There’s little about the Edmonton Oilers’ forward corps that leaves one wanting more.
Led by a generational talent in Connor McDavid, and filled out by a group consisting of reliable veterans (Milan Lucic, Benoit Pouliot) and fellow elite young stars (Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl), the Oilers have phenomenal forwards to build their base.
General manager Peter Chiarelli may have just added one more meaningful piece to the group, as the Oilers offered veteran winger Kris Versteeg a professional tryout. It sounds as if the club is very open to bringing the two-time Stanley Cup champion on full-time, as long as he proves he still has enough jump to skate with Edmonton’s quick-footed scorers.
Said Chiarelli to The Edmonton Journal about Versteeg:
“Kris has done a lot in this league. He’s a talented guy and we’d like to have a look at him so he pushes some guys. … He’s got a good chance to make it and I want competition. I thought he showed some stuff last year. If he beats somebody out, we’ll sign him.”
It’s a shrewd move on Chiarelli’s part, which is arguably long overdue. If Versteeg finds himself unable to keep up, he’ll at least provide enough competition for the team’s young guns to push them to perform, especially during a training camp where they’ll be missing several key pieces. However, if the move pans out, Versteeg has the potential to be a valuable, versatile asset that head coach Todd McLellan can use throughout the lineup.
He certainly has the resume to wind up being a fairly solid secondary scorer. The 30-year-old Lethbridge native, who split time between the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings last season, has topped 30 points seven times during his career, and has four 20-goal campaigns under his belt.
Versteeg also brings a very strong possession game, having posted a career Corsi For percentage of 53.7 percent. The 2015-16 season was a particularly strong one for Versteeg in this regard, as he finished with a Corsi For percentage of 57.6 percent, driving offense for both the Hurricanes and Kings.
The veteran’s best recent offensive performance came in 2014-15, when he posted 14 goals and 34 points in just 61 games for the Chicago Blackhawks (which projects to roughly 19 goals and 46 points over a full 82-game season), eventually winning his second championship during the subsequent postseason.
An exceptional skater with undeniable skill with the puck on his stick, there’s no question Versteeg still has the talent to be a decently consistent scorer in the NHL – even if he isn’t the player he was in his prime. In small doses, he can still be a lethal offensive force, as two-time Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson found out during Versteeg’s recent return to the Blackhawks:
If there’s one aspect of Versteeg’s game that jumps out, it’s the fact that his skill set allows him to thrive alongside talented players. That might seem like an inconsequential ability, but it has very real value.
Finding the right wingers to play with superstar forwards can be the difference between championships and mediocrity. Players don’t simply mesh automatically because they’re each of a certain talent level. It’s more complicated than that – a question of whether a player’s speed, vision, and ability to play both with and without the puck can complement their linemates’.
The fact that Versteeg plays a highly skilled game means he’s able to understand the game on a level more akin to other skilled stars. During that season in Chicago, he thrived alongside Patrick Kane – who factored into 13 of Versteeg’s 34 points (nearly 40 percent).
You could look at that and assume Versteeg was nothing more than the beneficiary of Kane’s elite skill, or you could take that to mean the two worked well together given the alignment of their skill sets.
Even if it were the case that Versteeg is only valuable as a complementary piece alongside more talented players, that wouldn’t be an issue for Edmonton, as the Oilers have three exceptionally skilled centermen manning their top-nine – McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl.
It’s fair to assume Versteeg would be able to contribute alongside any of these three. The question is whether he could do more in that role than the other options Edmonton is currently considering.
Assuming Lucic, Eberle, and Pouliot all slot into the top-six alongside McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins – which seems fairly certain – it looks like the club has Nail Yakupov, Patrick Maroon, Zack Kassian, Matt Hendricks and recent draft pick Jesse Puljujärvi to fill out their remaining spots on the wing, with Mark Letestu slotting in as the fourth-line pivot.
Puljujärvi seems to be the biggest wildcard at this point, as it’s unclear whether the 18-year-old is ready to make the jump to the NHL level. The Oilers have seemed more cautious with their prospects as of late – unsurprisingly, given the issues that have ensued from rushing some of their young stars into action too soon– meaning it would be no surprise to see the young Finn return home for another year of development.
Assuming he doesn’t make the big leagues just yet, Versteeg (who’s spent time at both left and right wing) would have Yakupov and Maroon as his primary competition, with Hendricks and Kassian likely headed for fourth-line duties. Let’s assume the lines shake out something like this:
Milan Lucic – Connor McDavid – Jordan Eberle
Benoit Pouliot – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Nail Yakupov
Patrick Maroon – Leon Draisaitl – Kris Versteeg
Matt Hendricks – Mark Letestu – Zack Kassian
The performance of Versteeg and Yakupov during training camp would dictate which would earn a shot at top-six duties alongside Nugent-Hopkins and which would suit up alongside Draisaitl. On paper, Yakupov seems the better bet for the second line given his previous success alongside Pouliot (the two formed a dominant trio with McDavid in the early goings of the phenom’s rookie season).
As well, Versteeg would be able to provide some veteran guidance for young Draisaitl, giving the young center a more skilled trigger man than Maroon.
That being said, Versteeg has proven he can shine with talented linemates – it was only two seasons ago that he was doing damage alongside Kane and Brad Richards in Chicago. A strong showing at camp and continued success early in the season could potentially be enough for him to move up alongside Nugent-Hopkins and Pouliot, adding some more high-end skill to Edmonton’s top-six.
Needless to say, the potential is certainly there for Versteeg and the Oilers.
The only true question at this point is where Versteeg’s level of play is today as compared to last season or the year prior. If it becomes clear that a significant drop-off has occurred, then the club might be better suited sticking with their current options and giving their newest draft pick an extended tryout.
But if Versteeg can still play, Edmonton has little to lose from giving him a shot at being a meaningful secondary contributor for the offensively promising club.