Though hockey fans are nearing the peak of draft hysteria, it should be noted that the opening of free agency is only ten days away and as has been the case since 2006, the Oilers have some very big holes to fill if they want to get up off of the mat in 2011-2012. Yesterday, I explored the use of offer sheets to improve the roster through restricted free agency. After the jump I'll look at next season's team and some players the Oilers could target to fill those roster holes.
Others: Cogliano, Brule, Fraser
The forwards I've slotted into the above spaces are those players I believe to have cemented a spot on the roster. Further, I've used their scoring chance results to group them in what I believe would be the lines that give each player the greatest chance for success. As for the top line, Ales Hemsky is a proven tough minutes right wing and can play with a variety of players and do so effectively. Sam Gagner has proven ability as a complimentary player against tough minutes, but isn't able to carry lesser linemates against top competition. Give Hemsky and Gagner a veteran left winger with some skill, or proven ability against tough minutes and that line should, at the very least, play the tough minutes to a draw. If the Oilers can't work out a trade for Ryan Smyth and Michael Frolik won't accept their offer sheet, underrated players like Brooks Laich, Chris Higgins, and Scottie Upshall fit the bill.
The second line of Taylor Hall - Shawn Horcoff - Jordan Eberle doesn't need to change, the only thing they need is a healthy season together. While Hall and Eberle looked like NHL stars last season and the sky is the limit for their future, it's worth remembering that they gave up a ton of scoring chances when Horcoff wasn't around. Keeping this line together and limiting their assignment to second and third minutes through line matching gives the two sophomores another year to develop their all-zone game and one more developmental year before turning them loose against the best in the Western Conference.
The third line of Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark performed ably together, almost breaking even against varying levels of competition. Sam Gagner wasn't able to help, but like Hall and Eberle, the two Swedes could use a tough defender between them, someone reliable in their own end and strong on the cycle and on a short-term deal to hold a spot for Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick, Chris Vande Velde, Ryan Martindale or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If the Oilers could find a penalty-killer in the same player, they would finally sign that player to replace Michael Peca-Jarrett Stoll-Marty Reasoner-Kyle Brodziak. Michal Handzus would be ideal, but he will likely request too much money and too much term to be a solid fit, but any of Vern Fiddler, Marty Reasoner, Eric Belanger, or Marcel Goc might come to Edmonton on a short-term deal, and the Oilers could overpay them to make sure.
Ryan Jones' contract means that he'll be in Edmonton for a couple of years, but his defensive deficiencies make him a bottom line goal-scoring specialist who needs some soft competition to thrive. He'll "anchor" the fourth line from the left wing, and his linemates must be able to help the Oilers moribund penalty kill. Pascal Dupuis, Joel Ward, Mike Grier, Jeff Halpern, and Adam Hall would be ideal fits for that bottom line, bringing respectability and ability where the Oilers have been lacking for awhile.
Others: The Oilers have attempted to trade Andrew Cogliano twice, and it's my belief that they'll try a couple of times this summer, at the draft and after free agency opens. I don't expect him to be in Oilers' silks next season. Gilbert Brule's ongoing condition and his twice too large contract mean he's not reliable on the roster and won't be moved. They could bury him in Oklahoma City (though not while injured), but he fits the bill as a 14th forward. Colin Fraser is better than any 13th forward the Oilers have had since 2006.
Needs: Tough minutes left wing / defensively adept center with faceoff and penalty killing ability / bottom line wingers with proven penalty killing ability who can play the game.
Targets: Brooks Laich, Chris Higgins, Scottie Upshall / Vern Fiddler, Marty Reasoner, Eric Belanger, Marcel Goc / Pascal Dupuis, Joel Ward, Mike Grier, Jeff Halpern, Adam Hall
Others: Foster, Petry
In his comparison of the Oilers to the Bruins, Jonathan Willis concluded, "...Bottom line: The Oilers need at least one and possibly two top-end defensemen before they can compare favourably to Boston."
The Oilers seem to have found their voice in the locker room and on the ice in Ryan Whitney. He's coming off of one of the best (though shortened) non-Paul Coffey offensive seasons from the blueline in Oilers' history. Tom Gilbert is a proven commodity and could handle the top pairing duties with Whitney, but that combination would leave the Oilers woefully short of real NHL defensemen in the bottom four. The Oilers need a tough minutes guy on Whitney's right, someone who can handle 22-24 minutes a night, matching against the other team's best and playing four minutes on the penalty kill. The problem for Edmonton is that those guys are in short supply. Even if they draft Adam Larsson, he's likely to stay in Sweden for one more season, and if he doesn't, do the Oilers really want to expose him to tough minutes with an offense-first and last guy like Whitney at his side? Eric Brewer and Kevin Bieksa seem to fit that bill, but both are going to find themselves in a bidding war. They could hope for a miracle in Jan Hejda or Radek Martinek having one more season in them, or they could overpay Ed Jovanovski (doesn't everyone?) for a season while in transition. It's more likely that the Oilers will be forced to find their guy through the trade market.
For the second consecutive season, Ladislav Smid demonstrated the ability to consistently win the individual on-ice matchups as long as he's paired with a partner who can move the puck well. Last season, Smid edged 3rd-level minutes paired with Lubomir Visnovsky and this season he edged out second-level minutes while paired with Gilbert. Pair the two up again this season and slot them in as the second pair for the next couple of years.
Theo Peckham is locked into the bottom pairing despite being dead last in scoring chances last season on the Oilers' blueline. Much of that had to do with Peckham playing significant tough minutes and second-tough minutes assignments due to injuries, and keeping him on the third line should help him both improve his underlying numbers and develop his overall game. While Jeff Petry looks like a fine partner to Peckham, a puck-moving guy to counter the bash and smash frantic hockey Peckham plays, the Oilers need veteran depth in this spot, especially to help on the penalty kill. Snagging a defenseman on the market for less than $1 million for one year should be a first-day priority for Steve Tambellini and if he's unable to do so, he should wait the market out for awhile and snap up a jobless veteran in late July or early August. Veterans who come to mind include Radek Martinek, Jan Hejda, Karlis Skrastins, and if penalty killers aren't available Jonathan Ericsson and Jim Vandermeer.
Others: Kurtis Foster had a miserable season in 2010-11, and looks like he's going to spend his career as a power play specialist, a la Marc-Andre Bergeron. He's fine as a seventh defenseman for the short-term, but he's not a player a winning team would want to see taking on top four minutes for any extended period of time. Jeff Petry looks to be ready to take on a role as a bottom pairing guy, but bringing in veteran competition to force him to earn playing time is never a bad thing.
Needs: Top-pairing, tough minutes defenseman who can be a pack mule on the power play / veteran depth defenseman
Targets: Trade / Radek Martinek, Jan Hejda, Karlis Skrastins
Devan Dubnyk had a very good season considering the team he had in front of him and it was even better when contrasted with the season NIkolai Khabibulin recorded. Edmonton fans are hopeful Dubnyk's play is a sign of things to come and that the enormous goaltender is only getting better. Given Dubnyk's limited sample size, however, the Oilers should be careful and manage his minutes wisely, pairing Dubnyk with a veteran backup capable of playing 35-45 games and posting a league-average save percentage.
Others: Nikolai Khabibulin is not that veteran backup capable of playing 35-45 games or posting a league-average save percentage. In fact, the Oilers are better off buying Khabibulin out and taking the cap hit thus saving cash, rather than run him out to certain defeat for two more years.
Needs: Veteran goaltender to platoon with unproven starter.