Ken Holland needs to find the Oilers some new forwards before fall.
Scorers, grinders — you name it, he needs it.
Edmonton has a long list of needs — starting with another new head coach — but overhauling the forward group ranks right up there on Holland’s to-do list. Acquiring wingers that can put the puck in the net will be one of his top priorities this summer.
There are only three roster locks up front for the Oilers — the go-to guys that everybody knows: captain Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
There are no guarantees among the other incumbents, meaning there could be as many as nine new forwards in Edmonton’s opening-night lineup.
That kind of turnover in a single offseason is nearly impossible, especially with the Oilers’ salary-cap constraints, but Holland will be a busy man and it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least six new faces as the new GM works to put his stamp on the roster sooner than later with the goal of competing for a playoff spot in 2019-20.
The current group — the incumbents — won’t get Edmonton into that mix. Their efforts fell well short, with the Oilers finishing 11 points back of a wild-card berth in 2018-19.
So there needs to be improvement and it can’t all come from within. Not when the Big Three — McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins — are coming off career years offensively despite a glaring lack of support.
Barring injuries, there shouldn’t be much (if any) regression from the Big Three, but their supporting cast has to pick up the slack. That cast will largely be new additions to the organization through trades and free agency.
Set the over/under at five newcomers — five new forwards — and it’s still tempting to take the over. The Oilers will likely roster 13 forwards and eight defencemen among skaters, rather than 14 and seven. Still, only three of those 13 are locked in as of today, and it’s safe to assume at least half of the other 10 will be different from where Edmonton left off in another losing season.
Reviewing the Incumbents
Half of the incumbents will be swapped out as part of sweeping changes. That list includes Alex Chiasson, Milan Lucic, Sam Gagner, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, Kyle Brodziak, Colby Cave, Tobias Rieder, Ty Rattie and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Chiasson is a pending unrestricted free agent that Holland may or may not want to extend ahead of July 1.
Rieder and Rattie are restricted free agents but aren’t expected to receive qualifying offers, while Khaira is more likely to be retained as an RFA.
Puljujarvi, who is recovering from surgery on both of his hips, also needs a new contract and is no longer waiver eligible to develop in the AHL, which adds an element of uncertainty to his future.
The rest — Lucic, Gagner, Kassian, Brodziak and Cave — are signed through next season but could be traded or bought out this summer. None of those five are safe.
Lucic will be tough to move because of his contract, though all options will be explored.
Kassian has the most trade value of that group but could be a keeper after a good second half saw him finish with 15 goals — fifth among Edmonton forwards behind Draisaitl (50), McDavid (41), Nugent-Hopkins (28) and Chiasson (22).
Cave is cheap and thus a solid bet to return, even if he’s not yet a solid NHLer.
Gagner is overpaid but glad to be in Edmonton again and perhaps part of the culture going forward.
Brodziak was among the many disappointments, making him a buyout candidate, but he could bounce back in a fourth-line role and Holland tends to give veterans the benefit of the doubt.
Recalling the Farmhands
There won’t be much immediate help coming from the farm or the forward prospect pool.
Holland believes in over-ripening, so expect Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson and Cooper Marody to continue to form the top line in Bakersfield — at least to start next season.
Ryan McLeod will surely get more seasoning in California too, along with wingers Kirill Maksimov and Ostap Safin, who could be part of Edmonton’s future in the years to come but not next year.
Joe Gambardella, who will turn 26 in December, and Josh Currie, who will be 27 in October, are certainly old enough to make the jump from Bakersfield to Edmonton on a full-time basis but the jury remains out on whether they are good enough. That will be up to the new coach to decide during training camp, but Holland will be providing him with other options too.
And don’t expect whoever the Oilers select at eighth overall in next month’s draft to stick on the NHL roster — assuming Edmonton keeps that pick and takes a forward.
Holland’s Reign Starts Now
Reality is, Holland is going to want to make this “his” team as soon as possible.
He’s going to have “his” plan and he’s going to execute it in a timely fashion.
Not force things, or rush them, but attempt to expedite the process of returning Edmonton to respectability while not ruining any more of McDavid’s prime years.
This isn’t another rebuild. The Oilers are approaching this offseason with a win-now mentality.
The fan base doesn’t believe in the status quo, not after missing the playoffs for the 12th time in the last 13 years, so real change needs to take place between now and October in order to generate some sort of optimism in the former City of Champions.
Holland has full autonomy to oversee that shakeup, which should include at least a handful of new forwards for 2019-20.
Moving Forward With New Forwards
Fortunately for Edmonton, there is no shortage of available forwards for Holland to pursue — both through trades and free agency, including several that he already has familiarity with from his Detroit days.
