As part of edmontonoilers.com’s countdown to 2016-17, we will be publishing a 5-on-5 series. For the five weeks leading up to rookie camp, we take a look at five questions for this Oilers team heading into the new season. The series ends September 15, as the Oilers rookies report for duty and our pre-season coverage begins.
3. How will the new forward group mesh?
The Oilers had some significant change to their forward group this off-season, albeit in the impact not quantity of moves. The biggest roster shakeup of the summer was undoubtedly the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils, in exchange for defenceman Adam Larsson. We spoke about Larsson in our first 5-on-5 segment. There were other changes as well, some that actually happened in-season last year.
The topic this week is how the new forward group will mesh, considering the changes that have been made.
With Hall headed to New Jersey, the Oilers signed Milan Lucic in free agency to help bolster the left side. Lucic’s arrival could provide much more than just a body on the left wing.
Lucic comes to the Oilers with more than 600 games of NHL experience, and a Stanley Cup ring with Peter Chiarelli in Boston. The veteran winger is also considered one of the toughest opponents to play against in the entire League. He’s a physically punishing checker with the skill and ability to play on a team’s top line. There truly is only one Milan Lucic in the NHL.
Playing on the top line is something Lucic is expected to do in Edmonton. Although the Oilers have yet to open camp or skate together as a team, there are many who believe the new Oil winger could be the one to flank Connor McDavid on his left side in 2016-17. Lucic had 20 goals last season, and has scored 20-plus in four of his last six seasons.
In addition to production and where he’ll play in the lineup, Lucic also brings a certain swagger and presence to the Oilers roster. It’s something even Oilers players have commented on since his signing on July 1.
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“I’ve never played on his team, but I’ve played a lot against him,” said Oilers winger Matt Hendricks. “I’ve played in a playoff series against him when I was in Washington and he’s a beast. We need more of that. I’m excited that he’s coming because he has that top-line mentality. He can play those big minutes, the top power play, first line, he has a lot of success there and he brings another element to our team that I think is very important.”
Larsson also called his former Eastern Conference foe Lucic “one of the toughest forwards in this league.”
Lucic, who spent last season with the LA Kings, believes he can add something the Oilers have been missing in a tough division.
“When you’re looking at the Pacific Division that we’re in, you have to play that big, heavy, grinding type of game,” he said. “You have to have that team toughness and that attitude that you’re feeling going into every game that you’re going to win. Knowing that you’re not going to be pushed around and being able to win those battles that happen throughout the games is definitely huge.”
Lucic is physically and mentally equipped to help in that department and his GM, coaches and teammates have expressed their belief in that as well.
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But it’s not just Lucic who adds this new element to the Oilers game. Chiarelli has shown a commitment to adding size, along with physical and mental toughness. Look at his additions of Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian last season as examples.
Kassian (6-foot-3, 217) and Maroon (6-foot-3, 230) added some beef to the Oilers lineup in 2015-16. Maroon also showed an ability to complement the skill on the Oilers roster, even skating on McDavid’s wing toward the end of the season. Maroon produced much offence in limited time with Edmonton, scoring eight goals and tallying 14 points in 16 games with the orange and blue. It was shades of what he did with Anaheim before coming to Edmonton, as he played top-line minutes with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf at times.
The question of how they will mesh is nearly impossible to answer at this point. There’s still training camp and exhibition games to take place, experimenting with line combinations, etc. The full team hasn’t had a chance to play together. A full, healthy season of McDavid affects the performance of the forward group, and don’t forget about the health and availability of other forwards on the roster, as well as the potential presence of a highly-skilled rookie in Jesse Puljujarvi. A number of factors tweak the dynamic of the group.
However, there’s a history with some of these players, such as Lucic and Maroon, that suggests they can complement Edmonton’s roster.
The look of this forward group is different from the one in 2014-15, for example. The work Chiarelli has done since taking over the job has given the team a different identity, and that mission continued this off-season. If this forward group can mesh in 2016-17, it could provide fans with a unique combination of size, grit and skill to watch.