, a .908 SV% and 2.72 GAA, were acceptable by NHL standards but the second half of his season went in the wrong direction and his health was a real concern.
— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) July 12, 2016
Laurent Brossoit, meanwhile, is moving up the goaltending ranks in Edmonton. In 2014-15, Brossoit took over the Oilers’ AHL team’s starting job and went 25-22-4 in 53 games. His steady rise has given Oilers management a reason to feel confident.
Talbot is now Edmonton’s bonafide starter, but Brossoit was the main-man in Bakersfield last season, playing in 31 games for the club and going 18-9-3 with a .920 SV%. He was one of the better goalies in the AHL and he may be ready compete with Gustavsson in 2016-17. Gustavsson can’t falter, because if he does Brossoit will scoop up the backup job in a heartbeat.
A former Edmonton Oil King, Reinhart was drafted fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 2012. In one of the stranger draft stories in recent memory, rumours were that the Islanders hadn’t even talked to Reinhart prior to the draft that year, but for some reason chose to draft him as a top-five selection.
It’s not to say that the shut-down defender wasn’t ranked highly in the draft because he was. That said, Reinhart has yet to establish himself in the NHL and when you consider that he was drafted ahead of players like Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Jacob Trouba and Matthew Dumba, he’s got a lot to prove to a lot of people. Doing so in Edmonton this year may not be easy.
If being drafted high but not yet providing value to your NHL team wasn’t pressure enough, on June 26, 2015, Reinhart was traded by the Islanders to the Oilers in exchange for a first and second round pick. It was a steep price to pay and means that Reinhart has even more to prove.
Reinhart is still on the Oilers’ radar and I believe the team has high expectations for his success, but the competition has increased. For starters, there’s Darnell Nurse and the growth of Brandon Davidson as well as later draft selections like Caleb Jones, Jordan Oesterle and Ethan Bear who are making noise, while Matthew Benning was signed as a college free agent. The Oilers also added top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson, which means spots are disappearing.
Reinhart needs two things to earn a permanent spot on the Oilers’ blue line: One is opportunity and the other is the ability to seize that opportunity. As a large, smooth skating and skilled defenceman, the one thing his NHL career has lacked is a real shot to show his stuff. Should he get a chance this year, it could be his make or break season.
If there is one thing saving Fayne’s job in 2016-17, it’s that he’s a right-handed defender on a team that doesn’t have many right-handed defenders. If it weren’t for that, Fayne might already be gone. His play last season got him waived by the Oilers and demoted to the AHL. It was during Fayne’s demotion Edmonton hoped he could regain some confidence, find his game and come back stronger than ever.
Have heard Mark Fayne is coming to #Oilers camp in the best shape of his career. A return to “form” would be significant.
— Kurt Leavins (@KurtLeavins) September 4, 2016
In 2014, Fayne came from New Jersey as a statistics dream. With the Devils, Fayne shined while partnered with Andy Greene, and the two got the toughest zone starts while facing the toughest competition. Fayne was never going to produce a lot offensively, but he was expected to be a major defensive piece that the Oilers badly needed. It didn’t work out that way and the Oilers have stayed among the NHL’s worst in goals-against statistics.
If Fayne can’t rebound this season, he won’t get another opportunity. He isn’t old, but he’s being passed by and it will only be a matter of when, not if, the Oilers find another right-handed defenseman to play the minutes being gifted Fayne’s way.
Edmonton Oilers centre Anton Lander will be an interesting player to watch this season. As he tries to rebound from a poor 2015-16 season, Lander may be looking at his final chance to prove himself as an NHL regular. As it stands now, he isn’t locked in to start with the Oilers, and he may be competing with additional PTO invites like Mike Richards.
The beginning of the end for Lander seemed to coincide with the exit of former Oilers coach Todd Nelson. Nelson was replaced with the more experienced Todd McLellan, and while many Oiler players improved their production under their new coach, Lander took a massive step backwards. In 61 games, Lander scored a lone goal, two assists and would spend a lot of time in the press box as a healthy scratch.
Lander is a leader and a good teammate but he’s running out of chances. His strong faceoff numbers may keep him part of the Oilers through the 2016-17 season, but if those numbers dip and his production flat-lines, his employment with the Oilers could see a quick end.
Related: Lander’s Last Year With the Oilers?
Other Fringe Notables
- Iiro Pakarinen
- Tyler Pitlick
- Matt Hendricks
- David Musil
- Mark Fraser
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”