It's true that the Edmonton Oilers finished 30th in the National Hockey League last season, but many fans were willing to forgive them for that. After all, the team employed a dazzling array of highly-touted youngsters at every position. Up front, the combination of Taylor Hall, Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle earned the acronym H.O.P.E., and they joined young veterans like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. On the back end, the talent wasn't as pronounced, but capable young players like Devan Dubnyk, Jeff Petry and Theo Peckham still offered the promise of a better future.
There is a lot in that group of names to be optimistic about.
However, the Oilers did employ one group of players that it is difficult to find any justification for. These largely awful, largely older forwards filled the bottom lines, providing neither the promise of upside that other members of the team did, nor the talent that a veteran presence is supposed to add to a rebuilding group. This is why I suggest wholesale change prior to the start of 2011-12 for the bottom of the Oilers' forward corps.
Let's take a closer look at the forwards who spent 20-plus games at the bottom of the Oilers roster last season. Age is calculated as of September 1, 2011.
Player Age GP G A PTS +/- TOI/Game
Colin Fraser 26 67 3 2 5 -2 10:16
Liam Reddox 25 44 1 9 10 -8 14:59
Gilbert Brule 24 41 7 2 9 -7 13:47
J-F Jacques 26 54 4 1 5 -6 7:04
Ryan O'Marra 24 21 1 4 5 -2 11:01
Zack Stortini 25 32 0 4 4 -2 7:05
Steve MacIntyre 31 34 0 1 1 -1 3:32
That's a lot of players coming to the end of the prospect phase of their careers (the age of 25 is generally viewed as the point where expecting further improvement is a fool's errand), taking up ice-time and not giving much back. The offensive results are bad, but advanced statistics from Behind The Net show just how little some of these players are contributing. Each numeric value is followed by a team rank (out of 16).
Player Relative Corsi ZoneStart
Colin Fraser -9.6 (12th) 47.0 (15th)
Liam Reddox -6.5 (11th) 53.8 (3rd)
Gilbert Brule -4.1 (9th) 49.3 (12th)
J-F Jacques -10.4 (13th) 47.9 (14th)
Ryan O'Marra -21.1 (15th) 60.4 (1st)
Zack Stortini -4.5 (10th) 45.2 (16th)
Steve MacIntyre -29.1 (16th) 53.1 (5th)
There is a case to be made that some of these players belong somewhere close to an NHL lineup. Gilbert Brule isn't too far under water in terms of Corsi, and at least he has the excuse of injury and a track record of decent goal-scoring ability to offer in his defense. Zack Stortini adds some toughness to the lineup and started a ton in his own zone, even if that is mitigated by the fact that in 2010-11 he was an offensive sinkhole. Finally, Colin Fraser looked reasonably competent in a depth role for the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks in 2009-10, so maybe there's hope that he rebounds. Steve MacIntyre's a worse than useless hockey player who is really, really good at punching people in the head, so mileage is generally going to vary on that player type.
Beyond those iffy examplesand make no mistake, each of them was, at the very best, the most marginal of NHL playersthere simply isn't an excuse. Liam Reddox is a good AHL player, and probably gets underrated as a rule, but he shouldn't be spending half the season averaging 15:00 per game. Nothing in Jean-Francois Jacques' career suggests that he deserved more than a 10-20 game audition. Yet since 2005-06, he has dressed 160 times for the Oilers. Jacques was in his fourth NHL season before he recorded a goal! Ryan O'Marra's the worst of the threehe's 228 games into his AHL career and has just 21 goals, while he's recorded more than 20 points in an AHL season just once, but as bad as that is, it doesn't compare with his ineptitude in the NHL. In more than 20 games of playing a fourth line role against the worst players in the league, with the vast majority of his shifts starting in the offensive zone, he somehow managed to contribute nearly zero offense while running up the worst possession number of any actual hockey player on the team.
The Oilers have taken some steps already. Stortini was waived and demoted; he almost certainly won't be back. Liam Reddox has moved on to the Swedish Elite League, where I expect he'll fare well. Ideally, the purge won't stop there; if one or two players slip through (perhaps Brule and Fraser, though I wouldn't be heartbroken if either had donned the jersey for the last time), it would be okay, but the Oilers should look at replacing no less than five of these counterfeit NHLers.
Send O'Marra back to the AHL, and make sure he stays there. Dismiss Jacques entirely. Let Steve MacIntyre play three minutes a night for some other team with a love of fighters that add no other dimension.
It's not like the Oilers are going to be hard up for replacements. Young players like Teemu Hartikainen and Chris Vande Velde will compete for spots in training camp, as will players coming out of junior and European leagues, like Anton Lander. At least with players like that, there's always the hope of improvement no matter how bad they are now.
In a perfect world, though, those youngsters would start the season playing heavy minutes in the AHL. Every summer, perfectly good veterans have trouble finding a home. Dominic Moore, for example, couldn't land a contract until nearly August last summer; he scored 18 goals for Tampa Bay and played a key support role on a team that went to the conference finals. The Oilers need to start trying to win games, to show improvement; trying to find useful veterans among the free agent castoffs is a good place to start doing that. If the young players in the AHL earn an extended showing, the team can always send away those older veterans for draft picks at the deadline.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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