Edmonton Oilers’ top three centre positions are set, but there’s a big battle developing at 4C

Edmonton Oilers’ top three centre positions are set, but there’s a big battle developing at 4C

Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Jan 04, 2021  •   •  10 minute read

Edmonton Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira (16) shoots during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn /USA TODAY Sports

Article content

Edmonton Oilers training camp preview, Part Four: Centres

At long, long last, NHL hockey is set to resume. Edmonton Oilers players and hopefuls conducted a preliminary on-ice session sans coaches at NAIT Arena on Sunday, before camp formally gets underway on Monday. And a short one it will be, with the NHL regular season set to get underway in 9 days time on Jan 13, ten months to the day from the first Oilers game to be cancelled due to COVID last March. That’s a long time between regular season games, with just four disappointing play-in games last August to break the monotony of no hockey at all.

The Oilers announced their training camp roster on Sunday, a surprisingly large group of 40 players. (Full list at the bottom of this post.) That’s a lot of bodies to deal with in such an abbreviated camp, even one that will end with a bloated roster of up to 23 active players, up to 6 more on the taxi squad, and maybe 1 or 2 or injured reserve depending on how GM Ken Holland tackles the Oscar Klefbom LTIR situation. Klefbom is one stalwart Oiler who will not be in attendance at camp, nor at any time in the abbreviated 2021 season.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

The Oilers’ list included 5 goalies, 12 defencemen, 12 wingers, and 11 centres. Make that 11 listed centres, as a couple of men shown at the pivot position actually project to be wingers. They include Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton’s longest-serving player who has played most of his 9 seasons at centre but who was rather definitively switched to left wing at the midway point of the 2019-20 campaign. We’ll consider him in our final camp preview covering Oilers’ wingers. Similar for Seth Griffith, an off-season depth signing who the Oilers list as a centre even as he has taken just 20 faceoffs (with a 25% win rate) in his 79 games of NHL action.

That leaves 9 pivots, even as one or two of them might also be deployed as wingers from time to time. Such is the fluid nature of the forward position, even as we will arbitrarily sort them into centres or wingers for camp preview purposes.

The top three positions here are absolute locks, but an interesting battle is set to take place for the 4C role. Let’s cut to the chase:

Connor McDavid

Edmonton’s guiding star has delivered the goods offensively ever since entering the NHL at 18. After his rookie season was somewhat derailed by injury, he finished in the top two of NHL scoring in each of the four subsequent campaigns. The Oilers have consistently produced at the elite level of 3.5 goals for every hour he’s been on the ice at 5v5; the concern in the last couple of seasons has been a high rate of on-ice goals against which has cut into his once formidable outscoring results. That has been driven to a large degree by increasing shots against combined with a diminishing on-ice save percentage. That’s not all on McDavid of course; only in 2016-17 did he enjoy a full season of healthy Oscar Klefbom, healthy Adam Larsson, and healthy Andrej Sekera behind him, and (not coincidentally) also Cam Talbot’s career best season.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

McDavid’s other massive contribution to the attack is on the powerplay, where he was the only NHLer to exceed 10 (!) points per 60 minutes last season; only the next guy listed on this page was in the same area code.

Expectations for 2020-21: Simply put, more offensive greatness from the league’s most consistent producer, and with better separation between goals for and against. Expect Dave Tippett to tinker with linemates in search of the optimum deployment, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a good bet to renew a red-hot play-in partnership.

Leon Draisaitl

It speaks to McDavid’s great reputation that the NHL’s reigning MVP and first team All-Star centre somehow gets slotted as #2 on his own team, but hey. I’ll use the out that I sorted by salary, and that a strong case can be made for either man. Draisaitl has put up four seasons of 70+ points and surged into triple digits in each of the last two. In 2018-19 he became the first NHLer in 7 years to score 50+ goals and 50+ assists in the same season, while in 2019-20 he was the only man in the league to reach 100 points.

Indeed, it’s a source of both pride and embarrassment to Oil fans to consider this list of the NHL’s top scorers over the last two seasons combined, then realize that the club failed to technically qualify for the playoffs in either season.

Suffice to say that high-end scoring talent is Edmonton’s greatest strength, and the challenge for front office and coaching staff alike is to build a strong supporting cast.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Expectation for 2021: Full time at centre driving his own line at even strength, where he achieved success at both ends of the ice in the 2020 portion of last season. Anticipate a stronger emphasis on “it’s what you make minus what you leave” to be a focus of player and coaching staff alike. No reason to expect he will be any less than the devastatingly effective powerplay sniper Oilers fans know and love.

Kyle Turris

Not saying that Ken Holland found a hot number on the rebound from a bad relationship, but… The facts of the matter say that Turris will be paid less to play for the Oilers over the next two years ($3.3 million) than he will by Nashville to NOT play for them ($4 million, with four more years at $2 million per on top of that). The right-shot centre checks quite a few boxes, but can he check his opponents? If he can get the job done on that front, he brings sufficient offence (0.5 P/GP in an off-year) to fuel a third line.

Expectations for 2021:   Holland made a few important bets this off-season, many/most of which emphasized support scoring. As recently as two seasons ago, Turris was highly-enough regarded to earn a massive contract. In Edmonton he won’t play a leading role on the team as a whole, but he’ll be asked to do some heavy-lifting in an historically weak bottom six. His right-hand stick will be useful on the faceoff dot (career 49.9%), especially if he can handle penalty-killing duties.

