With all the talk centered around the Oilers and their need for a defenseman, and who they might deal to get it, that leaves a lot of talk about how the Top-6 should be structured next season. On the roster as it sits right now, about all we can assume is that a line of Korpikoski-Letestu-Hendricks should be the 4th line next season, and a guy like Pakarinen as the 13th forward. Beyond that, the Oilers have the following pieces for their top-9: Nail Yakupov, Zach Kassian, Benoit Pouliot, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Patrick Maroon
Now, this much we can likely assume for the forward lines:
Now, there’s some statistical reasons for why these players will remain, and some to do with potential, or the fact they were obtained by Chiarelli, but let’s safely assume these are the best bets to still be in these spots come next season. That leaves out Yakupov, Pouliot, RNH, Eberle from the lineup. Now, you might look at this and think “well, those are exactly the pieces we need to flush that Top-9 out” and, conveniently, they are, however there’s some problems with that.
First, the odds are the Oilers will probably draft in the Top-3. If they draft 2nd or 3rd, that means they get either Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi, both of whom are hot-shot right-wing prospects. Now, you might be thinking “well fine, but we can still deal that pick”, and if you are, I wrote a lovely article a little while back about how teams dealing their draft picks always seem to lose the deal, so let’s call that a bad choice. Now, when it comes to these two, Laine has the higher skill-set with a shot that’s been compared to Ovechkin, and Puljujarvi is more of a playermaker with a strong two-way game. Both are 6’3 and 200lbs or so, and both are in their second season in the Finnish Elite League, and can likely step into the NHL.
From Eliteprospects.com on Laine:
“Laine is a towering winger with a knack for scoring big goals. A good skater, albeit not the most agile forward in traffic. Has a set of soft hands combined with good vision, but prefers to use his swift and heavy shot. Able to find openings to use his shot. Definitely likes to play physical, but doesn’t get carried away by hitting the opponents. Playing in the pro ranks has matured his game considerably.”
From Eliteprospects.com on Puljujarvi:
“Puljujärvi is a big winger who combines size, skating and skill. A strong skater who can blast past the opposition in full speed. Able to use his size, reach and stickhandling skills to retain the puck in speed. A smart player at both ends of the ice, both on and off the puck. Great work ethic and positive attitude. More of a playmaker than a scorer and could improve his shooting skills. Doesn’t shy away from physical play, but could use his size more to his benefit. A truly dominant two-way force that consistently demonstrates elite hockey sense, proactive defensive awareness, and a full array of offensive tools. Comparable to Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Puljujärvi owns a dangerously accurate shot, as well as exceptional playmaking ability that pairs up quite nicely with his superb vision and enthusiasm. Has the ability to absolutely dominate by using his size and speed to keep possession of the puck until he determines it to be the right time for the rubber to hit the back of the net. Everything that he does, he does well, to the fullest of his ability; there are no empty holes in this electrifying and hard-nosed forward’s game.”
Now, if the Oilers were to draft Laine, he immediately slots in next to McDavid as the shooter for that line, in place of Eberle or Yakupov. I know, you don’t want to rush your prospect, but Laine is NHL-ready, and it won’t be long before he seizes that spot one way or the other. If they draft Puljujarvi, however, then he likely slots in next to Hall and Draisaitl. Now, there was a great article done on Beer League Heroes by G-Money (here) about why Draisaitl’s performance has slowed down, and those are likely major factors in it. I’d add in that him and Hall also miss Teddy Purcell, who was the defensive conscience of that line and provided some solid playmaking skills, so it might be that Puljujarvi slots in here.
Now, these are hardly complete charts showing every aspect of their performance, but you can see that, even if Purcell wasn’t the greatest in his role, he did manage to provide some defense and some assists, and the Hall-Draisaitl line did flourish with him. Once again, courtesy of the amazing ownthepuck.blogspot.ca, here’s some pretty charts to visually illustrate the differences.
Either way, if the Oilers draft 2nd or 3rd, that means two of the three right-wing spots in the Top-9 are filled. This would also happen if the Oilers were to draft Auston Matthews, since he’d likely slot in between Hall and Draisaitl, pushing Draisaitl to the right-wing slot.
