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Seriously, Mind the Gap

A look into why the Oilers need more depth at center, and a potential option.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed some concern with the depth the Oilers have at center for the upcoming season. As of today, it appears that the four pivots will be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, Anton Lander and Mark Letestu. RNH, to me, is a legitimate top six centerman with all the potential in the world to be one the league's best. He took a big step forward last season, posting some very respectable numbers, making expectations much higher this coming season. McDavid may or may not start at center, depending on how training camp goes, but he's penciled in for now and will make some noise. Lander is another player who established himself as a NHL regular last season, but a lot of his points came on a very good powerplay under Todd Nelson. I'm not expecting a whole lot from Letestu, considering his history, so I'll have to wait and see what exactly the Oilers saw in him.

So really, it's a nice set of players at center that has the potential to do some damage, but my concern is that there just isn't enough depth. For one, if an injury occurs, there really aren't any wingers that can slide into the line-up. From the farm system, there are guys like Bogdan Yakimov who might be ready to step in to the NHL, but it really is slim pickings.

The other issue is that Todd McLellan may not be able to run some of the tactics he relied on as head coach of the San Jose Sharks . With a bevy of talent up front, McLellan often paired two natural centermen, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, on the same line with the latter often starting on the right wing and taking the draws when they started on the right side (Source: Fear the Fin). It was a nice luxury to have since he had Logan Couture as his other centerman, who was often paired with winger Patrick Marleau. McLellan at times did shift Pavelski into the third-line center role to spread the offense, but he spent way more time as Thornton's winger. Seeing how McLellan ran his lines in San Jose and the success he had possession-wise demonstrates how important centermen are to his tactics.

I think this also gives us an indication as to what may happen when Leon Draisaitl is ready to make the jump to the NHL. We could potentially see RNH paired with Leon, for instance, with Leon taking specific faceoffs similar to what Pavelski was doing in San Jose. McDavid could center the other line, flanked by say Hall and Eberle. At this point, Leon might need some time in the minors, making it absolutely critical that the Oilers sign a reliable centerman at a value contract to provide depth to the roster for the short-term.

The Candidate

I suggested in that previous article that someone like Eric Fehr or Mike Santorelli might fit the role of a versatile center/winger and fill in as needed. The former recently signed with the Penguins, while the latter remains unsigned for whatever reason. Both are proven NHL forwards who have had success at center, posting respectable numbers, yet still fall under the bargain-bin category of potential acquisitions.

Bruce McCurdy of the Cult of Hockey recently put together a nice summary of Santorelli's history and suggests that he remain as a potential acquisition. Santorelli did struggle in Nashville following his trade at the deadline, but one cannot overlook the success he has had at even-strength in Toronto earlier in the year and in Vancouver the season prior. He has posted some decent possession numbers, and has often had a positive impact on his linemates, producing at a third-line level (Source: Own the Puck).

And here's how Santorelli did at even-strength (5-on-5) when the score was close.

M. Santorelli (Even-strength, 5v5, Score Close)
Season Team Games Goals Assists Points Points/60 PDO Corsi For% (Corsi Rel)
2010/11 FLA 82 8 9 17 1.68 98.97 47.94 (-1.65)
2011/12 FLA 60 5 1 6 0.85 99.06 49.60 (-0.02)
2012/13 FLA/WPG 34 0 1 1 0.27 92.39 51.57 (+0.28)
2013/14 VAN 49 3 9 12 1.48 100.81 50.21 (-1.67)
2014/15 TOR/NSH 79 6 8 14 1.41 99.25 48.71 (+0.15)

Santorelli won't be your game breaker, but he's a reliable, versatile option that won' t cost you games.  He had a positive impact on his linemates last season when the score was close, which is when the game was within one goal in the first two periods, or tied in the third. He didn't play as much center last season, but has in the past with Vancouver and Florida taking a considerable number of draws in all situations. If the Oilers were to pair a couple of natural centers on a line next season, similar to what McLellan has done in the past, Santorelli would be a very nice option to solidify the bottom six forwards. Here's a brief scouting report, courtesy of McKeen's Hockey.

"Skilled opportunistic play-maker with quick, nifty hands and good vision... skating is fairly quick and fluid but not dynamic... generates bursts of momentum by an alternating series of crossovers... needs to keep adding power and quickness to his stride, especially in startup... comfortable in possession... sneaky and elusive in tight quarters - makes sharp pivots and reversals with the puck... know how to open lanes coming off the half-wall and packs a quick, accurate wrist shot which he can unload without breaking stride... supports the puck carrier well in each zone, hustling to get around the puck and provide an outlet... continues to develop a more consistent compete level as he's most effective when tenacious in puck pursuit... misses some size and physical intensity - and has to maximize his strength and conditioning... industrious player."

What's encouraging is the fact that GM Peter Chiarelli has a history of pursuing value contracts, as demonstrated by Romulus' Apotheosis. Rom brings up a fantastic point in his article that Chiarelli was in a position where he could go the route, as his rosters in Boston typically had a solid core of players that required a few supplementary pieces. The Oilers on the other hand, have always been chasing that big fish in the UFA market to be part of the core and often overpaid for short term deals. My hope going forward is that Chiarelli seeks out these value contracts to not only provide depth at center in case of injury, but to also ensure that his head coach has the flexibility he needs to instill a winning game plan.