Connor McDavid has won the last two Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer. He has amassed 208 points in the last 2 years. He was on an 87-point pace in his rookie season as well. McDavid was 60 points clear of the third leading scorer on the team last year. Two years ago, he was 49 points clear of that player.
Leon Draisaitl has proven that he is the second most prolific scorer on the Oilers roster. He has 147 points over the course of the last two seasons. Draisaitl finished 2nd in team scoring in each of the last two years. He was 22 points clear of 3rd last year, and 26 points clear of 3rd two years ago.
Last season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was 3rd in team scoring. He only played in 62 games. The year before that, Jordan Eberle finished 3rd in team scoring. He was traded after the season.
Secondary scoring is a massive issue with this team. The forward group is essentially the same as last year with the exception of two new faces. One has to wonder where the secondary scoring will come from this season. To be clear, I’ll define a player as successful at providing secondary scoring if he can score 45 points or more over the course of a full season.
The first group of players that I’ll look at is the group of players that the secondary scoring SHOULD come from.
I’ll start with Nugent-Hopkins. He did have 48 points last season, so he was successful by my definition. The problem is that he only played 62 games. The Nuge was on pace for a career-high 63 points last season, but he missed time due to cracked ribs suffered on a hit from Brayden McNabb in Vegas on McDavid’s 21st birthday. He was producing while McDavid and Draisaitl were playing on the same line. The quality of his line mates was quite low, and RNH was still able to produce consistently. It appears as if he will start the year on McDavid’s left wing after the duo was able to find chemistry with one another down the stretch and at the World Hockey Championships. If he stays healthy and plays with McDavid this season, he could have a career year. That will certainly be the hope.
The next obvious player to look at would be Milan Lucic. His $6 million contract suggests that he should be counted on to produce. However, he is coming off of his worst season since his rookie year. He was only able to muster 34 points. He got 26 of those in 36 games before Christmas. After Christmas, he scored 1 goal. Lucic has some things working against him… he’s 30 years old, and he’s a big man trying to play a fast game. However, he can’t possibly be THAT bad again. He was on a 59-point pace for almost half of the season last year. He is still capable of producing anywhere from 45-55 points. He is still capable of providing secondary scoring, which is what he is being paid to do. Now he just needs to go out and do it.
Nugent-Hopkins and Lucic need to produce at the level that they are capable of producing at, and it needs to happen for the course of the entire season. If they don’t, then the odds of the Oilers making the playoffs will be extremely low.
In addition to Nugent-Hopkins and Lucic, the forward group has some players that have the potential to be able to provide the secondary scoring that the Oilers so sorely need. The problem is that none of them have done it yet. The next group of players that I’ll look at is the players that COULD provide secondary scoring.
Jesse Puljujarvi was taken 4th overall in 2016, and he fell into the Oilers’ lap after being projected as the 3rd ranked prospect coming into that draft. Last season, he set career-highs with 12 G – 8 A – 20 P in 65 games played. He is just scratching the surface of how good he can be. Reports out of his native Finland suggest that his summer training has gone really well and that he is confident coming into the season. He has his eyes on a spot beside one of McDavid or Draisaitl. If he can find chemistry with either one of those two, he will have a breakout year. “If” is the key word. Puljujarvi emerging as a legitimate scoring threat would go a long way towards the Oilers getting back to the playoffs this season.
Ty Rattie was a phenomenal scorer as a kid. He remained so until he began his pro career. Edmonton is his third team, and he has yet to establish himself on an NHL roster. At the end of last season, he found chemistry on a line with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. He had 9 points in 14 games with the Oilers at the end of the year. That’s a 52-point pace. He looked great on the top line, albeit in an extremely small sample size. He earned himself an opportunity to prove that he can produce consistently at the NHL level. The key words are “opportunity to prove”.
