In my article at the end of last week looking at the openings on the Oilers' roster assuming Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff don't return next season, I promised to write some follow up pieces beginning to examine some of the players Oiler management may potentially target to fill those gaps. I had intended to begin this series at the beginning of the week, but then this happened...and oh yeah, this happened too.
But, we're back on track now, so let's start re-building the Oilers, shall we? The other piece of news since we looked at the roster last week is that Teemu Hartikainen has signed with Ufa of the KHL, which has created yet another hole in the roster that needs to be addressed with a new acquisition.
To update the team needs at forward (there are so many needs we need to break this up into pieces), the team's top line is still set, but there is a need for at least one top 6 forward on the 2nd line. That player could be either a LW, or potentially a Centre if the decision is made to transition Sam Gagner to the wing. The 3rd line needs an overhaul with only one solid piece, that being Magnus Paajarvi on the left side (though he could slide up into that 2LW slot and the team could bring in an entire new tough minutes line). The 4th line is now in shambles as well, with only veteran Ryan Smyth a lock to return. The team also needs a depth forward, preferably a Centre for spot duty and to fill in should Ryan Nugent-Hopkins not be ready for the start of the season.
Let's go through these line-by-line and see who could be a target for Craig MacTavish.
2nd Scoring Line
The debate here will be centred around whether or not to keep Sam Gagner as the team's #2 Centre over the long term. Gagner really struggles in the face-off circle, and while he's still young, he's experienced enough that if there were going to be dramatic improvements in this area, we'd have begun to see them by now. Sam has shown the ability to play tough competition and win the possession game provided he's given 50+% Offensive Zone Starts (OZS), which I would expect to continue going forward. This season was certainly a disaster from a shot differential standpoint, yet his point production increased thanks to some decent luck and good percentages. With the Hall/RNH/Eberle line showing they can win the possession battle in a power v. power situation this year, I think the team can survive with Gagner as their #2 guy down the middle, but if they acquire another strong centre, I have no problem at all moving him to the wing.
So, looking at both the LW and C positions for a possible fit, the first place to look is Oklahoma City. I think it is clear that Marc Arcobello is not a reasonable candidate for a top six role at the NHL level in the here and now, so the only potential top six player who could be considered internally would be Toni Rajala. Rajala's natural position is on the right side, but in theory, Nail Yakupov would be switching to the left side if Gagner moved to the wing anyway, so it could be a possibility, but I think the team will be looking for a proven NHL player here. That said, I'd expect Rajala to get a long look in camp and be the first call-up for any injuries to a top six winger during the course of next season.
There is certainly the possibility of acquiring a winger via trade, and with the #7 pick, next year's first rounder, Hemsky, Horcoff and potentially Nick Schultz available to be dealt, the team has pieces to offer trade partners. I think acquisitions via trade may well be used to address needs further down the line-up, but top six forwards are typically difficult to pry away from teams through trade, so I think it is reasonable to say there's a strong chance we'll see a UFA brought in here.
Names on the UFA market that are of interest to my eye would be Stephen Weiss, Bryan Bickell, Clarke MacArthur and Valtteri Filppula. All of these players possess a number of the things that the team would be looking for but most, if not all have something working against them. Filppula is a player with reasonable secondary offensive production, but puts up some pretty weak possession numbers on a very strong possession team in Detroit. That raises a red flag for me. I could live with it if he had a more proven track record of putting up points, but I think there are better fits. Bryan Bickell is someone who is doesn't have a long track record as a top six player, but has burst onto the scene in CHI this post-season. I think Bickell will be re-signed in Chicago, but if he does go the UFA route, it will be to cash in on a pay day, and I think the team that signs him will need to overpay. I think the Oilers should make a call, but I wouldn't put myself in cap trouble over the long term to try and get him. The other Chicago winger who will be a UFA this season is Viktor Stalberg. I haven't included him on my list even though others have because his minutes in Chicago have been highly protected. He's played with some great players this year including Jonathan Toews, but when Toews is called on to take on the opposition's top guys, Stalberg is taken off the line and remains on the bench. Given how badly the Oilers were outshot when Gagner's line was on the ice this year, I don't think Stalberg has proven he can contribute to balancing the scales.
Stephen Weiss may fall victim to the same fate as Bickell. He'll just cost too much money. There's a lot to like about Weiss. He wins face-offs, he's got a track record of controlling possession in some difficult situations and doing it on some pretty poor Panther teams and he's a proven producer offensively. He hasn't had his best days over the last season+ in FLA, but this season was washed out after just 17 games. Other than this season, he's been very durable, playing over 70 games in each of his previous 6 years. As mentioned though, he's likely to be among the top targets on July 5th and while he's a tremendous fit for the Oilers, I think somebody is going to vastly overpay for him, and that team should not be Edmonton unless they intend to move Sam Gagner.
For me, other than Weiss, the name I would be targeting is Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur has been a 20g/60p player in the past and has proven for the last three seasons that he can contribute to his team outshooting the opposition when he is on the ice, even in some tough situations. He hasn't had his best offensive numbers in the last two seasons which could help keep his pricetag reasonable and he could be an interchangeable piece with Paajarvi on either the 2nd or 3rd line with a proven ability to contribute in both roles. I'm sure there will be bidders for MacArthur on July 5, but the Oilers should be at the front of the line. Considering he is from Lloydminster, AB, you never know...
