The summer of 2016 for the Edmonton Oilers has been an interesting one. Since the draft, the Oilers have gone about reshaping their franchise with roster-altering moves like the trade of Taylor Hall to New Jersey, the drafting of NHL ready Jesse Puljujarvi and the signing free agent Milan Lucic. These moves have taken what is traditionally a time of year with little to talk about and made it a summer of discussion, debate and emotion. A smaller move with much less notoriety, but perhaps over time no less important, was the early pre-summer signing of collegiate star Drake Caggiula.
A forward out of the University of North Dakota, Caggiula was given a two-year, entry-level contract with the Oilers in May. The undrafted forward played four years (2012-2016) with the Fighting Hawks, registering 62 goals and 127 points in 162 career NCAA games. He led North Dakota to the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four title where he was voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Fellow Hockey Writers contributor Brett Slawson has a great piece chronicling the back-story of Caggiula before his arrival with the Oilers, but a Cole’s Notes retelling will emphasize Caggiula as everything Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli described he wants in his players. Despite a lack of size, Caggiula plays a big game, is heavy on the play and is simply not fun to go up against because he’ll hit you and then burn you with his elite level skill.
Why the Oilers Like Him
The Oilers weren’t the only team keen on Caggiula. A lineup of teams bid to sign the free agent, but the forward felt Edmonton made for a perfect fit. The Oilers want Caggiula’s speed and skill to play either the wing or center position. They hope to take advantage of his ability to blaze past his opponents and create scoring chances for himself and his teammates, all while demonstrating the relentless style he became synonymous with in college. Unlike a player whose primary focus is to run around the ice and disturb the peace, Caggiula uses his skill to burn an opponent once he’s taken them off their game.
Bob Mackenzie said of Caggiula, “In spite of his size – barely 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds – Caggiula plays a hard game, looks for big hits and plays with a hard-edged focus that is the by-product of a lifetime of being told he’s too small to make the next level. He also got some love from his North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol. “Drake is not big but he’s hockey strong. He competes hard, too hard sometimes. He hits with a purpose, loves to really hit people, but he’s a veteran and we need him to be scoring goals. He plays the game hard. He plays the 200-foot game. You can tell he’s a coach’s son, he gets it.” In Edmonton, this is the type of player the organization lacks from a depth perspective. A bottom-six forward position and Caggiula might fit nicely.
His Immediate NHL Future
Caggiula’s path to the NHL will likely begin with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL. There, his collegiate background should transfer over and make him a top-line, go-to forward. If he’s not considered one of the captains in Bakersfield, it may only be because of the potentially short amount of time he’ll spend there. He’s on a short-list of Edmonton’s first call-ups in the event of a trade or injury.
Caggiula says he models his game after guys like Brad Marchand and Brendan Gallagher. If Caggiula does, in fact, play anything like either role model, the Oilers will always have room for a player who brings with him that level of intensity. He’s showed extremely well in development camp and while slim, there is a chance he starts the season in the NHL. Flying up and down the ice, he can set up plays in situations where there was at first nothing imminent. This describes an ideal fourth line energy player who could make the Oilers more dangerous on many levels. Currently, the Oilers lack that kind of player.
Throughout this coming season, Caggiula may get more than a fourth line glance. His skating and puck control are elite, meaning he has the potential to play more than a bottom-six role. He isn’t a liability because his defensive game is strong, and he doesn’t steer clear of the trouble areas. What makes Caggiula unique is that in an NHL where a number of coaches are emphasizing forward pairs in the NHL, Caggiula has the ability to be that third on a line where another pair has started to find chemistry. He’s a ready to go, plug-in type player.
Lots of talk about Drake Caggiula. Don’t be surprised if he gets a look at Center at some point this season. Was impressive at Dev. Camp
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) July 15, 2016
I don’t think it’s wise to write Caggiula’s name in pen on the Oilers roster to open the season. Developing his skills to be transferable on an NHL level should be priority number one. That said, if Caggiula continues to show well, he clearly has more upside than other prospects in the system and the Oilers have a hole that Caggiula can fill. At some point, likely sooner than later, he’ll get his first cup of coffee in the NHL.
His skill level is arguably already NHL caliber. His speed, puck handling and intensity will transfer over well. His size is the only thing that may slow him, but not because he’s physically or literally small. For any smaller player, it takes some time to learn the nuances of playing in a bigger man’s league. The good news is, he’s done it on every level before the NHL and he has the tools to do it again.