Familiarity is key when it comes to changing a losing culture and the new coach will have some names in mind from that perspective too — in terms of potential offseason targets.
The Oilers won’t be reeling in any of the big fish from free agency. They can’t afford to. Not unless Holland could miraculously offload Lucic between now and July 1 without taking back another substantial contract. That won’t be happening, not with Lucic owed another big bonus on Canada Day.
So scratch off the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Anders Lee and Joe Pavelski seem just as unlikely. Jeff Skinner is another pipedream.
Realistically, there is a group of about 30 to 40 free-agent forwards that could become a fit for Edmonton.
The trade market offers more than twice that many options for Holland to kick tires on heading into a summer of wheeling and dealing.
Scouring the league from top to bottom, from north to south, there are at least 125 forwards of potential interest to Edmonton.
So, theoretically, Holland should be able to land at least five of them for the Oilers.
It’s a big list, but let’s break it down into categories and highlight some of the better fits.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Top-Six Wingers (9)
ANALYSIS: The top three have history with either the Oilers or Holland or both. The next two could be quality pieces to the puzzle if the price is right. The latter four are worth an inquiry, even if it doesn’t go anywhere.
Eberle has deep roots in Alberta and close friendships on the roster. But would his return represent real change or more of the same old?
Nyquist developed in Detroit and has had shining moments during San Jose’s playoff run. A complementary player more so than a driver, he knows all about Holland’s culture.
Vanek spent some time in Alberta during his formative years and nearly became an Oiler in his prime when Buffalo matched Edmonton’s offer sheet in 2007. Holland is seemingly a fan of the veteran version, twice signing Vanek in recent years with decent results for Detroit.
Connolly comes from the winning cultures of Washington and Tampa Bay, with a Stanley Cup ring to show for his efforts in 2018. He grew up in Prince George, so the Edmonton winters wouldn’t scare him off. Connolly would bring size and scoring ability.
Dzingel broke out in Ottawa before cooling off in Columbus. He should be good for 20 to 30 goals for at least a couple more seasons, but would the interest be mutual between Dzingel and Edmonton? He’ll get to pick his landing spot but should be listening to any and all offers.
Simmonds and Ferland become more intriguing if Edmonton manages to move on from Lucic, but the Oilers wouldn’t want to make the same mistake twice. At the right price — less than $5 million per season and less than five seasons — either of those two could make a lot of sense.
Middle-Six Wingers (10)
ANALYSIS: These should be more affordable options, divided into tiers as the top four, the middle four and the bottom two.
Chiasson is the incumbent seeking a significant raise and more term, which he earned with a career year. But can he reach those totals, particularly the 22 goals, again? Or is he more likely to trend down going forward?
Maroon couldn’t be happier in St. Louis, but he was always happy in Edmonton too — and maybe even more so if Lucic is gone. Maroon had a mediocre season but has made his presence felt for the Blues in the playoffs. The familiarity factor is working in favour of those two, Chiasson and Maroon.
Wilson impressed for Colorado in the playoffs, even working his way onto the top power-play unit. Wilson may have more upside than Chiasson, but do the Oilers go with who they know? Could there be room for both?
Hagelin has speed to burn, one of the few forwards in the league capable of keeping up with McDavid should he get that opportunity. Hagelin would definitely improve Edmonton’s penalty kill as an upgrade on Rieder. Hagelin also has plenty of playoff experience from winning environments.
Donskoi has been decent in San Jose and seems to step it up in the playoffs.
Panik is a streaky scorer who possesses some of the tools that Edmonton is lacking.
Pirri can score too but hasn’t been able to sustain a steady gig.
Tanev has been serviceable down the depth chart for Winnipeg but has limited upside.
Ennis is a local boy, from Edmonton, with above-average offensive instincts but injuries have hindered his career and he’ll be turning 30 at the start of the season in October.
Pominville, turning 37 in November, might be washed up but could plug a hole on the third line as a veteran presence and more established short-term solution.
Fringe Forwards (15)
ANALYSIS: These are intriguing names to possibly round out the bottom of the roster on league minimum contracts, which the Oilers will need a couple of. This group, for the most part, could also be available to audition on professional tryouts (PTOs).
Their signings wouldn’t move the needle a great deal and they probably wouldn’t be significant upgrades on the current depth forwards, but the top five warrant serious consideration and the next four have legitimate upside. The latter seven are likely AHL fodder with call-up potential.
Paajarvi got his start in Edmonton, breaking into the league as a highly touted first-round pick before transitioning into more of a checker in St. Louis and Ottawa. He was gaining momentum with the Senators thanks to more opportunity following the trade deadline and should have at least a few NHL suitors for next season.
