Can Oilers Solve Depth Issues in Free Agency?

The book is out on the Edmonton Oilers’ offensive depth problem. After Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the production drops drastically. At this point in the season, McDavid and Draisaitl have scored 35 out of the team’s 86 goals. That’s 40% of the team’s goals. That’s not healthy. That’s a dependency.

Related: Jesse Puljujarvi and Ken Holland’s Next 24 Hours

Ideally, a team has young players on the third and fourth lines that develop and eventually fight for a top-six role on the team. This has not been the case this year, or in recent years. The Oilers have not had consistent top-six forwards. Outside of McDavid and Draisaitl, we’ve seen Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian, and James Neal consistently. That other wing spot has been a carousel of trial and error with the rest of the team.

So where does a general manager go when the bottom six can’t produce a top six? Yes, trading is an option, but when you trade you have to give something to get something. The other option? Check out free agency! So let’s go explore the free-agent pool. See if any of these guys have anything left in the tank.

Thomas Vanek

Age: 35
Position: Left Wing
Career games: 1,029

In his prime, Thomas Vanek was one of the most feared snipers in the league. In 2006-07 (yes, it was a while ago) he posted 43 goals, 41 assists and a plus-47! Of course, you can’t expect him to repeat that production at 35. But last season with the Detroit Red Wings he put up 16 goals in 64 games. That is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, only four current Oilers are on pace for 16 goals, the two outliers (you know who they are are) already hit that mark by game 24.

Red Wings left wing Thomas Vanek
Former Red Wings left wing Thomas Vanek (Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)

Are these numbers good enough that the Oilers should give Vanek a look? I say yes. His numbers were solid last year on a weak Red Wings team. My only concern is he’s not much of a two-way player, which is something the Oilers’ second line does not need to replicate (Looking at you, James Neal).

Jason Pominville

Age: 37
Position: Right Wing
Career games: 1,060

It’s interesting how similarly Jason Pominville and Vanek’s careers overlap. They both started and spent the majority of their career with the Buffalo Sabres and later ended up with the Minnesota Wild, where they both had their second-longest stints. The big difference between these two players, is Pominville plays hard on both ends of the ice.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
Jason Pominville (Andy Martin Jr)

Pominville is probably a better fit than Vanek. Like I said earlier, Edmonton is in need of a second liner that is going to play two-way hockey. Vanek would be the more exciting player to pick up, but Pominville provides more intangibles. That gives Edmonton a shot at the Stanley Cup, so in the long run Pominville is actually the more exciting choice.

Related: Edmonton Oilers: Sam Gagner’s Variety of Roles

However, at 37, you have to wonder if Pominville would be more of a bottom-six forward. Also, it sounds like these two players are content with just hanging up their skates at this point (from ‘Still open to NHL opportunities, both Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are happy just being hockey dads right now,’ The Athletic, 11/2/2019)

Drew Stafford

Age: 34
Position: RW
Career Games: 841

I promise when I picked out these three players, I wasn’t looking at Sabres rosters from 6-13 years ago and building a theme out of it. That’s just how this list has worked out. Yes, Drew Stafford also cut his teeth with the Sabres.

Drew Stafford Devils
Former New Jersey Devils right wing Drew Stafford (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

I like Stafford, he’s an all-around hard worker, and overall he is a good third liner. Do I think he’s worth a pickup to give the Oilers a boost? Nah. The only upper hand Stafford has on Vanek and Pominville is he is younger and hypothetically has more tread on the tires. It’s also worth noting, that Stafford was released from a PTO at the start of the season.

I hate to say it, but there is probably a good reason that these guys are still free agents. But for sure, free agency is easier than having to give something in a trade. The ideal of course, is that the young guys/free agents that general manager Ken Holland already picked up would step up and start producing. But I’m writing this piece because those guys have NOT done that.

There is no perfect solution to the Oilers’ depth woes. But as far as I’m concerned, it would be a lot of fun to see one of these guys get one more shot at a team that could make a legitimate run. Pominville is the practical choice, Vanek is the exciting choice, and Stafford is my no-thank-you choice.

A lot of teams tend to wait until around the trade deadline to bolster their team, but why wait? The McDavid and Draisaitl dependency can’t last forever. The sooner Holland acts, the sooner head coach Dave Tippett can figure out chemistry. Does that mean the Oilers are ready for a Cup run? Not necessarily. But it might be their best chance.