Oilers Should Bet On Speed and Skill

With the Edmonton Oilers pre-season schedule officially over, the time for Ken Holland and Dave Tippett to decide who will be part of the equation in Wednesday’s season opener has arrived. Chances are both will lean towards a more experienced lineup but lets us hope that won’t be deciding factor in determining who ultimately makes the roster to start the 2019-20 campaign.

Winnipeg Jets vs Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid, right-wing Tomas Jurco, left wing James Neal, defenceman Oscar Klefbom and centre Leon Draisaitl celebrate (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

With the injury to defenceman Joel Persson, the organization has no decision to make when it comes to its blue line and in goal. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith will be the two netminders and they will see a steady diet of Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Matt Benning and Ethan Bear playing in front of them. However, when it comes to the group of forwards, things are far more complicated.

Oilers Have Open Spots

On this roster, the no-brainers are made up of a list that includes Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, James Neal, Zack Kassian, Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald and Alex Chiasson. That leaves four spots to be filled and by the sounds of what we have heard from the head coach, Sam Gagner has the inside track at given the initial opportunity at grabbing one of them, which in my mind is a mistake.

Related: Oilers – Ethan Bear and Opportunity

Anyone who has watched the Oilers in recent years knows all too well that a lack of speed has killed this team for ages. By adding a player like Neal into the mix, Gagner’s skating becomes an even greater factor, especially as it appears as though the two could be on the same line with Nugent-Hopkins. A head-scratcher to be sure and yet everything points towards the trio starting the season as the club’s second line.

This leaves us seven names for three spots: Jujhar Khaira, Markus Granlund, Colby Cave, Patrick Russell, Gaetan Haas, Tomas Jurco and Joakim Nygard. For me, the only reason Granlund is in this group is due to injury. Could that keep him on the outside looking in to start? Perhaps but considering he is one of their best penalty killers, my guess is we see him dress against his former Vancouver Canucks teammates.

Improving Roster Is Priority One

Cave and Haas are in the mix for one spot. My preference would be for the talented Swiss to get the first crack at the job but it would be surprising to see Tippett go away from the more traditional/safe bottom-six centre to fill the role. Both guys can do the job but if it were up to me, the more skilled guy wins every time.  This leaves the quartet of Jurco, Khaira, Nygard and Russell to fill out the final spot come opening night.

Related: Oilers Will Employ Defence First System Under Tippett

Hence, my issue with the head coach potentially leaning towards going with the guy “he knows” in Gagner. Would the more logical move not be to keep Jurco and Nygard and plug both into the starting lineup? Remember a lack of speed and skill has hampered the Oilers for years and both of the aforementioned players check off those boxes. Someone, please tell me what I’m missing here because I certainly am not seeing it.  

Edmonton Oilers Sam Gagner
Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

After all, was the plan not to try and improve the forward depth? In order for that to occur, something has to give. Whether the organization decides to keep Gagner or one of the other bodies as the 14th forward, should ultimately come down to cap implications but the rest should be fairly straightforward. If the decision was mine to make, the 23-man roster would include:

Forward: McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Neal, Kassian, Sheahan, Archibald, Chiasson, Granlund, Jurco, Nygard, Haas, Khaira and one of Cave or Gagner  

Defence: Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, Russell, Benning, Bear and Brandon Manning

Goaltender: Koskinen and Smith

Some will question Manning’s inclusion but if the former Philadelphia Flyers rearguard is assigned the role of press box seat filler, it makes no difference whether he stays or goes. And yet, if playing their seventh defenceman is something the head coach wants to do, working William Lagesson into the lineup would be the road to take.  Hard to imagine but in this particular scenario, the backend isn’t part of the equation.

The collection of forwards listed above would at least give the Edmonton Oilers a different look and certainly add the element of speed and more skill to their lineup. Is the roster flawed? Without question but with what Ken Holland and Dave Tippett currently have at their disposal to work with, it is probably the best they could do. Far from an ideal situation but like it or not, this is their reality.