Smith-Pelly played a key role in Washington’s championship run in 2018 but wound up back in the AHL last season to much surprise. He has the tools to be an NHLer and somebody will give him another chance.
Brodzinski flew a little under the radar in L.A., possessing good speed and puck skills. He could emerge as a player with a change of scenery. As checking lines evolve into secondary scoring lines — and teams try to roll four scoring lines — Brodzinski types will become more valuable.
Carr, an Edmonton product who enjoyed some big-league success in Montreal before getting buried by Vegas, dominated at the AHL level this season. Had he signed with the Oilers last summer, there’s a good chance that Carr would have carved out a regular role by season’s end.
Agostino is another AHL stud who hasn’t been able to stick in the NHL. Could it finally click for him in Edmonton? Agostino will get another spin somewhere.
Roy, Barber, Kempe and Kossila are also deserving of an extended look at the NHL level next season. Any or all of them could make the most of that opportunity. They are high-skill players that aren’t far off from being big-leaguers. Every year a few of these types catch on and go on to shine for their new clubs.
From the bottom seven, Holland would have some familiarity with Megan, who spent this past season in Detroit’s system. Megan and Froese can be labelled minor-league journeyman at this point in their careers.
Carey has scored in the AHL and hasn’t really got his shot yet, with skating and footspeed apparently holding him back.
Macek made an impressive return to North America as Carr’s linemate with AHL Chicago, which could pique the interest of other teams.
Goulbourne and Lipon are energizers who could add a physical element in Bakersfield and provide a jolt when need be in Edmonton.
Third-Line Centres (6)
ANALYSIS: Assuming Edmonton’s new coach plans to utilize either Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins as McDavid’s main wingman, following the script of his predecessors, then the Oilers will also be in the market for a reliable third-line centre this summer.
Kevin Hayes and Brock Nelson would be topping this list, but they are going to get paid and thus price themselves out of Edmonton’s range.
Brassard played more wing than centre in bouncing around from Pittsburgh to Florida to Colorado. He might be too similar to Gagner in terms of skill-set, but the Oilers could do worse.
Spezza has lost a step overall, but he’s still one of the league’s best in the faceoff circle, which has long been a weakness for the Oilers. Spezza could also serve as something of a power-play specialist. If he’d consider Edmonton, the Oilers should consider him.
Filppula quietly had a productive season for the Islanders and he goes way back with Holland to Detroit’s last championship as part of a seven-year run with the Red Wings. Filppula’s playoff experience would be welcomed in Edmonton.
Sheahan underachieved in Detroit, so Holland may or may not want to bring him to Edmonton. However, in that third-line centre role, Sheahan could thrive and is still an upgrade on the internal options like Khaira, Brodziak and Cave. Sheahan would also prevent the Oilers from rushing Marody or McLeod.
Kruger and Bellemare are better suited for fourth-line duty. Neither brings much offence and it’s debatable how much better they are than Brodziak if he rebounds to his form from St. Louis.
Big Tickets (14)
ANALYSIS: Most of these names have been rumoured to Edmonton in recent years or months. Most wouldn’t come cheap and their contracts aren’t cheap either. They would require some salary shedding, shuttling or shuffling by Holland, but if there’s a will, perhaps there’s a way.
Hall has yet to commit to New Jersey, and until he does, there will be a contingent of Oilers fans holding out hope for his return. If Holland could find a way to right Peter Chiarelli’s biggest wrong, he’d be heralded from the get-go.
Kessel is still one of the league’s premier snipers and he’d be lethal finishing off feeds from McDavid and/or Draisaitl. He’s locked up longer than Hall and cheaper beyond next season, but it would be a challenge to fit either of them into Edmonton’s cap situation.
Hoffman is another proven scorer who many would like to see flanking McDavid. His character has come into question, but if Bob Boughner is joining Edmonton’s coaching staff, he’d have the book on Hoffman from their time together in Florida.
Kreider and Toffoli are quite similar in their playing styles, both shoot-first wingers with noses for the net. Traits that Edmonton is sorely lacking.
Ehlers and Drouin are more flash and dash, more razzle and dazzle. They’d look good next to McDavid or Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins, but the key would be converting those looks into legit production.
The next four — Johnson, Little, Turris and Kadri — are centres that could be on the move this summer.
Little is from Edmonton, which makes him enticing, and he’s a well-rounded pivot.
Johnson is undersized but has been a big-time playoff performer for Tampa Bay in years past.
Turris has struggled in Nashville for whatever reason but could enjoy a resurgence in a lesser role for Edmonton.
