Heading into the summer, the Oilers appear to be set at center ice, with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the pivots. It's been a long time since the club has had some semblance of depth at center, so it'd be unwise to tinker with it too much in the off season. The other factor to consider is Draisaitl possibly playing both center and wing, depending on the in-game situation, similar to how Todd McLellan deployed Joe Pavelski in San Jose. If Draisaitl is in fact used as a bit of a utility player, it's imperative that the Oilers bolster the bottom six and acquire a centerman (or two) that can perform well and produce.
Both Anton Lander and Mark Letestu struggled mightily last year at even-strength, combining for a whopping four primary assists. I expect Letestu to be back as he did perform well on the powerplay, but Lander's future is a little more murky, considering he was often scratched to make way for Hendricks, and at one point Pakarinen, to play the fouth line center role. All things considered, it's hard to ignore the glaring weakness that was the bottom six last season.
Looking at the options for next season, the Oilers could potentially bring back Letestu as the fourth line center behind McDavid, RNH and Draisaitl. What I would highly recommend the Oilers do though is bring in additional centermen, preferably a right shot, on the cheap, have them play wing and fill in at center when needed. This might be overkill, but consider the fact that the Ducks and Penguins both dipped into the bargain bin last summer to have depth at center: Anaheim brought in Shawn Horcoff and Mike Santorelli, while Pittsburgh brought in Eric Fehr and Matt Cullen.
One player that's worth looking into is 27 year old Riley Nash, who was not qualified by the Carolina Hurricanes and appears to be headed to free agency. Nash was selected by the Oilers in 2007, 22nd overall, and completed three years at Cornell before being traded to the Hurricanes for a second round pick. There appeared to have been some issues between the player and the Oilers at the time, with Nash likely headed to free agency after his college career.
With the Carolina organization, Nash signed an entry level deal in 2010, and played 188 AHL games with Charlotte between 2010 and 2013, notching 89 points over that stretch. Following his entry level deal, Nash signed a two year, two-way contract with Carolina in 2013 worth $1.15 million. Last summer, he was signed for one-year at $1.15 million, which looked to be a bridge-type deal. But when the time came this summer to qualify him as he was still under team control, the Hurricanes declined sending Nash to free agency. (Source: General Fanager)
Below are his counting stats at even-strength, including the primary points (goals and first assists).
|Season||Games||TOI||G-A-P||Points/60||Primary Points (Per 60)||PDO|
The fact that Nash is a right shot centerman, with 188 games at the AHL level and 242 games at the NHL level is what initially caught my attention. But looking at his underlying numbers, including primary points (where he typically ranked in the middle of the pack among teammates) and shot metrics, we see a player that could potentially bring value to Edmonton.
Here we see that possession wise (i.e. Corsi For%) and shot generation, Nash has done okay relative to his teammates, posting better numbers last year compared to this year. When it comes to scoring chances, and especially high danger scoring chances, the club does get a better share when Nash is on the ice. And according to Corsica Hockey, Nash actually ranked fourth among regular Carolina forwards when it comes to the average shooting distance from the net. And when it came to expected goals (xGF%), which serves as a metric for shot quality, the club got a higher proportion of the quality chances when Nash was on the ice. These are pretty decent numbers, but we have to remember that Nash regularly played the opposing teams bottom six forwards (Source: Behind the Net), and was often flanked by bottom six wingers.
Also worth noting how Nash's teammates did with and without him when it came to shot quality. Below is a chart via Corsica Hockey where we see that this past season, the majority of teammates (forwards and defencemen) did better when it came to the proportion of scoring chances with Nash than without him. You can also find the HERO Chart for Riley Nash (via Own the Puck) in the Appendix.
The Oilers cannot take their depth at center for granted this off season. A core that includes McDavid, RNH and Draisaitl is hard to replicate, but it needs to be supported by depth players who can step in and perform at an NHL level when needed. The fact is, there will be plenty of centermen available this summer, but the cost and term of adding these types of depth players will need to fit into the Oilers long term strategy. This isn't to say that the Oilers should acquire Nash before he hits free agency to negotiate a long term contract. Rather, the Oilers need to be keeping an eye on these types of players, who might be available later in the summer and sign them to a reasonable, team friendly, contract.
Data Sources: War on Ice, Corsica Hockey
Appendix: Horizontal Evaluating Rankings Optic (via Own the Puck):