The season is almost upon us.
With training camp set to open up in Edmonton next week there is a vast array of questions concerning almost every part of the roster.
Perhaps the most interesting questions surround the team’s bottom two forward lines.
Coming into his first summer as Oilers GM, Ken Holland did not have a lot of options as to who to slot into the bottom 6. The only sure-fire names that weren’t on expiring contracts were Sam Gagner, Zack Kassion, and Milan Lucic. Boy did that change in heartbeat.
Holland wasted no time in shoring up forward depth, signing Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco on day 1 of free agency. He would later add Josh Archibald, RIley Sheahan and, german import, Gaeten Haas to the fold later on in the summer. Not to mention that he had brought in, SHL scorer, Joakim Nygard into the fold about a month before free agency opened.
On top of this he also resigned Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson to 2-year deals.
Suddenly, that barren bottom 6 was overcrowded and there is a lot of uncertainty as to who will be in those 6 spots come opening night.
As training camp quickly approaches, I thought it would be a great idea to take a closer look at the battle that will surely occur over the next few weeks.
So, lets start on the wings.
The Left Wingers:
The Oilers were notoriously weak on the wings last season and it showed heavily in their bottom 6.
The lineup for the final regular season game featured, Bob Nicholson’s favourite player, Tobias Rieder and, rookie, Joe Gambardella suit up as the 3rd and 4th line left-wingers. Not an ideal pair.
With Rieder now on a PTO in Calgary and Gambardella most likely AHL bound, there will be some new faces in those spots come October 2nd.
Their are gonna be 3 players vying for those spots in camp with Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco and Jujhar Khaira all having experience on that side.
Markus Granlund has the inside track on becoming the team’s third line LW. Ken Holland brought him in to play consistent bottom 6 minutes and kill penalties and will have every opportunity to win a third line spot out of camp. His time in Vancouver shows that he is no stranger to the role, being a staple on their penalty kill last season.
The interesting battle will come down to Tomas Jurco and Jujhar Khaira for the 4th line LW position. I know there are a lot of Khaira fans who expect him to make the opening lineup no matter what, but I don’t think that is necessarily true. Khaira is coming off a brutal season that saw him take a step back in his development and there shouldn’t be any guarantees for him cracking the roster out of camp. His opponent will be a player that Ken Holland knows fairly well and it will definitely be one of the more interesting battles in the bottom 6.
Jurco spent last season in the AHL where injuries limited him to appearing in only 33 games, in which he put up a respectable 27pts. However, he did appear in 18 playoffs games with the Charlotte Checkers where he recorded 18pts. He is a player that could finally find his way to the NHL and if he is able to outplay Jujhar in camp he will get a spot on the team.
The Right Wingers:
Just like the left wing, the Edmonton Oilers are extremely weak on the right wing as well. Even more so with the absence of Jesse Puljujarvi. Yet there are still players who will be battling for a bottom 6 job in camp.
Of these players there is one newcomer and two incumbents. Sam Gagner, who is more known for his play at center, has had experience playing on the right wing and did well in his short tenure with the Oilers last season. There is speculation that fan favourite Zack Kassian could see time in the top 6 but he has traditionally been a bottom 6 player during his career. Newcomer, Josh Archibald, will try to edge out one of these players after putting up 22pts in Arizona last season.
I have a gut feeling that Archibald is the favourite to land the 3rd line spot. He is a relatively unknown to most Oiler fans but he does possess some speed and feistiness that makes him feel like a good 3rd line fit. He is making 1-million dollars on a one-year deal so Ken Holland obviously sees some value in the Saskatchewan native.
Zack Kassian will be on the Oilers roster on opening night, I have no doubt about that. The question is where he will be playing. Kassian had some great chemistry playing on the top line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl last season and the expectation is that he will continue to get a chance to play on that first line when the season opens. However, if he does not stick I firmly believe that Kassian will return to his 4th line role that we are accustomed to seeing him in. I don’t see Kassian as a third-line winger and I think he adds much more value to the bottom line given his high energy bang-and-crash style of play.
Sam Gagner is an interesting player. I have seen a lot of projected Oilers lineups that exclude Gagner without any explanation as to why. He played fairly well with the Oilers after being acquired mid-season last year but his play fizzled as the season went on. I still, however, think that Gagner is a valuable veteran presence that could be useful in a bottom 6 role. His main opponent in camp will be Josh Archibald. Gagner could also prove to be useful centerman...which we will get to right now.
Finally we move onto the center-ice position, which is more clear-cut then it might seem.
Ken Holland recently added Riley Sheahan into the mix and he is expected to center the team’s third line. While, import forward, Gaeten Haas and, the aforementioned, Sam Gagner battle it out to secure the 4th line job.
This one is really a toss-up but I am inclined to give the edge to Gagner based solely on experience in the NHL. As I mentioned before he is a valuable veteran presence that knows the market better than anybody on the team. Haas, on the other hand, is a total wildcard.
A look at his highlight reel shows that he possess a fantastic shot and can score from time to time, but we have no idea how that will translate into the NHL. Haas would not have come to North America if he didn’t have a shot at making the team out of camp, so he will have to impress if he wants to beat out Sam Gagner.
Training camp is always chalked full of surprises. Some notable names that I didn’t even mention in this article (such as Joakim Nygard and Tyler Benson) might wind up becoming bottom 6 regulars. However, for the most part, I think that the group of players that I did focus on are more than likely the guys we will see when the season begins.
As for an exact layout of what I expect, it looks a little something like this:
Could I be wrong? Absolutely! But that is what makes it so much fun!