Jujhar Khaira

Played most of last season on the wing, but finished up centring a fourth line between James Neal and Alex Chiasson and reprised that role in the play-in series. Tippett stated more than once that he liked Khaira’s size down the middle, and the big man is improving on the dot as well. Drafted in 2012, he’s been a full time NHLer for the past three years, contributing 12 minutes a night for 60+ games in each. He’s developed into a solid penalty killer but his even-strength play has left many fans cold. Not surprising given a net differential of -38 goals at 5v5 over those three seasons, while his offensive numbers have dropped like a stone.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Expectations for 2021: Anticipate Tippett to give him a real shot coming out of the gate, but for the leash to be very short. He has an enticing set of attributes, but consistency is not yet one of them.

Gaetan Haas

Veteran Swiss pivot fared OK in his NHL debut last winter as an ultra-low-event bottom sixer playing 10 minutes a night at even strength.  Brings lots of experience as an all-purpose pivot, even as he has just the one season in the NHL. Speed and terrific defensive positioning are his strengths. He was increasingly effective in the closing stages of his tune-up in Switzerland this fall, alas his arrival in camp has been delayed by an exposure to COVID.

Expectations for 2021: Haas turns 29 at the end of this month so the time is now if he is to establish an NHL career. If he can establish his penalty killing credentials at the NHL level he has a very decent chance to unseat Khaira in the 4C position.

Alan Quine

Depth signing on the first day of free agency received a one-way contract for $750,000. 27-year-old has just over 100 games in the NHL and a reputation as an offensive player, though that was largely earned in the AHL where he scored an eye-popping 98 points in 79 games the last two seasons.

Expectations for 2021: Quine is a tweener who is capable to fill in from time to time. It would be nice to see him capture some of that offensive magic in an NHL arena, but his opportunities are apt to be limited both in number of games and in ice time.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Ryan McLeod

Big, fast, and reasonably skilled, McLeod is nonetheless a project who will likely need some time to put the pieces together. He had a solid pro debut in the AHL last season, then put in a creditable performance with EV Zug of the Swiss League this fall, scoring 11 points in 15 games.

Expectations for 2021: Long term he has the potential to be a solid bottom sixer at either centre or the wing. Short term, he projects to the taxi squad, or more likely to Bakersfield for more seasoning once there’s an actual season to season in. Don’t be surprised if he makes a positive early impression in camp, as he did in the fall of 2018.

Cooper Marody

He projected a lot higher in the scheme of things after an excellent rookie pro season in Bakersfield (with a cameo in Edmonton) in 2018-19, but a dirty hit put him out of the playoffs that year and took its toll on the season that followed. He played just 30 games a year ago with vastly reduced production. He was loaned out to the Austrian ICEHL this fall for a head start but lasted just one game before seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. He’s listed on the training camp roster so here’s hoping he’s ready to go.

Expectations for 2021: Skilled right-shot centre is a splendid playmaker when he’s right. Just turned 24, time is running out for him to make an NHL impact, but the smart money suggests he’ll have to take a place in line for awhile.

Devin Shore

Listed last by virtue of being on a PTO, though he realistically slots in just behind Khaira and Haas or who knows, maybe just ahead of them. With 285 NHL games over the past four seasons, he has serious big-league credentials, even as he has gradually seen both his ice time and point production slide from year to year. Listed here as a centre because that’s where the need is, but is better considered an all-purpose forward who can also play left wing and has past experience as a penalty killer.

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Expectations for 2021: His best shot comes early, when he may get a look at pivot given Haas’ late arrival. First job from the player’s perspective is to show enough to win a contract. With 16 forwards with one-way pacts already on the roster, plus Kailer Yamamoto (two-way ELC but a heavy favourite to make the team), Shore faces a numbers game where he will have to establish himself as not just another option, but a better option to some of the other competitors.

Full training camp roster

40 players in all, including 35 skaters (1 below the maximum allowable). 38 of the 40 are under contract to the Oilers; the other 2 are on Professional Tryouts.

In all, the Oilers currently have 48 players under NHL-class contract, including the following 10 who are not on the main training camp roster.

Salary information shown only for Klefbom, the one player on the list with a one-way deal — one which looms large in the coming days as Holland figures out how best to juggle it on to Long Term Injured Reserve.

Of the rest, all are on two-way pacts, and all but Joseph Gambardella on Entry Level Contracts. The seven shown in blue are currently on loan to European-based teams; Gambardella and Ostap Safin are currently listed as “in the system” and slated to play with Bakersfield Condors as such time as the AHL season begins. Philip Broberg‘s contract will most likely slide, effectively leaving the Oilers with three open spots on their 50-man list to potentially add players.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

LEAVINS: Young Finnish star at World Juniors connected to old Oilers farmhand — 9 Things 

STAPLES: Can Connor McDavid hit 100 in two thirds of a season?

McCURDY: Oilers pull a Messier with Draisaitl

STAPLES: Oilers have 65% chance at playoff berth, analyst predicts

McCURDY: Bear and Koekkoek signings solidify defence for Oilers

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

CBD Oil, 9 Reasons To Love The New Cannabinoid
Find out more