Before I begin, allow me to bitch. Last Friday I did my top ten prospects piece, and the one omission I didn’t like having was William Lagesson. Didn’t even give him an honourable mention. I didn’t like going with 16 instead of 15, let alone 17. This bothered me, because every time I’ve watched the kid play I’ve REALLY liked his game. But I leaned towards guys who were either a little younger or had a little more upside. So what happens? He was probably the best D-man they had in Penticton and the NAIT/MacEwan game. Of course he was…
Is this not the weirdest thing imaginable?! It was only a year ago at this time where we were all just praying that everything came together and the Oilers could somehow sneak into the playoffs if everything went as expected. Now, just 12 months later (and really, not 12 months because we still had these thoughts around mid October), people are picking the Oilers to win the West, and some are even picking them to win the Cup. And it’s not crazy…which is the craziest part of all. But let’s keep in mind, as of today this is not an elite team, it just has the potential to be.
I thought about doing a piece on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to start the pre season, and I likely still will. I have a love/hate fandom with Nuge. I see what he could be, and pull like hell for him to get there. He hasn’t progressed nearly as quickly as you’d expect a 1st overall pick to progress to this point, and so half the time I just want him dealt for a 3rd line centre who fits the cap situation much better.
But he’s still on the club, and the one thing I keep seeing with RNH is that he still hasn’t gained the strength he needs to take his game to the next level. The way he plays, the way he skates, it just looks to me that if he starts gaining that “man strength” that his game will go to another level. It’s not really something you can develop, it’s just something that eventually develops for all of us. Likely the biggest area we’ll notice it is in his skating. Right now he’s a solid skater, but he’s still so lanky. On occasion he looks like his skating goes to another level, but it isn’t consistent. We’ll likely notice it in other area’s too like his shot, strength on the puck (obviously), etc. But as he gains strength I believe we’ll see his explosiveness and high end speed very visibly improve.
We always look for comparisons, and with Nuge I see guys often compare him to Pavel Datsyuk, even dating back to his draft year (I believe Ken Hitchcock made that comparison). But the one that never seems to be mentioned, and is a lot more realistic, is Kyle Turris. And Turris is a kid who had a very similar game and build to RNH when he was drafted (B.C. kid too). It wasn’t until the 13-14 season (seven years after being drafted), which Turris game really took off and he started to become the player most expected him to be. I don’t know this, but I wonder if it wasn’t the same thing where Turris just needed to gain that strength. This is season number seven for RNH.
It isn’t as if RNH isn’t good right now, he is. But I still feel like one of these seasons he’s going to finally take that next step.
Sometimes we all forget that Nuge is still only 24 years old. It seemed like last year, we forgot how old a lot of these kids are. McDavid, Draisaitl, Klefbom, Larsson, Caggiula, Strome, Nurse, Benning, Puljujarvi, Slepyshev, Khaira, Brossoit, and of course the aforementioned Nugent-Hopkins are all currently 24 or younger. I think it’s safe to assume big point totals from McDavid and Draisaitl. Klefbom and Larsson for me established themselves as a very capable top pairing last season, so it’s safe to assume that remains the same as well. But the rest of the guys on that list all have the potential to greatly improve.
I’ve heard some talk about how worried they are about the team replacing Jordan Eberle’s production. They all seem to be looking at Strome to do that. I don’t see it that way. The potential replacement for Eberle to me is Puljujarvi. Is anyone going to be surprised if Puljujarvi is a better player than Eberle was last season?
The kid has ridiculous potential. I think of guys like Rick Nash, obviously Blake Wheeler whom he often is compared to, Jakub Voracek, Filip Forsberg, this is the type of player I’m expecting Puljujarvi to become in time. That dominant winger who can carry his own line. Obviously I’m not expecting that to happen this season, but what I don’t think is far fetched is for him to establish himself with the team this season, and a 45-55 point season with much better board and defensive zone play than Eberle brought is very attainable for Puljujarvi.
