Like most of the Edmonton Oilers roster going into the 2014-15 season, the forward position was one that underwent many changes this offseason.
Many of those moves started last year when the team parted ways with long time veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky in an effort to move forward with the new era as well as gain some financial flexibility.
With Ryan Smyth also retiring, all links to the old guard are now gone, and also marks the last player to play for the Oilers in 2006 when they went to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Otherwise known as the last time the team enjoyed any playoff success.
Time is Now for Young Core
GM Craig MacTavish has maintained that he does not have any desire to trade away any of the young core of his team and would rather change the pieces around them. That means that Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov are staying put and it is now firmly their team.
Add to that mix 2014 first round pick Leon Draisaitl and the future remains very bright for the Oilers forward group.
The issue has started to become not whether they will be legitimate productive NHLers, but rather when it will translate into team success. Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins have already proven to different degrees that they are on the cusp of stardom with Hall one of the league’s best and most dynamic wingers and Eberle already an all-star.
Yakupov is still learning and Draisaitl has yet to play a game, however that does not limit the pressure and expectations that will be heaped upon them.
Oilers fans are running out of patience and the expectation is for the young core to produce now and more importantly to produce wins.
Hall, RNH and Eberle are expected to make up the team’s top line and while they have enjoyed success to varying degrees, they will need to take the next step and be a force 5 on 5.
Improving the Supporting Cast
The criticism that faced the Oilers forwards last season focused mainly around lack of size and being too easy to push around.
MacTavish certainly looked to address that area and brought in multiple pieces through trade and free agency.
The process actually started last year when he made the deal to acquire David Perron from the St. Louis Blues. Not necessarily the size they needed but Perron plays with the type of grit and fire the team sorely lacked.
This season he went a step further and added bigger bodies Teddy Purcell, Benoit Pouliot and Iiro Pakarinen. All three wingers are in the 6’0” and 200lbs range or bigger. Better yet all three fit into the Oilers mold of an aggressive puck pursuit style of play.
They may not be the flashiest of additions, but top end skill is not what the Oilers needed. They needed size that can contribute in a secondary role, something that at least on paper, this group is well suited for.
Add in the drafting of Draisaitl and the average size of the Oilers forward group has risen considerably from last season.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths are obvious in the sense that the Oilers boast an impressive amount of offensive skill up front. The top half of the lineup could match up with anyone in the league in terms of hands and puck skills.
The group still struggled scoring 5 on 5 last season with much of that due to the lack of size and grit and not enough sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Too often the team relied on offence from the rush and were one and done.
An area that they did not struggle in and will continue to be dangerous is with the man advantage. The Oilers can run out two units of forwards that can rival most other teams and have been near the top of the league in production over the last couple of years.
Last year’s weakness of being too small up front, should be much improved with the offseason additions and there will be a mix of size and skill up and down the lineup.
An area of concern is still the No. 2 centre spot. With Nugent-Hopkins cemented as the top pivot and Boyd Gordon ideally suited for a fourth line role, there are question marks as to the other two spots.
Draisaitl will eventually assume the role next to RNH but many question whether he is ready yet and his play in training camp will go a long way in determining that.
A better spot would be to start him as the No.3 and shelter his ice time as much as possible. That leaves Mark Arcobello and Anton Lander as the candidates to start behind RNH. Arcobello looks to have the edge based on some success he had last season when RNH was injured. Lander will have some incentive to impress as he is running out of chances at the NHL level.
Here’s a potential look at the Oilers depth chart to start the season. Players in italics are AHL and next in line for early season call-up, and green are prospects playing in CHL, NCAA or Europe.
|Taylor Hall||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||Jordan Eberle|
|David Perron||Mark Arcobello||Teddy Purcell|
|Benoit Pouliot||Leon Draisaitl||Nail Yakupov|
|Matt Hendricks||Boyd Gordon||Iiro Pakarinen|
|Jesse Joensuu||Anton Lander||Tyler Pitlick|
|Luke Gazdic||Will Acton||Steve Pinizotto|
|Curtis Hamilton||Andrew Miller||Ryan Hamilton|
|Mitchell Moroz||Bogdan Yakimov||Anton Slepyshev|
|Jujhar Khaira||Greg Chase||Jackson Houck|
|Evan Campbell||Marc-Olivier Roy||
While there is little doubt the Edmonton Oilers forwards have been improved as a group from a year ago, there are many experts who still don’t see the Oilers jumping much higher in one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL.
It will be up to the group itself to come together and prove its doubters wrong.
3 Keys to Success
Big 3 need to produce: If the top trio takes the next step forward and becomes one of the league’s more dangerous units that will put most of the attention on them and allow the secondary pieces to play with more freedom.
Some production from the No.2 spot: Whether it’s Draisaitl, Arcobello, Lander or a new addition, there needs to be some production because after RNH there is little in the way of proven offence at that position on the roster or in the system.
Yakupov needs to rebound: Yet another first overall pick, Nail Yakupov had a dismal season last year. A dynamic player with explosive talent, Yakupov needs to be a threat for the Oilers each night.
“I’m not even thinking about last season,” Yakupov said. “I’m concentrating on this season. I’m hoping to have a good year and I’m doing everything I can in order to do that. We’ll see what it’s going to be like this year. I promise I’ll work hard and play 100 percent. I hope it’s going to be good for me and good for the team. We have to play better than we did last year so we’ll see how it goes.”
At the very least they should be far more competitive and in games on most nights as the group should be bigger and harder to play against.
With the season only weeks away, time will tell soon enough.
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