Last week I looked at Craig MacTavish's work so far this offseason, work that I've generally liked. That post included the following paragraph:
In the matter of a week Craig MacTavish has improved the defence and improved their depth on the wings. That's not bad work. There is still a big acquisition required, a second line centre. This is an absolute must have because as it stands right now that role would likely be filled by Mark Acrobello or Leon Draisaitl, and neither of those is what I would call a desirable option. How MacTavish goes about plugging this hole will more or less define his summer.
Today I'd like to come back to the issue of the second line centre, or more accurately the lack of a second line centre.
On their roster today the Oilers have two centres - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon - who have taken more than 500 faceoffs in their careers. Of course it is just July 11, there is still more than two months before training camp starts giving Oilers management plenty of time for the time to address this need either through trade or by bringing in another free agent. An option that I don't think the Oilers would be wise to pursue is waiting until training camp to see if the team's newest first round pick, Leon Draisaitl, can adequately fill that role.
This is something I've seen bouncing around Twitter and being discussed with increasing frequency over the last week. The logic is fairly simple, give Draisaitl a nine game tryout to see what he can do and then make the decision. If Draisaitl shows himself capable of shouldering the load great, if not then the team makes a move to fill the hole. There are a couple of issues with this though.
First, making an informed decision based on nine games is, to say the least, difficult. In nine games a run of good luck can make a player look like an all-star, and bad luck can make a player look like a career minor leaguer. Look at Sean Monhan last season for example. After nine games he had six goals and three assists to go along with a ridiculous 28.6% shooting percentage and an individual point percentage of 100%; those numbers were more than enough to convince the Flames to keep him in Calgary. In the next 66 games he recorded 25 points (a 60% drop in points per game) with much more reasonable percentages not inflating his counting numbers. This isn't to say that Monahan is a bad player, but would the Flames have made the same decision is his first nine games reflected the rates we saw over the next 66 games? I'm not sure they would have.
For fun though let's assume though that the Oilers can make an informed decision after watching Draisaitl play nine NHL games. With six of those nine games being played at home the team will be better able to control his match-ups, either giving him every possibility to shine or exposing him from time to time to see how he handles tougher assignments and giving them a more realistic picture of the player. My money would be on the former but anything is possible. What happens though if Draisaitl struggles, if he isn't ready to play in the NHL? He's 18 years old, this has to be considered.
If Draisaitl were returned to junior the Oilers would either have to hope that Mark Arcobello can cover the bet or that a trade will make itself available. The team’s usage of Arcobello last season leads me to believe that management is, at best, skeptical about his ability to play a major role for this team on any line other than the fourth. If that’s the case then team would have to explore options for a trade should Draisaitl not pan out, and their being desperate will only drive the price up. Possibly to a point where an ugly third option presents itself, this option is essentially covering your eyes and hoping for the best.
Say the Oilers have a trade in the works involving Jeff Petry, before making anything official the question that Oilers management will ask themselves is: If we hope that Draisaitl figures things out will this team be better with him, Petry, and whatever else the team is giving up, or will it be better without all of that and a new second line centre? And faced with that question I expect that they would choose hope. The mantra of Rebuild 2.0 has been "we won’t sacrifice the future," and while I don’t believe that a trade like this would do that, it carries with it enough risk that I think Craig MacTavish will balk at it. And so another year would hinge on hoping on an 18 year old can succeed in the NHL.
If the Oilers fail to add another centre between now and mid-September all of the right things will be said about not rushing Draisaitl, and giving him every chance to succeed. And maybe he’ll blow everyone away making the time spent worrying about this a waste of time, but make no mistake, regardless of what happens in those first nine games he will be here to stay.