There was a time that the Edmonton Oilers couldn’t find a top centre. Back in the early 2000s, it was fourth-round draft pick Shawn Horcoff who sat atop the depth chart. While the team made a Cinderella run at a Cup championship in 2006 with Horcoff playing a significant role, he might not have been the second-best centre on a number of other teams that year. Today things are very different. When looking at the Oilers’ depth chart, not only is centre an area of strength, it just might be the best in the league.
Oilers’ Top Centres are Elite
Let’s start at the top with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid is the league’s best player, barely missing a beat last season despite a devastating knee injury from which he was forced to rehab all of the 2019 offseason. He will continue to provide highlight-reel plays from Game 1 of the 2020-21 season and drive the team’s offence regardless of his linemates.
Next, we have the reigning Hart Memorial, Ted Lindsay and Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl. The big German has steadily improved over his career, surely making the Buffalo Sabres regret passing him over for Sam Reinhart in his draft year. We should expect to see him with linemates Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto on a dynamite second line. The question existed earlier in Draisaitl’s career if he could drive his own line or was better suited to McDavid’s wing. With his play last spring, he has certainly answered that question.
Veteran Centres Will Give Tippett Numerous Options
Next up is a new addition to the Oilers’ roster. Kyle Turris was signed to a team-friendly contract (two years, $1.65 million per season) this fall. The signing pushes other players down the roster, and more or less ensures that Nugent-Hopkins will play most of the season on the wing. Turris brings an offensive touch that has been missing from the team’s bottom six in the past few years, and so long as his defensive game holds up, he should make the matchup game difficult for opposing coaches.
Nugent-Hopkins is arguably the third-best centre in Edmonton but, as we noted above, he is most likely going to be used on Draisaitl’s left side to give him the offensive minutes he deserves. However, should Turris go through a tough period defensively, we can expect to see Nugent-Hopkins slide into the 3C spot as a stabilizing force with Turris moving up to the wing where any missteps on the backcheck are less likely to directly result in goals against. Nugent-Hopkins will probably see significant penalty-killing time as well this season.
The four players mentioned above give the Oilers a centre group unmatched by any but the most elite teams in the league. Head coach Dave Tippett will no doubt mix and match as the season progresses, and he’ll have the luxury of being relatively certain that any arrangement should produce multiple goal-scoring lines. Beneath these players, fighting for special teams and fourth-line time, are a number of players that may bounce between the NHL club and the minor league Bakersfield Condors.
Depth Players to Battle for Fourth-Line Centre Spot
Gaetan Haas showed glimpses of speed and playmaking ability in his first season with the Oilers. The 28-year-old from Switzerland collected five goals and 10 points in 58 appearances last season with a plus/minus of minus-1. That projects to seven goals over an 82-game season, which is decent production for a fourth-line player.
Any Oiler who isn’t on the top two lines just needs to ensure their own line doesn’t lose the scoring battle, and McDavid and Draisaitl have a good shot at winning. Haas doesn’t bring a massive physical element to the game, but pairing him with a big winger like Jujhar Khaira should create a good mix of skill and grit.
Haas spent part of last season in the minors, and is likely to do so again if he struggles. There are a number of players who might replace him if they get an opportunity, including newly signed Alan Quine, formerly of the Calgary Flames and New York Islanders. Fun fact: Quine has the dubious honor of being drafted twice, first in the third round by the Detroit Red Wings in 2011, and then again two years and three rounds later by the Islanders. A bubble player with the Flames last season, Quine will likely fill a similar role in Edmonton/Bakersfield.
Senior Bakersfield alumni Cooper Marody and Joseph Gambardella will also fight for the bottom centre slot on the pro club. Gambardella, with slightly better pro stats and an ability to move to the left wing, may have an edge on his teammate. Both players will need to take a step forward this season or they risk being pushed aside by younger prospects coming into the system.
One such player is Raphael Lavoie. Drafted in the second round in 2019, the Chambly, Quebec-product showed well in a limited role at last year’s World Junior Championship and is producing in his current assignment, a player loan to Vasby IK of the Swedish 1st Division. At minus-12 despite putting up 10 points in 16 games, the young centre may require more minor league time to hone his game. He has great upside and Oilers general manager Ken Holland is generally patient with player development, so while we may not see Lavoie in an Oiler uniform next season, we can be sure he’ll be handled properly.
Kahun Adds an Unexpected Option at Centre
Another new addition to the Oilers lineup with the ability to play centre is former Buffalo Sabre, Pittsburgh Penguin and Chicago Blackhawk Dominik Kahun. Already a journeyman at 25 years of age, the Czech native will likely be a top-six winger in Edmonton, having produced well with each of his other teams. His history with Draisaitl is well-documented, but he is yet another option for Tippett at centre.
Lastly, likely in minor league roles for the entire 2020-21 season are Ryan McLeod and newcomer Seth Griffith. McLeod’s AHL numbers are middling at best, and barring a leap forward, he appears to be a career minor leaguer. Griffith is 27, his most recent NHL appearance being with the Sabres in 2017-18, and appears to be a depth signing for the Condors rather than a potential NHL centre.
Dave Tippett struggled to adjust his lineup at times last season, something that was especially evident in the Oilers’ short playoff series versus the Blackhawks. His general manager has done a great job this offseason of giving him multiple, more talented options both on the centre and the wing. Edmonton fans can expect their team to spread scoring throughout the lineup and compete for the top spot in the expected All-Canadian division and a big reason for that will be their deep centre pool.