Oilers' Development Plan Part 1: The Forwards

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 17: Anton Lander #57 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates a first-period goal during the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on January 17, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

Last week, I set out on a journey to construct an organizational development plan for the Oilers over the next two seasons. As I outlined in my introductory post, the first aspect of my review will be to assess the players currently on the roster and within the system, and attempt to discern what can reasonably be expected of them in the next two seasons.

After the jump I'll begin with a look at the forwards and how the next two years may help the team's current young core define where they fit in the long-term gameplan.

When looking at the Oilers forwards over the next two seasons, the easiest names to pencil in are of course, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hall will need to prove that he can overcome the effects of his shoulder surgery, and both RNH and Eberle have yet to establish that they can produce significant levels of offense when facing the oppositions best, however, all three are young enough and have potential to be top line players for many years to come.

While Hall is already the incumbent #1 LW on the team, the expectation of Eberle and RNH should be that they can establish themselves as the team’s top option (no matter the opposition) at RW and Centre respectively over the next two seasons while gradually easing the burden on Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky as they continue to age.

The second offensive centre position also appears set for the long-term barring a trade of some kind with the presence of Sam Gagner. While Gagner does not carry the offensive expectations of Nugent-Hopkins, his task over the next two seasons is much the same…to solidify himself as a consistent performer against some of the toughest opposition. The development of RNH and Gagner is a significant goal for the team over the next two seasons as Shawn Horcoff, who has carried a heavy burden over the last two seasons in order to protect the team’s young offensive stars, will likely continue to show signs of age. While the Captain is certainly still a valuable asset to play heavy minutes in the top nine, the team would be wise to begin grooming his replacement during this period, with the most likely candidate currently in the organization being Anton Lander.

Lander, after being in completely over his head at the NHL level in 2011/12 would likely benefit greatly from playing the majority of the season in the AHL with the Oklahoma Barons next season. Eric Belanger offers the team a serviceable 4th line centre with strong skills in the face-off circle and on the penalty kill. While Belanger’s offense was sub-par last season, he is certainly capable of contributing to the team next season in a limited role. The presence of Belanger, and the fact that he signed for two more seasons allows the team to be patient with Lander and potentially consider moving Belanger at some point before his contract expires should Lander prove he is ready to assume a full-time NHL role. Lander’s skill set is somewhat unique among Oiler prospects and until such a time as a better option becomes available, the team would be well served to groom him to be the heir to the role currently filled by Horcoff should Lander live up to expectations.

On the right side, Ales Hemsky’s two-year extension begins in the fall and much like Shawn Horcoff, he presents the Oilers with a viable opportunity to be competitive in the present and slowly transition the responsibility for playing the difficult minutes to the likes of Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov (assuming he is selected with the #1 overall pick this June). Eberle proved this past season that he is ready to be tested against the top opposition around the league, and should begin sharing that responsibility as soon as this season. Should Yakupov join the team as well, and should he graduate straight to the NHL, he will likely be protected by #14 and #83 throughout his rookie season. As the team’s two young star RWs take over the burden of the tough minutes, this should hopefully allow Hemsky to protect his often-injured body a little better as he ages and it could conceivably provide the team with enviable depth on that side well beyond the end of the 2013/14 season.

The 4th line role for the team on the right side can and should be adequately filled by Ryan Jones next season. Jones is a fan favourite with some and much maligned by others, however, if the team can push him down the depth chart by adding Yakupov, he appears to be a reasonable fit on the right side of Eric Belanger. Having Jones set to 4th on the depth chart would allow the team to purge the likes of Darcy Hordichuck in favour of an actual hockey player, while also providing some flexibility as Jones has shown that he can perform at a reasonable level when needed to slide up the depth chart and cover for an injury.

Looking to the current state of the Oiler prospect pool on the right side, the logical choice for the player most likely to challenge for an NHL spot would be Tyler Pitlick. While he struggled for a large portion of his inaugural professional hockey season in OKC, Pitlick finished the season strongly and has continued his strong play in the early rounds of the AHL playoffs. He would most certainly require another full season with the Barons in 2012/13, with the potential for a late season call-up to audition for the following season if he has performed well. With this player, the coming season is going to go a long way to determine he can be expected to develop into a serviceable NHL player. If he has a strong season, Pitlick could earn the opportunity to replace Jones on the team’s 4th line in 2013/14, or, if he does not continue to develop as hoped, then the team would likely need to begin exploring other options for the long-term.

While there is significant stability expected in the next two seasons at both centre and RW, stability is not necessarily a good thing on a team who has finished 30th and 29th over the last two seasons. The change to the forward group at the NHL level is likely to come on the left side. Beyond Taylor Hall, the team’s present and future is very much in a state of flux on the left wing. Stalwart Oiler Ryan Smyth should be back for at least one more season if a deal can be worked out among the two sides, although there appears to be some difficulty in arriving at an agreement. Smyth’s presence in 2012/13 is sorely needed as the rest of the team’s depth on the left-hand side is very unproven at the NHL level.

The two most likely candidates to develop into NHL-level assets on the left side as Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen. Both men appear poised to tackle a full-time NHL role next season, although they may have to compete with one another for a spot on the big team. Paajarvi brings tremendous speed, a level of defensive responsibility and some size to the team, although he is not known for using his size to his advantage as much as he should. Hartikainen on the other hand, presents a much need physical presence and has shown well in auditions over the last two seasons with the Oilers. Neither player has proven themselves ready to be slotted into the top six, although Hartikainen appears a better fit in that capacity. Still, the team appears to have two viable players it can develop to address roster gaps on the left wing. In the event that Hartikainen and Paajarvi appear destined to occupy the same role, it’s conceivable the team may opt to move one of them in an attempt to address a need elsewhere.

Among other current NHL assets on the left side, Ben Eager is the only other established player currently on the NHL roster, although his suitability for a consistent role in the top 12 can certainly be questioned.

Looking deeper in the organization, the team has appeared to be high on Curtis Hamilton for an eventual NHL role, although his struggles in his first AHL season leave many questions to be answered before that can be considered likely. Any further assets with actual NHL potential would still be found in Junior and therefore not in the mix for an NHL spot over the next two seasons.

In my next post, I will examine the outlook of the blueline and goaltenders in terms of player development over the next two seasons. Following that, I will move on to part two of this project, where I will examine roster gaps that may arise over the next few seasons, including the skill sets that are missing on the team and how to address the various gaps at all positions throughout the organization.

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