With 29 teams down, and last and the exact opposite of least, we have the Edmonton Oilers. Currently languishing at the bottom of both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference, and ahead of only Buffalo leaguewide, the Oilers are chock-full of players who even the hardest of hardcore fans would have had tremendous difficulty recognizing even three months ago. On that note, it is no surprise that the Sabres had so many qualified candidates when it was their turn in the Who’s That Guy? spotlight. So qualified, in fact, that most of the candidates have already been demoted off of the NHL roster. With the Oilers, it is almost as easy to list the players not qualified as those that are.
This article is not about the young first rounders, so we can eliminate Yakupov, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Gagner (he is still only 24 years old, shockingly enough), and Justin Schultz, who, while technically a second rounder, came into the league with far more hype than first rounders typically receive. This article is also not about the Edmonton goaltending; neither the guys currently in the rotation (Devan Dubnyk and Ilya Bryzgalov), nor the others who had chances through the season’s first quarter (Richard Bachman and Jason LaBarbera). Next, we can eliminate skaters who came over as UFAs or in trades and who had already established their NHL bonafides elsewhere. So we cut out Nick Schultz, Andrew Ference, Ryan Smyth, David Perron, Philip Larsen (I know he is borderline), and Boyd Gordon. Finally, we will ignore Ales Hemsky and Jeff Petry, solid big leaguers both, and Ryan Jones, who has toiled in obscurity for so long, why change a good thing?
The rest of the roster (looking only at players either currently active or on the NHL Injured Reserve) is still long enough that you should grab a bowl of popcorn and a cold/warm drink before reading on. If you are an Oilers fan, a box of tissues would also come in handy.
For the sake of brevity, we will start off with a tandem filling a single-skill role. In the span of six days in late September, the Oilers went fishing in the waiver pond twice, and both times came up with a rugged goon-type enforcer. On the 23rd, they claimed the 6’5″, 250-pound Steve MacIntyre from the Penguins. Next up came Luke Gazdic, recently cut by the Dallas Stars. No tadpole himself, Gazdic tips the scales at 6’3″, 228 pounds. In five previous seasons at the NHL level, MacIntyre had only dressed for 91 games, including a whopping zero this year, as he hurt his knee between being claimed and the start of the season. In fact, it is widely speculated that the knee injury was the sole cause in the subsequent claim of Gazdic. A sixth round pick of the Stars in 2007, the Toronto native spent four years kicking around (and punching around) the Stars system without receiving so much as a single game up with the big squad. Even stretching back to his time with Erie of the OHL, Gazdic never topped 0.5 points per game, unless you want to count six games across two seasons in the ECHL. In the Oilers’ first 23 games, the 24-year-old dressed for all but three of them, although he only once received more than 8:30 of ice time. Playing most often with Will Acton (more on him later), Gazdic has been protected to the extreme, with an inordinate number of his even strength shifts (what do you mean, all of his shifts came at even strength?) starting in the offensive zone, and generally against the opposition’s fourth line. In fact, his numbers in both metrics rank in the top three among Edmonton forwards. All that, and the man is still getting crushed in the possession game. The Oilers should be expected to choose between MacIntyre and Gazdic when the former is healthy again, which is anticipated to be before the end of the month, but they may have signalled their preference yesterday by playing MacIntyre on waivers.
The next player just barely missed exclusion due to the former first rounder rule. Fortunately for him (sort of), he was only the first pick of the second round during his draft year of 2010. In spite of his limited NHL experience (three games before hurting his knee after scoring in his third contest) and his meager production through two-plus seasons at the AHL level (36 points in 113 games), there is still some hope that 22-year-old winger Tyler Pitlick can someday make people remember why he was so highly considered as a freshman at Minnesota State less than four years ago. Considering that he missed two months with a different knee injury last year, he will first need to show that he is healthy, and he would be best served proving that point with more seasoning down in Oklahoma City.
Continuing for a moment on the short-lived theme of second round picks, we land on Finnish export Jesse Joensuu. Drafted by the Islanders as a boy playing among men with Assat in his hometown of Pori, Joensuu spent two more seasons living with his parents. Dinner in the Joensuu household must have been interesting, with Jesse competing for second helping helpings with his father, Jouni, a top-flight soccer manager. The rangy right winger continued to produce offensively throughout the duration of his three-year entry-level contract with the Islanders, scoring at a healthy clip in the AHL while producing marginally above replacement level across 60 games at the NHL level. Upon the completion of his ELC, Joensuu returned to Europe rather than re-sign with the Islanders as an RFA. He performed well for a season in Sweden with HV71, and he spent the lockout back home with Assat before returning to the Isle for a handful of games last year. Thinking ahead to the drafting of this series, the Oilers signed Joensuu to a two-year deal last summer. Other than a goal scored in the season opener, the 26-year-old has been rather ineffective thus far, helping the team more when he was out with a back injury for 11 games than with the -1.0 GVT he has contributed in his 10 healthy games. Although his shifts have been very tough (as far as defensive responsibility is concerned), Joensuu has shown no ability to push the puck out of his own zone, a fact which partially explains the horrific .795 even strength save percentage Edmonton goalies have put up with our man on the ice.