Tough Minutes Line
If Craig MacTavish is not personally on the phone to Boyd Gordon's the second the UFA period opens on July 5th, I will be very surprised and very disappointed. The departure of Shawn Horcoff opens up a hole in the exact shape of Boyd Gordon for Edmonton. He plays very tough minutes (33% OZS this year) against the opposition's best and usually comes out breaking even or better in terms of shot attempt differential. He is an above 50% face-off man and a right-handed shot, which is sometimes difficult to find at Centre. On top of that, he led the Coyotes in ice time on the penalty kill. PHX didn't have the greatest PK stats this year, but they certainly weren't helped by Mike Smith's awful .831 Sv% when the opposition was on the powerplay. Also, for the local crowd, he is another local boy...from Unity, SK. For me, Gordon is option 1, 2 and 3 to replace Shawn Horcoff. He's also coming off a contract of only $1.325M/yr. so even with a considerable raise, I don't think he'll be unaffordable.
To play the left side I've only got two targets in mind so far. The first is Nikolai Kulemin from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kulemin is entering the final year of his contract which pays him $2.8M this coming season. Other than one breakout 30 goal season in 2010/11, he's been a career 3rd liner who chips in here and there on offense, but he's excellent in that role. Kulemin's numbers this year weren't anything to get excited about...7g-16a-23p in 48 games, or about a 40 point pace converted to an 82 game schedule. Not outstanding, but not bad either for a 3rd line player. What is impressive is the conditions under which Kulemin played while producing those numbers. He faced the toughest opposition of any winger in the NHL this season (according to behindthet.ca and the player usage charts found at Rob Vollman's outstanding hockeyabstract.com) and did so while starting 64% of his non-neutral zone shifts in the defensive zone, a number that is also among the league leaders. The fact that Kulemin scored at approximately a 0.5p/game pace despite those circumstances is truly an accomplishment.
The funny thing though, likely because of his 30 goal season a couple of years ago, Kulemin has been seen as something of a disappointment by some in the Toronto market. There are certainly those who understand his value, but it would not be surprising to me if Toronto was willing to move him this year. In fact, I think that there is a chance that the Oilers could develop a framework of a deal that sends Hemsky to Toronto for Kulemin. If the Oilers absorb $2M of the difference in salary for the coming year, then that should even things out enough to make the discussions a little more serious. The exact details of adding picks or prospects to finalize the deal would need to be worked out, but I can see a framework there. I don't know that TOR is the best landing spot for Hemsky, but MacT's obligation is to his team, and Kulemin would be an excellent target.
The other option for the RW? Ales Hemsky. Personally, beyond Kulemin, I don't see very many options around the league that I think are reasonably easy to acquire that can fill the void that Hemsky's departure creates. I think his injury history and drop-off in production have lowered his trade value to the point where the expected return is not likely to match what he brings to a team. As a result, I would be very hard pressed to deal Hemsky for an inferior return. I don't see Shawn Horcoff returning to Edmonton, but I think getting value for Hemsky will be difficult and if MacTavish can't get proper value for him, he should feel compelled to bring #83 back for one last season in Oil Country. It's unlikely, but it is the 2nd best scenario I see other than the one outlined above with Toronto.
4th Line and Extra Forward
The fourth line now has two holes in it with the aforementioned departure of Teemu Hartikainen. The first need is at Centre. My personal pick here might be Marcus Kruger from the Chicago Blackhawks. CHI is up against it with regard to the cap. Even counting potential bonus carry over, they only have about $2M in cap space for next season and that is before you add the $1.4M they have pledged to European Goaltender Antti Raanta that has not been made official yet. They will likely get some relief by buying out Steve Montador and possibly Rostislav Olesz who is currently buried in the minors, but even that only opens up another $5M. At that point they will still need to re-sign key free agents Nick Leddy and (likely only one of) Viktor Stalberg or Bryan Bickell. I can't imagine they'll have a great deal of room left to re-sign RFA Kruger who has done a nice job on the 4th line. If the Oilers could pry Kruger out of Chicago he's basically a one year older and more effective version of Anton Lander, which would allow the team to continue developing Lander (or possibly include him in a deal). If Kruger is not available, then veteran UFA centres like Dainus Zubrus, or everyone's favourite former Oiler Marty Reasoner could do the job. We all know MacTavish has a history with Reasoner from his coaching days...
I haven't had a great deal of time to look into the need on the right side, but one intriguing name, should he want to continue his career could be veteran RW Mike Knuble. This team won't have a lot of older veterans next year, and Knuble is still able to contribute in a small role. I don't know if he'd want to endure the travel out West, but if he did, he could be a nice companion to Smyth on a veteran 4th line that could at least split the possession battle. A quick look for other options suggests names like JT Wyman from TBL or any number of other marginal players.
I'm a big believer that the 13th Forward next season needs to have the ability to play Centre, particularly due to the injury status of Nugent-Hopkins. As a result, guys like veteran utility player Adam Hall or Tim Brent who spent last season with Carolina are names worth considering. I have a soft spot for Tim Brent from my days living in Toronto when he was a 4th liner for the Maple Leafs. As an extra forward, the Oilers could do much worse. Adding a depth player like Hall or Brent would allow the Oilers to keep players like Lander in the AHL to continue developing while not having to re-sign guys like Lennart Petrell or Ryan Jones.
There are a number of options out there and I'm sure there are many I haven't included here that some of you may prefer. Please feel free to share those in the comments. I'll be back before the weekend with a look at how the Oilers may fill the openings on their blueline and in goal.