2017-18 Edmonton Oilers likely to feature refreshingly few NHL rookies

With the signings of veteran LW Jussi Jokinen and experienced international defenceman Yohann Auvitu in recent days, the fine-tuning of the Edmonton Oilers roster for 2017-18 is nearly complete. Auvitu became the 50th man to sign an NHL contract with the club, theoretically the limit although with two of those contracts in place for under-aged juniors — LW Tyler Benson and G Dylan Wells — the effective number is 48.

That leaves a little slush room for maybe one more late signing, or for a professional tryout or two at training camp. Barring a trade of an actual roster player, however, there’s little room for Peter Chiarelli to manoeuvre between now and September and leave himself any sort of flexibility for in-season moves. So for the sake of discussion, let’s consider the current version of the roster as a “done deal” even as there are two long months between now and training camp.

One thing that jumps off the page to this observer is the depth of NHL-experienced players. The Oilers are five deep at every skater position with players who are ineligible for the Calder Trophy, and a sixth across the board who have at least had a cup of coffee in the show. That’s 30 skaters in all, along with 2 goalies.

I’ve revised my customary depth chart, removing salary specifics from the second line of each cell and replacing it with the player’s age as of opening night 2017 and NHL experience, presented in regular season GP + playoff GP format. Rather than merit or projected line combinations, each position is listed in order of total GP.

Click on chart for higher-resolution version.

That’s 32 players with NHL experience. One thing jumps right off the page: that bottom line that includes four dudes with less than 10 games in the show and some other guy named McDavid. An object reminder as to how young is Edmonton’s meal ticket. Clearly that one player alone turns this version of the depth chart literally upside-down.

Equally clear is the fact that up front the Oilers are top-heavy in experienced players on left wing, especially with addition of the Jokinen who immediately becomes the oldest and most-experienced player on the entire roster. A very nice replacement for the departing Matt Hendricks and Benoit Pouliot, who along with Lucic and Maroon made LW the Oilers deepest position last year in terms of experience. This year there are three veterans in that mix leaving room for youngsters Caggiula and Khaira (both of whom can also pinch hit at centre) to compete for ice time.

Encouraging to see the greatest depth of moderately-experienced forwards at the centre position. Or should I say, listed at the centre position. Seems highly likely that on any given night, one of the top four listed guys will line up at wing , specifically right wing where the club has by far its least experience. A case can be made for any or all of Draisaitl, Strome, RNH or Letestu to spend time on the flank; nonetheless a line-up with “too many centres” is one that Todd McLellan would much rather have than one with not enough.

Still, when Zack Kassian, a 26-year-old bottom-sixer has more games of NHL experience than all of the rest of the “natural” right-wingers combined, that position represents the soft underbelly of the team in the experience department, at least among skaters. The goaltending psotion remains heavily reliant on Cam Talbot, whose incumbent backup, Laurent Brossoit, remains technically an NHL rookie even as he spent two previous stints plus the entire back half of last season in the bigs.

On the back end, Russell and Sekera are the Bobbsey Twins of veteran D, and there is no question that Sekera will be missed in the opening weeks of the season as he recovers from ACL surgery. Fayne and Gryba do offer some shelter in terms of experience, but there’s no doubt that McLellan will be relying on relative youngsters Larsson, Klefbom,. Benning and Nurse to carry much of the load. Each of those fellows is under 25 years of age, but each can be expected to be a better player than he was a year ago. A big part of this team’s projected improvement in the longer term is predicated on internal development. That foursome got 267 games of NHL experience last season and a further 50 in the playoffs, and they should be better for it. 

Indeed, the fact that so many players have at least a modicum of NHL experience sets this team apart from its predecessors up to and including last season. It’s entirely possible that the Oilers will have zero regular skaters who will be considered Calder-eligible rookies. One would have to go back to 2005-06 (yeah, that season) to find a squad so experienced that only one rookie, Matt Greene, played enough games (27) to burn his rookie status. Since then it’s been a steady run of newcomers, with occasional solid groups (2007-08: Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert) and weak ones (2009-10: Jeff Deslauriers, Taylor Chorney, Theo Peckham, Ryan Stone). Let’s use the turn of the decade and the beginning of Rebuild 2.0 as a starting point for a rookie review:

2010-11

Magnus Paajarvi 80 GP; Jordan Eberle 69; Taylor Hall 65; Linus Omark 51;  Jeff Petry 35; Devan Dubnyk 35
Ryan O’Marra 21*, Teemu Hartikainen 12*, Chris VandeVelde 12*

A very promising group whose first four members were the four pillars of H.O.P.E. Alas, all four were wingers. The emergence of Petry and Dubnyk on and behind the blueline was a promising, even as they went on to play their best NHL hockey as older, more experienced players on other teams. In deed, not one of the nine (!) players listed remains with the club. The last three names, O’Marra, Hartikainen, and VandeVelde all got their first extended look, even as they would ultimately burn their rookie status over the course of two seasons through the “6 + 6” rule. Note that one asterisk means the first such year, two asterisks the second.