Moving for a moment or two to the blueline, we come across resident journeyman Corey Potter. A New York Rangers fourth round pick 10 summers ago as a freshman with Michigan State, Potter finished his four-year hitch with the Spartans, and then spent three and a half years in Hartford, proving himself to be a potent AHL point producer, a solid puck mover, and a threat from the point on the power play. Nonplussed, the parent Rangers gave the young Potter only eight games to strut his stuff at the top level before they released him to the wilds of unrestricted free agency. The Michigander found a temporary home in the Penguins organization, continuing to excel in the AHL while being largely ignored in the NHL, getting in only one game for Pittsburgh. From there, Potter moved on to Edmonton, and to the season of his life under head coach Tom Renney, a season worth over two GVT while playing nearly 20 minutes per night. Although GVT still valued his contributions last season, his new coach, Ralph Krueger, was not nearly so impressed, cutting away over two and a half minutes of ice time per night when he was not scratching the defender entirely. Now healthy after missing the first 11 games of the season to a back injury, his new new coach, Dallas Eakins, is trending closer to the Krueger train of thought on Potter, as the 29-year-old has been relatively marginalized thus far, playing third pairing minutes at even strength while receiving very little time on the power play. Now in the final year of the two-year pact he signed after his breakthrough, Potter will need to force his way into a more regular role in order to ensure continued NHL employment in 2014-15.
Potter is joined in blueline anonymity by recent Russian import Anton Belov. 27 years old, Belov was never drafted by an NHL organization, spending the entirety of his career up to now in Russia, with his time in the top flight predating the KHL and split between the upper-tier clubs CSKA Moscow and Avangard Omsk. Until last season, Belov was clearly a stay-at-home type, only once reaching even 0.3 points per game. Last year was something else altogether, more than doubling his previous career highs in goals (with nine), as well as establishing a new career high in points with 26. Although he is already a trusted member of Dallas Eakins’ blueline, featuring on the second pairings both at even strength and the power play, Belov has yet to show that he can produce offensively at the NHL level, with only four assists to show from his first 21 games. That said, he has been one of the few to consistently push the play forward for Edmonton with a positive Relative Corsi. The grain of salt accompanying that last number is the man’s relatively cushy assignments thus far, as Belov has received more offensive zone shift starts than all other blueline regulars (outside of Justin Schultz), and against easier competition than all but that same Schultz the Younger. All told, GVT values his overall contributions to be marginally below that of an expected AHL replacement. Although we can cut him some slack considering his newness to the Western Hemisphere, the English language, and the NHL, at some point soon Belov will need to step up his play in order to ensure that his North American stay will last for more than one year.
Next on our list is that man we have to believe is the coach’s pet, Will Acton. The son of longtime NHLer Keith Acton, Will signed a minor league deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs after exhausting his eligibility at Lake Superior State. The thinking was that his bloodlines gave him an advantage not otherwise seen on his hockey card stats, as the young Acton was not a big college scorer. In any case, a little nepotism can go a long way, as his father was an assistant coach for the NHL squad when the son was signed. An energy line player for two seasons with the AHL Marlies, the Leafs did not bring him back when his contract expired, and he then signed a two-way deal with Edmonton 11 days before his 26th birthday. Charitably, we will assume that it is a coincidence that the father joined the Oilers coaching staff nine days earlier as an associate coach. More telling is that the new Edmonton coach, Dallas Eakins, was familiar with Will Acton the player as Eakins was his coach for the previous two seasons with the Marlies.* Acton has been playing fourth line minutes alongside Luke Gazdic, and has similarly struggled to produce much in the way of offense, although he has earned his keep as a member of the primary penalty killing unit alongside Boyd Gordon. With more skilled linemates, Acton may be able to produce more flashy numbers, but his play has been positive enough that even if nepotism played a role in his gaining a contract, he has since earned his spot without reservations or asterisks.
*Note that the Oilers also gave a contract to Ryan Hamilton, who wore the “C” for that Marlies squad for the past two seasons, although Hamilton has only featured in two games thus far for Edmonton, and is currently back in the AHL.
We will close this section, and this series, with the lone player in this article whose ascension to the NHL has been an (almost) unqualified success. Undrafted after a high-scoring amateur career which culminated with four years at Yale University, Mark Arcobello was signed to play in the Edmonton system at the minor league level. The undersized center produced at a high level in his first two seasons at the minor pro level, but turned things up a notch in his third season, half of which was spent with the NHL on hiatus. The Connecticut native finished last season fourth in AHL scoring, with 68 points in 74 games. With the Oilers struggling mightily in the early going this year, Arcobello was often the lone bright spot, with 10 points (all assists) in his first 10 games. He seems to have peaked early. In 10 subsequent games, Arcobello scored his first two career goals in the same game (the second of which was an overtime game winner), but his assist total has remained stuck on 10. In other words, in spite of an ugly slump, he is still tied for fifth in team scoring. A good playmaker, Arcobello has yet to prove that his small frame (listed at 5’9″, 165 pounds) can withstand the trials and tribulations that come with a full season in the NHL, although his introduction has been interesting. What prevents his early successes from being unqualified is a one-day demotion to the AHL (he did not play any minor pro games) last week. Since returning, he was a healthy scratch for the first time. In short, it seems that Dallas Eakins and friends reasonably suspect that at least a portion of the early successes was not sustainable, although he was since informed that he can safely move out of the hotel and find a proper place to live in Edmonton. It is now up the player to prove that he can adjust and get back to producing offense from what should be a third line role.
Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.