No one can say that Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish hasn’t tried his best during this off-season to fill many of the holes in a ship that has already reached the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, it is difficult to attract players to a team with a terrible record located in the arctic tundra. Why play in cold and snowy Edmonton with a terrible team when a warm American city is offering you the same amount of money? This trend can be seen in the Oilers’ inability to sign the kind of seasoned star player this team needs to be successful.
The Oilers’ shopping list for the summer was no secret amongst those who follow the team. The essentials were at least one other highly skilled stay-at-home defenceman besides Captain Andrew Ferrence, and a first or second line centre. Craig MacTavish managed to provide the team with two decent d-men; one known to stay-at-home and the other able to play both ways. The Oilers now have a much more respectable back end, but it was done by adding smaller pieces rather than one big one.
The team also signed what will hopefully turn out to be an incredibly talented centre, thanks to another high draft pick, but it wasn’t the kind of centre the team immediately needed. This move is further indicative of roster holes a GM can’t always fix: experience and consistency. It could be the cause of the biggest problem the team will have to face this year, as it has proven over previous years. The fact is for the past four years, players who have just barely entered the NHL have been expected to carry the Oilers’ banner.
It takes a lot of time for a player to expand on his talent by gaining experience and consistency, and it is also very expensive for a team to buy. Since the 2006 playoff run, draft picks and the players they produced has been all the Oilers have had. It is foolish to expect a first, second, third or even fourth year player to lead a team to victory. This whole situation is a difficult pill for fans to swallow when you remember they play in a city were hockey is almost universally cared about. A first round pick usually seems like a golden ticket. Surely three of them would tip the scales. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that, and players like Crosby come around once in a lifetime. These players are competitive, young and definitely feel the pressure.
Sure, they get paid millions, but that has nothing to do with performance. We pay them a lot so they will stay longer, and eventually become the consistent and experienced players fans want them to be right now. Luckily for us, they are getting better. Taylor Hall had an 80 point season in 2013/2014 with Jordan Eberle not far behind. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may not have put the puck in the net much last year, but he never lost his miraculous ability to pass even after stepping into a much faster game. None of this means we’re going to have a good season though, even with many of the teams problems more or less fixed.
This off-season the Oilers traded a 5th round pick for Nikita Nikitin and then signed him to a mind-boggling 2 year, 4.5 million contract. Nikitin is a very inconsistent player, but he is capable of a 35-point season, great at moving the puck and loves to use his body. Even without the points in mind, we needed that kind of player. The Oilers also signed Mark Fayne, who is known to play a safe game and has a shot that always hits the net. He’ll probably be in the bottom pairing, but these two acquisitions in addition to Andrew Ference, Jeff Petry, and Justin Schultz will lower the team’s goals against number significantly.
The question of the team’s sixth defensemen however still hasn’t been answered yet thus far into training camp. The four options available are Martin Marincin, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, and Keith Aulie. Most who have written about the Oilers upcoming season are expecting the spot to go to Marincin, who has far more NHL experience than any of the other choices. With that said, Marincin had 44 games worth of opportunity last season and only produced 6 points. Oscar Klefbom managed 3 points in 17 games, including a goal, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get another shot. Darnell Nurse has yet to even receive a shot in the NHL, and we could see him play the first few games of the season if he does well in exhibition. If Eakins intends to play this sixth d-man with Schultz it’ll likely be Marincin, but if Schultz plays with Nikitin then Klefbom or Nurse may get might get a chance at a regular roster spot.
The team also has two goaltenders that are both capable of giving the team a chance to get ahead, especially with better help in the defensive zone. The question will be whether the Oilers can figure out how to organize their offense into something that actually clicks and doesn’t fall apart due to inexperienced players. It’s not just about scoring goals, but back checking and making smart plays, and considering last season many questions should be brought up when looking at the depth chart.
One of the biggest of these questions is whether the team can depend on Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins to play well together throughout the season. The combination of the team’s three stars has proven inconsistent in the past and a mess in the defensive zone. On the plus side, new acquisitions give the team more ability to switch up the lines in a hopefully more effective manner if things go awry. David Perron is certainly capable of playing on the first line. Teddy Purcell has only proven himself a top six forward at this point in his career and Benoit Pouliot has been criticized for his defensive game in the past, but both also possess the potential to support more talented players beyond Leon Draisaitl and Nail Yakupov.
Problems surrounding the first line however are very small when you consider the greater issue of the team having no proven centre besides RNH. You probably think I am exaggerating; trust me, I wish I was. The next middleman on the depth chart after Nugent-Hopkins is Boyd Gordon, who is an absolutely essential part of the team, but does not belong on the second line. This claim isn’t so much about skill as it is about the team’s strategy based on examining the roster.
The Oilers are throwing out the traditional fourth line model like many other organizations in the NHL, likely to create a solely defensive fourth line with the top three units aiming to put pucks in the net. Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon, and Jesse Joensuu, the Oilers’ future fourth line, are not fighters. They are all grinders, the first two known for a solid defensive game and the last known for his speed. A line of that caliber and purpose would ensure breakouts aren’t botched and pucks aren’t given away. They would likely get as much ice time as the third line if they get to play together depending on their consistency. There is still question over whether Joensuu will make the team, however his likely replacements Iiro Pakarinen or Steve Pinizzotto fall under the same mold of player as Joensuu, though Pinizotto can definitely fight when he wants to.
Oilers fans will be able to figure out how the start of the season is going to look by two simple questions: The first being whether or not our new first round draft pick Leon Draisaitl is both ready for the NHL, and ready to play with the much older, and more experienced Perron and Pouliot who he’s been playing with throughout training camp. If he can develop his abilities to a pro level, the team will see a level of top-six offensive stability it hasn’t had in years. The second question is whether Mark Arcobello can successfully centre the third line, along side Nail Yakupov and Teddy Purcell.
There are some very important boxes the Oil will need to check during the 2014/2015 season if they want to be successful. The first line needs to play consistently and back check, and most importantly Draisaitl and Acrobello have to keep up. If just one of those young centre isn’t ready for full-time NHL action this year, then the Oilers are unlikely to have any line consistency or the ability to create chemistry. The team would have to use up a good winger, or allow a less talented centre to play out of his expertise. These are all little factors that can kill a team, a trend Oiler fans are all too familiar with.
All we can do is wait and see whether the plan sticks together or falls apart. It should be noted that Edmonton places exceptionally high expectations on these young men. If they fail, it is both normal and expected, and will make us a better team in the long run. If they succeed they will have completed a task well beyond what they should be expected to do, and that I believe is what makes watching this team, despite our terrible losing streak, so interesting. Win or lose, lets all just enjoy the season.
Banner photograph by Wanderer Online Photographer Brad Lam