The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing colour, and there are actual, tangible Oilers-related conversations to be had. Hockey season is right around the corner. With training camp and pre-season games getting started soon, I’m going to be taking a look at what roster the Oilers will be rolling with into the regular season come October. This week, we’ll start with the forwards.
There’s going to be a lot of competition for jobs among Oilers forwards at camp this fall. Ken Holland added a whole bunch of scratch tickets over the off-season in free agency and the team also has a few rookies who performed quite well in the AHL last season vying to break into the league. How is it going to shake out?
The obvious locks for the roster, pending injuries, are… Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Chiasson, Zack Kassian, James Neal, Riley Sheahan, and Jujhar Khaira. The close to near locks would be… Sam Gagner, Markus Granlund, and Josh Archibald. That’s 11 forwards who are either obviously going to be on the team or have the inside track to crack the roster.
Fighting for the remaining sports are… European free agent signings Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard, AHL standout Tomas Jurco, last season’s waiver claim Colby Cave, and Bakersfield Condors Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, Joe Gambardella, and Josh Currie. We could also see the Oilers add another forward to a professional tryout.
We don’t yet know if McDavid will be ready to start the season, but his skate yesterday was a positive indication. If the captain is ready to go, it seems likely this will be the top line. McDavid and Draisaitl are a duo too good to break up and Kassian was a solid complement to the line. There’s no reason to fix what isn’t broken.
The second line will be anchored by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But who will his wingers be? It makes sense to start James Neal in the top-six. He struggled last year in Calgary playing down the lineup and the Oilers want the veteran to hit the ground running. Alex Chiasson would be the other obvious veteran to play alongside Nugent-Hopkins.
But what about somebody like Benson? If Benson is going to crack the team, you’d expect him to be playing in the top-six. The 2016 second-round pick had a breakout showing in his first professional season last year and could certainly steal a spot at training camp. Knowing Ken Holland’s patient approach, I would bet we don’t see Benson until later in the season.
Things start to get a lot more complicated in the bottom-six. Riley Sheahan figures to be the team’s third-line centre as he can thrive in a checking role and chip in some offence. Putting Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald on the wings gives Edmonton’s third line some offensive punch, which is something the team lacked last year.
Colby Cave and Jujhar Khaira seem poised to anchor the fourth line, but Gaetan Haas could grab that job from Cave. One thing working against Haas, along with Joakim Nygard, is the fact both players can be sent to the AHL without going to waivers. The team would risk losing somebody like Cave or Tomas Jurco if they didn’t crack the roster.
Speaking of waivers, where does Sam Gagner fit? Putting Gagner on waivers would save the Oilers some cap room to give them some flexibility for a mid-season trade, but it would also rid the team of a veteran presence and depth offensive option. The difficulty with Gagner is he probably isn’t good enough to play in the top-six but he isn’t great in a checking role either.
My guess for the 13 forwards who crack the roster would be: McDavid, Draisaitl, Kassian, Nugent-Hopkins, Neal, Chiasson, Sheahan, Granlund, Archibald, Khaira, Cave, Jurco, and Gagner.
What say you, Nation? How do you expect the forwards to shake out at training camp? Will a rookie like Benson crack the roster? Will a veteran like Gagner get put on waivers? Are there spots for either European free agent addition? What are you watching for this fall?