Oilers Should Target Lawson Crouse to Add Size & Skill to Lineup

Edmonton Oilers‘ general manager Ken Holland made it clear he’s not giving up top prospects or the team’s first-round pick for a rental, that much we know. But a restricted free agent (RFA) wouldn’t be considered a rental since the Oilers would still have team control over the player once the current contract is over.

That brings us to Lawson Crouse from the Arizona Coyotes. It’s been made very clear that they are willing to sell just about anything, with the most recent big news coming out of the desert being even Jakob Chychrun, someone who could be a franchise piece. At this point, Clayton Keller, with the way he’s been playing for the Coyotes, may be the only untouchable player on the current roster.

Lawson Crouse Arizona Coyotes
Lawson Crouse, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Many of the Coyotes’ players are on one-year deals and are set to become unrestricted free agents after the season. Any of these players can be used as rental trade chips, while they have a couple of RFAs that could also be worth selling if they are done tearing everything down for assets. Crouse seems like the only viable option at forward that Holland would consider trading for, as he’s stated his intention of trading a top pick or prospect for a rental saying, “I wouldn’t do that.”

Yes, he does think that the Oilers can solve their problems internally and that’s the best way to build a competitive team for years to come, but he has also made calls to teams about making a “hockey trade.” This would be to acquire someone who can help out next year and beyond because as long as the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, you can never count them out.

Oilers Will Have Competition to Get Players From Coyotes

The Coyotes are a team that has an insane amount of cap space, and we’ve already seen that they are more than willing to take on bad or unwanted contracts for assets. But as far as players go, teams will be calling and trying to pick clean that roster of rentals who could help them win this season. Crouse is one of those players on many teams’ radars.

Of the non-rental options to choose from, many teams will also be calling about Crouse. A big forward who’s really coming into his own and can utilize his size as well as put up points this year. He has been one of the bright spots for the Coyotes this season. It’s understandable why they would want to trade him while his value is high, but he could also be a great complimentary piece to build around and play in the middle-six of the lineup when the Coyotes eventually become competitive again.

A player with size that can use it well may fetch a higher price at the trade deadline, especially when he fits the ideal player for tougher games down the stretch and in the postseason. On top of that, team control and the likely re-signing of someone who looks to finally be breaking out. Every team has to wonder what he could do alongside some of their top players and on a team that hasn’t had as much trouble putting the puck in the back of the net.

Other Options the Oilers Have in Big Forwards

Crouse is 6’4″, 220 lbs, and there’s not many players who can match that combination of size and skill. The Oilers have some on their team, so as Holland said, a solution can be found internally. The Oilers need to play tougher hockey. Yes, a lot of chances and goals against recently have come on the penalty kill and bad coverage. But even a smaller team can play tight coverage and make hits.

The Oilers only have one player on their entire roster who can match the height and weight of Crouse, and that’s Darnell Nurse. It shows as he leads the team in hits by a pretty wide margin. He is a defenceman though and isn’t responsible for getting in on the forecheck hard and forcing the opposing defencemen into making mistakes. Even with Markus Niemelainen in the lineup, the Oilers need that physical presence up front (from “Oilers turn to Markus Niemelainen to give depleted defence ‘some range and some reach and some physicality”, The Athletic, Nov. 30, 2021).

At times you see the Oilers’ level of intensity fluctuate and the smaller players go hard into the corners and when they dump and chase. It is also part of a mental game too. A defenceman is more likely to be intimidated and wants to get rid of the puck quicker if he sees a 6’4″, 220 lbs player barreling in on him rather than a 5’8″, 153 lbs Kailer Yamamoto forechecking hard. I’m not saying smaller players can’t forecheck efficiently, but with size, there is a better chance of doing damage.

Zack Kassian and Warren Foegele use their size, but Foegele also isn’t the biggest player (from “Oilers’ Zack Kassian: Shows physicality Thursday”, CBS Sports, Oct. 22, 2021). A couple of inches and 20 lbs can make a real difference, especially when that player has the skill to keep up. Bigger and stronger players like Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Brendan Perlini should also utilize their size more in the hit department. Draisaitl uses his frame very well in protecting the puck and keeping calm and in control but has only 19 hits in 35 games. He looks much bigger on the ice than is compared to other power forwards, but lacks the physical part of the game that all power forwards possess.

Zack Kassian Edmonton Oilers
Zack Kassian, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Puljujarvi hits more than Draisaitl, but hanging around just one hit per game isn’t enough from a 6’4″ player who forechecks and works hard. He uses his size in front of the opponents’ net, but that’s about it. If defencemen knew they were going to be hit when they see Puljujarvi flying in on them, it will create more mistakes rather than fly-byes. Perlini also has size, but he is known for his shot. If he could add another element of physicality and transform into more of a power forward, he would definitely see more playing time and could be very effective.

Bringing in Crouse who already has that power forward element in his game and can use it well can change the perception of the Oilers as being a softer team. This was something that has affected them in the playoffs in the past. It’s one thing to make it, but it’s another to have size, depth, and physicality once they’re there.

Where Crouse Could Slot In

The Evander Kane chatter has gone a little quiet over the past few days even though I still believe he is the best mid-season option the Oilers have mid-season. Who knows how long another suspension may last if the league decides to suspend him again once signed. The team would just be adding someone who may be back a lot later in the season, if at all.

That leaves the question of where Crouse could slot in if acquired. He makes $1.533 million this season, so a swap of a player like Derek Ryan or Kyle Turris off the roster with a second-round pick or something along those lines could entice the Coyotes to bite. They may need a bit more, even a fourth-rounder or mid-level prospect, but money would have to be moved back to the Coyotes and both teams know it.

Lawson Crouse Arizona Coyotes
Lawson Crouse, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Slotting in Crouse should depend on where Kassian and Foegele are playing. As I mentioned, they are both the most physical forwards the Oilers have playing, so putting Crouse on a line with one of them can create a checking line with the capability of scoring, most likely the third line. Or, Crouse/Foegele could even play on the left wing of the first or second line. The last option would be to run with the line combinations the Oilers had in their loss to the Ottawa Senators and something we’ve seen in the past. Draisaitl, McDavid, and Kassian on the first line, so they would be able to spread out the three across the top-nine.

Whether it’s internally or externally, a size and skill combination in a player could be great for the team right now. Even if the entire team continues to keep up the energy they put in half the time, the game would be played much faster and tougher on their part. You can see it around the league as the top teams are always going hard each shift.

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