So, thanks to the draft, we’re now at (assuming we draft second):
Maroon-McDavid-Laine [this line is now complete]
Now, if this were to happen, this is where we likely see Chiarelli pursue someone like Kris Versteeg as a replacement for Teddy Purcell for the Draisaitl line. As you saw, Purcell (compared to Eberle or Yakupov or Kassian) was a strong defensive player. And if you look at Versteeg’s chart, you’ll notice he’s a very solid replacement in that role, and will be a UFA this summer. That will fill the void on that second line, and provide more veteran and playoff experience.
I know, there’s people who want a guy like Lucic, but other than his price, if you look at his chart he’s not a very good defensive player per say, and he’s not an ideal fit for this line. So, we can pencil in Hall-Draisaitl-Versteeg as a second line.
That now leaves us with Pouliot, Eberle, Yakupov and RNH left, and two 3rd line spots. We can set Eberle and Yakupov off to the side now as trade bait, both are right-wings and aren’t a good use on that 3rd line anyhow. This is a line that the Oilers will want able to do some heavy lifting and provide scoring. In that vein, if you look at the defensive performance of Pouliot, although he’s on a heavier contract, he provides good value and, barring a very good offer, will slot in here. Due to the insanely cheap contract for Maroon thanks to Anaheim retaining salary, the Oilers can afford Pouliot’s contract for a 3rd line LW, and he provides injury insurance in the Top-6. So we’ll take him out of the spare parts list.
Now we have to decide what to do with RNH. He’s not a right-side player, and there seems little value in displacing either Maroon or Hall from their spots in the Top-6. There is plenty of discussion regarding whether RNH is a good defensive player or not. His statistics say, no, he isn’t all that good at it as seen below. Having said that, he does play against heavy competition, but, if you look at Pouliot’s charts or Hall’s charts, they play with him and tend to do better. However, even if you believe he is a good defensive player, he tends to take substantial damage being an all-purpose center and it causes him to miss a significant amount of time. The usual concern is, the Oilers have had depth issues at center before, and dealing away a spare top-6 center with no depth behind you is a bad call.
But, on the other side, paying an injury prone center $6 million a year to be on the third line is also something good teams don’t do. That means, love him or hate him, the best use for RNH is to deal him, but to try and include, in any deal coming back, a different 3C. As it so happens, some of the teams (The Islanders and St. Louis) happen to have ideal 3Cs who are being used as either wingers, or they have the rights to 3rd line centers. With the Islanders, they have Anders Lee, and St. Louis has Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Svobotka. Any of these 3 players could slot into the 3C role and also perform as an emergency 2C if the situation called for it. And as it so happens, the odds are the Oilers will make a play for either Shattenkirk or Hamonic (or both), so there’s possible replacements available in those deals. This shows you Lee’s performance versus RNH to give you a rough idea.
That leaves us at the following forward structure:
And the Oilers now can afford to deal Eberle, Yakupov, and RNH to address that 3C spot and fix the mess we call a defense down the right side. What this would amount to is essentially pulling the pin on the old “core” of the team, which will break more than a few hearts, and will likely lead to the Oilers overpaying to obtain a pair of right-side defensemen, and some of those traded Oilers performing the Jultz for their new team, further infuriating all of us fans. However, it’s time, we all accept this reality. And, let’s be honest, if we went into next season with a Maroon-McDavid-Laine first line (which would probably put up points like nothing we’ve seen for ages), a Hall-Draisaitl-Versteeg second line (which would probably be able to provide effective secondary scoring again and be solid enough defensively to get more ice time), a Pouliot-Lee-Kassian 3rd line (Oh my, the Oilers would have a 3rd line of all players over 6’0 tall who can hit, score, and be solid defensively, I don’t remember the last time we had this), we’d probably see a much more effective team on the ice. Keep in mind, defense is not just something the players on the back need to do, it’s required of the forwards also.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all read the various articles about which right-side defensemen are available, how much they’ll cost in trade, and whether there’s a legitimate chance for the Oilers to obtain them. I won’t bother you all with those details once again. And, once again, this is not meant to be a complete statistical analysis of all the players mentioned, this is more to show what the team could do to adjust the forward lines a tad further and result in better two-way play and a more preferably mix up front, and at the same time obtain trade bait (Eberle, Yakupov, RNH) to fix those flaws on the back-end, and completely change the core of the team to move forward. Thanks for reading, feel free to flame me below as usual.