Kadri has been a thorn in McDavid’s side, but he’s the kind of player you hate to play against but love to have on your team — except when he crosses the line in the playoffs.
They are all expensive as third-liners — too expensive for the Oilers, with their current roster makeup — but if Edmonton was ever to move Nugent-Hopkins to address another need, those four could be targeted as replacements. That would be quite the shakeup, indeed.
The latter three — Zucker, Hornqvist and Steen — haven’t really been connected to Edmonton but are presumed available. Zucker almost moved to Calgary at the trade deadline, so he could be Alberta bound one way or the other this offseason. They can all score in supporting roles and wouldn’t cost as much in terms of the return.
Pricier Vets (13)
ANALYSIS: Again, many of these names have been linked to Edmonton over the years and as of late. Some of them have come up in the speculation surrounding Lucic, as potential returns or part of that package. Others could be fetched with Andrej Sekera or Kris Russell should the Oilers opt to deal a defenceman in exchange for a forward of similar salary.
Zajac, Sutter, Pageau and Eakin — Hanzal too, if healthy — could slot in nicely as Edmonton’s new third-line centre. Perreault and Wennberg could also be suitors for that role, perhaps providing more offence but less physicality. All seven of them are quite responsible defensively, which certainly carries importance for Edmonton.
The Smiths — Craig and Zack, no relation — wouldn’t be sexy additions, but they are consummate pros who could complement the Oilers’ elite skill in middle-six roles. They would be low maintenance, which also carries importance for that changing culture.
Haula and Boedker are bounce-back candidates for next season. Haula was hurt for much of this campaign and Boedker was snakebitten to some degree. If Holland is shopping for buy-low types, those two could be on his list.
Ryan and Eriksson would only be arriving in Edmonton if Lucic was heading in the opposite direction. Still, the Oilers would have to debate the merits of such swaps. Ryan is even more expensive ($7.25 to Lucic’s $6-million cap hit), though his contract does expire a year earlier (three seasons left to Lucic’s four). Eriksson has the same cap hit as Lucic but also has less term (three seasons left).
Ryan would hopefully bring more offence and be a better fit alongside one of Edmonton’s Big Three. Eriksson is a better skater and penalty-killer than Lucic, if nothing else.
All three have no-move clauses in their contracts, which could make this chatter a moot point — though Lucic recently expressed a passing interest in playing for his hometown Canucks. But would Edmonton want Lucic in Vancouver, at risk of him taking runs at McDavid in that rivalry? Or has it reached a boiling point where the mentality becomes anything to get rid of Lucic? Time will tell on that front.
Top-Six Potential (20)
ANALYSIS: This is the largest grouping and arguably the most likely to be pursued by Holland during his first summer in charge. It’s tough to say what the returns would be — what Edmonton would have to give up to get them — but each of these 20 players could be of interest to the Oilers. Could be and should be.
Without going into great detail on all of them, Fabbri and Fischer stand out as potential buy-low options who fell out of favour with their current teams and could really benefit from a change of scenery. They were both healthy scratches at important times this season, with Fabbri giving way to Sammy Blais during the playoffs for St. Louis and Fischer sitting out down the stretch as Arizona pushed for a wild-card berth.
Burakovsky and Brown were both junior teammates of McDavid with OHL Erie. They could presumably put up better numbers in Edmonton than Washington and Toronto, respectively, with the likelihood of playing higher in the lineup.
Toronto’s focus is on getting Mitch Marner locked up — and rightfully so — but keeping both Johnsson and Kapanen could prove difficult as the cap tightens on the Leafs. The Oilers could be lurking as a trade partner should one of them be sacrificed out of financial necessity.
Duclair’s best season to date was his first full season and that came under Dave Tippett in Arizona. If Tippett takes the coaching reins in Edmonton, don’t rule out Duclair based on that familiarity.
There are eight more wingers on this list — Baertschi, Beauvillier, Bjorkstrand, Heinen, Janmark, Lehkonen, Namestnikov and Vesey in alphabetical order — but they don’t have the same kind of ties to Edmonton or the same level of availability. Namestnikov’s name has been out there and none of them are untouchable this summer, but they would be longer shots.
There are also five younger centres — Dvorak, Kempe, Roslovic, Sissons and Zacha — that could fit the bill for Edmonton’s third line for the long haul. They all have nice upside, so Holland would have to work some magic to pry them away from their current teams without parting with one of the Oilers’ core pieces.
Middle-Six Forwards (14)
Joel Eriksson Ek
ANALYSIS: There are some more third-line centre candidates in this grouping, along with some more rugged wingers.