Having said all that, it is possible that Puljujarvi begins the season in Bakersfield. They did this with Draisaitl, and it seemed to really ignite a fire in him. But others are capable of putting up similar numbers to what Eberle did. Caggiula, Slepyshev, obviously Strome is in that mix. But even then, they wouldn’t need one of these guys to get to that level. 35-40 points out of all three of them, is that crazy?
The most vital spot though that they need a kid to take it to another level is on the blueline and stepping into the top four.
Darcy McLeod has brought this up quite a bit during the off season, and I believe he wrote a piece on it too. You really need a legitimate top four on your blueline, and with Sekera not only out for the first few months, but likely unable to get back to that level all season, they badly will need one of Nurse or Benning to take a step.
To start the season, I like one of two ideas. Option A for me would be to have Benning playing with Russell on the second pairing and I’m guessing that’s what they’ll do. Option B is a lot of re-arranging. Nurse looked damn good playing with Larsson the little time he did in the playoffs last spring. I realize it was a limited sample size, and most of it was for the 7-1 ass kicking in game six against the Ducks, not exactly high pressure. But speaking as a guy who has played D most of his life (albeit not anywhere near a level I’d brag about) I can tell you that playing with a guy like Larsson just makes things so much easier. He’s the type of defenceman you can trust will be in the right spot at the right time. He has a calming effect, which is exactly what Nurse needs in his game. So perhaps McLellan at some point goes with Nurse and Larsson as the shutdown combo, maybe puts Klefbom with Benning on the second pair which would help Benning out, and then having Russell with either Gryba or Yohann Auvitu. It’s a lot more balance, but really creates a lot more question marks. Could Larsson carry the top pair? Could Nurse handle matching against top lines each night? Is Klefbom good enough to bring Benning up to that level?
Back to Nurse for a minute, and if you’ve read my stuff in the past then you know how high I’ve always been on Nurse. The fact that he’s had some really rough stretches in his first couple of seasons doesn’t overly bother me like it does others. I just feel like he has everything you need to be number one in the league some day. The size, the toughness, the skating, and the IQ. Some might disagree with the IQ part because he’s often trying to do too much on the ice. But this is a kid who was the OHL scholastic player of the year in his draft season, you listen to him interviewed and you can tell how bright he is, I just believe with the combination of that talent, IQ and work ethic that he’s going to put it all together. Can he get to the level of a Doughty or Keith someday? Definitely not expecting that. But Seabrook, or another Klefbom? I think that’s very possible. If I had to point out one thing he needs to work, for me it’s his vision above his defensive positioning. Positioning will come with experience, vision is something he’ll have to work on. You obviously can’t teach elite vision, but I definitely believe you can improve it to the level he’ll need it at to become a top pairing D-man.
Benning is funny because he’s the exact opposite of Nurse with how he plays. He’s so subtle and plays such a mature game. While Nurse still has immense upside, it’s tougher to see that with Benning. He’s a kid who doesn’t do anything flashy, nor does he have that one attribute that really stands out. But the Oilers don’t even need much more growth out of him. He already looked solid when he received limited top four minutes last season. So he just needs to take one more subtle step, preferably this season. If he can establish himself as a dependable second pairing D-man this season, it would be massive for the club.
I’m definitely not saying my expectations are for any of these kids to reach there ceiling this season. But I am saying that the Oilers have a ridiculous amount of kids with good-great upside. Right now, with little growth from most of these guys, the Oilers look like a team that should make the playoffs and are at least a threat in the West. If a few of these guys start to pop though, and you have to assume that at least a couple will, this team could go to another level. That’s not to mention all the bullets Peter Chiarelli will have to fire at the trade deadline. All of his 2018 draft picks, and a prospect pool that is as deep as it’s ever been, so the Oilers GM will be able to really load up at the trade deadline.
I understand the concern for some of the holes on the roster. Nobody is ever quite comfortable until players prove they can fill their roles. But despite how much this team grew last season, it’s ridiculous the ceiling this group has. If just a few of them have significant growth, this team goes from good to elite and some of those Cup final prognostications get real.
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