In an article I wrote near the end of last season, I took a look at the production of Rattie and Pontus Aberg in the AHL and how it might translate to the NHL. Aberg’s career-high in the AHL is 52 points in 56 games (0.93 ppg). Based on the AHL career-highs of some comparable players, I had calculated that a reasonable drop in NHL production compared to AHL production would be 0.38 points per game, which would put Aberg on pace for 45 points (0.55 ppg) over the course of an NHL season. He got 8 points in 16 games as an Oiler after the deadline last year. The math isn’t far off. Rob Vollman, a hockey analytics expert, calculated that a player will produce 0.47 ppg in comparison to his NHL production. Based on his AHL career-high of 0.93 ppg, that means Aberg would get 36 points in an NHL season (0.44 ppg). That means his ceiling is anywhere from 36-45 points next year. However, Aberg hasn’t assured himself of a spot on the team just yet. This is hardly someone to rely on for secondary scoring, although he could provide it if he gets put in a place where he can succeed and he takes advantage of the opportunity.
Speaking of Yamamoto, he is the last player in this group of players that COULD provide secondary scoring. He averaged 1.6 points per game in junior last year. There is every reason to believe that Yamamoto will be a top-6 forward in the NHL, it’s just a matter of when he will be ready to do so. Some believe that he is ready right now, while others believe that he would be best served by having a year to develop in the AHL. Yamamoto is certainly one who believes that he is ready to play in the NHL right now. He will have his chance to prove it in training camp.
Within the group of Puljujarvi, Rattie, Aberg, and Yamamoto is the Oilers’ top two right wingers for years to come. 2018-19 is the year that will see them battle it out for the right to hold those spots in 2019-20. The thing that we know for sure is that not all of these players will succeed. What we don’t know is if any of them will succeed. The Oilers’ chances of making the playoffs will go up drastically if two of the four can provide secondary scoring this season.
Finally, I’ll examine the group of forwards that WON’T provide secondary scoring.
Tobias Rieder’s production slipped to 25 points last year, down from 34 and 37 points in the previous two seasons. He is in the prime of his career, so it’s not crazy to think that he can return to the mid-30’s in terms of point production. That still won’t be enough to rely on him for secondary scoring.
Last season, Ryan Strome got 34 points. That was his best season since he put up 50 points 4 years ago. He was a much more effective player last year once he was moved to the 3rd line centre spot. He doesn’t have 50-point potential as a 3rd line centre. He won’t be put in a position to succeed offensively, nor should he be.
Kyle Brodziak had 33 points last year, which was by far his best total since 2011-12. Expecting him to reach that mark again this coming year would be a stretch, especially considering that he is locked in as the team’s 4th line centre.
Zack Kassian’s career-high of 29 points came in Vancouver in 2013-14. He got 19 points last season. Kassian is a good bottom-6 forward, but he’s not going to be relied upon for secondary scoring.
Drake Caggiula finished tied for 4th on the team with 13 goals (not including the departed Patrick Maroon) last season. That is a sign that the rest of the team was under-producing, not that Caggiula is a top-6 forward. He’s a useful player. He’s fast, he’s physical despite his lack of size, and he does have decent hands; but he’s not ever going to score 45 points in the NHL.
Jujhar Khaira got 21 points in what was a breakout year of sorts for him. He was able to establish himself as an everyday NHL player. He’s an important player for the Oilers due to his size and his speed, but it’s a mistake to think that he will provide secondary scoring.
The above group can provide depth scoring so long as the team gets secondary scoring from the other two groups of forwards that I mentioned.
If everyone on the Oilers can produce up to their potential, then secondary scoring won’t be a concern for them this season. Including McDavid and Draisaitl, they have 8 players that could potentially score 45 points or more next year. Even if 6 of them achieve that goal, the Oilers will be a high-scoring team.
Of course, that is not a guarantee. They could just as easily have 8 or 9 forwards finish with anywhere between 15 and 35 points. There are question marks surrounding all of the players that should and could provide that secondary scoring, which will make the Oilers one of the more interesting teams to watch in the NHL this coming season.