Jarnkrok’s contract should be very attractive to Edmonton and he was drafted by Holland in Detroit.
Cogliano got his start in Edmonton and he’s still got his speed and durability, even if his scoring ability seems to be deteriorating.
Laughton and Copp would also be good gets to plug the 3C hole.
Wood, Hartman, Armia, Foligno and Ritchie would all add size on the wings, with varying degrees of physicality. They can all score a bit too, which is a much-needed bonus for Edmonton.
Eriksson Ek has the most upside of this group and it’s been reported that the Oilers intended to pick him with their second first-rounder in 2015 prior to packaging that selection in the failed acquisition of Griffin Reinhart. Some of those scouts who preferred Eriksson Ek to Matt Barzal, Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser and others in that draft range are still employed by Edmonton.
Fast, Granlund and Nosek are serviceable depth forwards, while Nichushkin remains something of an enigma after a strange season in his return from the KHL — failing to score a goal or take a penalty over 57 games.
Intriguing Projects (15)
Jacob De La Rose
ANALYSIS: There is some more familiarity for Holland and for Edmonton among this grouping of forwards who haven’t quite found their footing as full-time NHLers.
For Holland, he’s very familiar with Frk from Detroit and his heavy shot could be an asset to the Oilers’ power play. Frk could take the next step in Edmonton, towards becoming a threat at even strength if he can get a step quicker over the summer.
De La Rose would also be coming from Detroit and, like Frk, there may no longer be room for him on the Red Wings’ roster as Steve Yzerman starts his retooling process there.
Pitlick was an Edmonton draft pick who blossomed a bit in Dallas, and he’d be a legit player by now if not for injuries. He’s got the size, speed and shooting ability to be effective providing he’s healthy next season.
Among the rest, these six stand out as having the most upside — Hudon, Malgin, Barbashev, Erne, Girgensons and Jaskin, though not necessarily in that order. Barbashev may be playing his way into St. Louis’ longer-term plans during these playoffs, but the others could likely be had for a third-round pick or a B-level prospect.
The Oilers need that kind of depth due to a lack of development from within their forward prospect pool in recent years, so that price is worth the possible reward for Holland.
The bottom six from this list — Andrighetto, Crouse, Leipsic, Sanford, Stephenson and Dano — aren’t as appealing and should be considered fallback options if all else fails.
NHL-Ready Prospects (22)
Michael Dal Colle
Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson
ANALYSIS: Turns out, this grouping grew to be the biggest and perhaps the best — rivalling that top-six potential list. This group is, by and large, further away from making a significant impact and couldn’t be counted on to step into key roles from the outset next season.
That isn’t to say these prospects couldn’t grow into impact players as the season progressed. Many of them do meet Holland’s criteria for over-ripening in the minors.
Svechnikov is the most familiar to Holland as Detroit’s first-round pick from 2015. He missed this entire season to injury but should be healthy for training camp in the fall. Svechnikov will turn 23 in October and already has two full AHL campaigns under his belt, though it may take him a while to get up to speed again after that lost season.
Tolvanen and Nylander are topping this list for their offensive potential, but Nashville and Buffalo might listen to offers on them. Their development in the AHL has left a bit to be desired for those organizations.
The Oilers would be wise to target a few forward prospects that are closer to contributing, but Edmonton’s eighth overall pick probably wouldn’t be on the table in a 1-for-1 swap for anybody on this list, including Tolvanen and Nylander.
Milano and Ho-Sang are very close to being NHL regulars and could definitely push for opening-night roles with Edmonton. Ditto for Dal Colle, Hawryluk and many others on this list.
The majority of these prospects, aside from Tolvanen and Nylander, are perceived to have similar trade value and Edmonton could explore swapping a defence prospect like Ethan Bear or William Lagesson for any of those other forwards. A third-round pick would also do the trick for many of them, while some may command a second-rounder.
Long Shots (15)
Phil Di Giuseppe
ANALYSIS: Last and least, this grouping is mostly comprised of older prospects bordering on busts. Their trade value is minimal in the present, so Edmonton wouldn’t have to give up much to take any of them for a test run next season.
Scherbak and Goldobin are both expected to bolt for the KHL, though that hasn’t been confirmed by Los Angeles and Vancouver to date. Those players want guaranteed roles to stay in the NHL but haven’t necessarily earned that right yet.
The rest are waiver-wire fodder that can likely be had for free, assuming they don’t make the cut out of training camp. Several of them may not receive qualifying offers and thus become unrestricted free agents ahead of July 1.
Long story short, Edmonton will have a lengthy list of options this offseason and Holland should be getting to work soon on targeting a number of new forwards for the Oilers.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.