2011-12

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 62 GP; Anton Lander 56
Teemu Hartikainen, 17**; Ryan O’Marra, 7** (Colten Teubert, 24*)

Two young centres were simultaneously thrown to the wolves. RNH is highlighted as a player who remains with the Oil today, and you’ll have to wait a while for the second such. (Note that for those who took multiple years to break in, I will highlight the last year in which they remained Calder-eligible.) Hartikainen and O’Marra both burned off their second year of 6 + 6, but neither of them made an impact. Neither did Colten Teubert, who just missed the 25-game mark in his one and only NHL look.

2013

Nail Yakupov 48; Justin Schultz 48
Chris VandeVelde 11**

The arrival of Yakupov coincided with the departure of Omark, and H.O.P.E. transmogrified into H.Y.P.E. All wingers, still. Schultz had a promising rookie half-season after a dazzling run in the AHL during the lockout, but Edmonton’s over-reliance on this youngster was just beginning. Both Yakupov and Schultz were seen as key pieces of the future, only to both fail miserably in Edmonton and eventually get moved for a third-round draft pick; arguably, the dual failure oif the Class of ’13 was a devastating blow for Rebuild 2.0. As for VandeVelde, he had his third look in Edmonton (12, 5, and 11 games) before moving on to become a useful depth player for the Flyers.  

2013-14

Luke Gazdic 67; Martin Marincin 44; Mark Arcobello 41;
Oscar Klefbom 17*; Tyler Pitlick 10*

A couple of promising defenders here in Marincin and Klefbom, of which the latter remains in Edmonton. Gazdic and Arcobello were minor pieces who nonetheless got a lot of games in.

2014-15

Oscar Klefbom 60; Leon Draisaitl 37
Tyler Pitlick 17**, Iiro Pakarinen 17*, Brandon Davidson 12*; Jordan Oesterle 6*

Finally, a couple more rookies who remain part of the Oilers today, and a couple of key pieces at that in Draisaitl and Klefbom. Not one of the six guys listed here remained with the team all season as the roster was in a state of flux throughout. Same could be said about the coaching staff which underwent a mid-season upheaval.    

2015-16

Darnell Nurse, 69; Iiro Pakarinen 63; Brandon Davidson, 51; Connor McDavid 45;  Griffin Reinhart 29; Anders Nilsson 26
Adam Clendening 20**; Jordan Oesterle 17**; Jujhar Khaira 15*; Anton Slepyshev 11*

Now we’re talking. McDavid is the centrepiece of Rebuild 3.0 and has already emerged as the motor that drives the Oilers. Nurse is seen by many as a key piece of the core group along with the previous year’s additions of Draisaitl and Klefbom. This season also featured the stabilization of the Oilers’ front office and coaching staff after years of flux.

2016-17

Matt Benning, 62; Drake Caggiula, 60; Anton Slepyshev, 41; Jesse Puljujarvi, 28
Jujhar Khaira, 10**, Laurent Brossoit, 8*

That’s a lot of rookies, even as several of them project to be useful supporting cast players or perhaps better over the longer term. It was a hugely important developmental year for them as a group with lots of hard lessons learned as rookies. The key point being that virtually all of these guys were sheltered in the bottom six, bottom pairing, or backup goalie roles rather than being thrown to the wolves as happened all too often in the past. As such, all of these players were able to contribute in some manner to the long-overdue turnaround season. And looking forward, all are better players today than they were a year ago.

2017-18

Laurent Brossoit**

Brossoit remains Calder-eligible as he barely missed the 6 + 6 rule having played 5 + 8 the last two seasons, even as he has garnered a decent amount of big-league experience along the way. Trouble is there is zero credit given for a backup who practices, dresses and warms up with a team but doesn’t get into a game, whereas a twelfth forward who plays a handful of shifts gets credit for a GP. This just in: goalies are different. For sure they are in the Oilers’ organization, which is studded with netminding prospects at various levels of hockey but just the one proven guy at the NHL level.

Among skaters, barring a surprise showing from a depth player like Mitch Callahan, Brian Ferlin, Joey LaLeggia or Joe Gambardella or a stunning training camp from Kailer Yamamoto, it seems unlikely that any rookies will start the season with the big club. They will have to await their opportunity as the season develops.

Add it all up and there are 12 players highlighted in blue above who got their start with the Oilers and collectively make up a core group of in-house prospects. That’s about half of the projected 23-man roster, which is supplemented by a solid group of experienced NHL veterans acquired by other means — Jokinen, Lucic, Letestu, Maroon, Kassian, Strome; Russell, Sekera, Larsson, Gryba; Talbot. I’d argue both the internal and external groups are the best we’ve seen in this city since 2006.

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For completeness, here are the other 16 under contract for the 2017-18 season, listed in order of age.

Note that Lagesson will play in Sweden this upcoming season, while the rest will play somewhere in the Edmonton system. Note also that LaLeggia is shown as unsigned but is reported to have signed a one-year contract extension with the Oilers today.

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