In this final part of a three-part series (parts one and two can be found using these links), I examine the players on the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche, and attempt to decide which roster is most likely to be more successful in the 2013-14 season.
The Oilers and Avalanche have some very obvious commonalities in the dressing room. They’re both very young, rebuilding teams, thanks to years of high draft picks attained from losing seasons. They’re both heavy at the forward position, and light on defense. They both have goaltending situations with more questions than answers.
But which which group of players will be better next year? To answer that, let’s break things down a bit.
Over the past few years, both the Oilers and Avalanche have accumulated several high-end forwards. Edmonton’s recent glut of first overall selections needs no introduction; Taylor Hall in 2010, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, and Nail Yakupov in 2012 highlight an impressive group of youngsters. Add winger Jordan Eberle, center Sam Gagner, and recent acquisition David Perron to the mix, and the Oilers have a top six more skilled than most in the league.
Not to be outdone, the Avalanche bring their own group of high draft picks to the table. 2011 2nd overall selection Gabriel Landeskog, 2009 3rd overall selection Matt Duchene, and 2013 1st overall selection Nathan MacKinnon act as a strong counter to the Oilers’ forward group. Besides these three, right wing P.A. Parenteau, centre Paul Stastny, centre Ryan O’Reilly, and the recently acquired winger Alex Tanguay round out a very balanced forward corps.
None of these top six forward groups is particularly large, and both groups are fairly young. So which offense is better? The answer likely comes down to the depth of the bottom six.
At centre, the Oilers have Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner as their clear-cut top two. On the third line, Boyd Gordon is a clear fit, leaving the fourth-line centre spot to an unproven Anton Lander. It doesn’t take a hockey analyst to realize that this is a very sparse group up the middle- for example, suppose Nugent-Hopkins isn’t ready for the first game in October (a likely scenario, given his injury recovery). Can you imagine having Boyd Gordon, a shutdown center with few offensive credentials, on the second line with sniper Nail Yakupov?
Conversely, the Avalanche have excellent centre depth. Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Nathan MacKinnon are arguably all good top six options.
The situation is similar at wing for the third and fourth lines. The Avalanche have some legitimate options, while the Oilers seem to have nothing but questions.
Is newcomer Jesse Joensuu a third-line winger instead of an fringe NHLer? Is Ryan Jones ready for a primarily defensive role alongside Boyd Gordon? Is Ryan Smyth even an NHL player anymore? Unless every answer to these questions is “yes” the Oilers will have a very difficult time next year.
A very tough call considering the Oilers’ excellent top six forwards, but the Avalanche’s depth wins the day in my book.
Defense and Goaltending
The defensive side of the rink has been a difficulty for both of these teams, but last year it was particularly bad for the Avalanche. The loss of #1 defenseman Erik Johnson for much of the season due to injury was a heavy hit to Colorado. Having him back in action next season should help, but outside of Johnson, Jan Hejda, and up-and-comer Tyson Barrie, there really aren’t many reliable options for the Avalanche defense.
Ryan Wilson is solid, but has often suffered from injuries, and was limited to 12 games last season. Greg Zanon was waived and bought out this offseason. They swapped Shane O’Brien for Cory Sarich in a trade with Calgary, and brought on Andre Benoit from Ottawa, but neither of those additions can be expected to fix their holes in the defense corps.
While the Oilers probably don’t have any defenseman in their system as good as Erik Johnson (even considering his poor performance in his injury-shortened 2013 season), it is clear that their defensive depth is much improved.
The recent acquisitions of Andrew Ference, Anton Belov, Denis Grebeshkov, and Philip Larsen should add some much-needed help if injuries strike (and they will- these are the Oilers we’re talking about), and with as many as 10 defensemen competing for three pairings, the group’s motivation should be excellent. The lack of a true #1 defenseman may hurt them, especially since Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry struggled as the top pairing last season, but I think the overall group is slightly stronger than Colorado’s.
In net, the picture is foggy. Semyon Varlamov has struggled since coming to Colorado, posting a .913 save percentage in 2012 followed by a .903 save percentage this season. He does, however, have high potential based on his play in Washington. Devan Dubnyk improved from a .914 clip last season to a .920 clip this year, but considering this was a lockout-shortened season, it’s unrealistic to think that Dubnyk has solidified himself as a good starter. Still, it’s clear that Edmonton’s goaltending has a better track record as of late.
A hard decision to make, but when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net, I think Edmonton has the edge. Incredibly.
Based on this (admittedly simple) analysis, the Avalanche should have more success from their forwards, while the Oilers should have more success from their defense and goaltending. This is just a layman’s perspective, of course.
Which team do I think will be better next year as a result?
I have no idea.
I only wish these two teams were still in the same division.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below. Be sure to follow us @OilonWhyte.