3 bold Oilers predictions for 2022: Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman move to depth roles

Edmonton Oilers left wing Zach Hyman (18) celebrates his short-handed goal against the Arizona Coyotes with center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, right, during the second period of an NHL hockey game. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

EDMONTON — We’ve said it all along this season, over and over: After being swept last spring by the Winnipeg Jets, the 2021-22 season is as much about getting deeper as is it about going deeper for the Edmonton Oilers.

They have two great players — that’s old news. Those two great players aren’t enough — we already know that too.

When the Oilers started the season at 9-1, with their third line and D-corps providing almost a goal per game between them, we thought that perhaps they had this depth thing licked. Then Warren Foegele went cold, Derek Ryan went AWOL, Zack Kassian faded away, and the rest of the Bottom 6 lay dormant during a 7-10 stretch that included a six-game losing streak.

Edmonton closed out their COVID-shortened pre-Christmas schedule with back-to-back wins. So the ship is righted, sort of.

But have they answered their raison d’etre for this season? Do we think that GM Ken Holland’s acquisitions are enough to win a couple of rounds when/if the payoffs arrive this spring?

No chance.

Holland heads into the March 21 trade deadline with more holes than he can plug. However, a couple of the right acquisitions would go a long way to making this team a club a viable Pacific Division champion.

What will happen between now and then?

Craig MacTavish made “bold moves.” We make Bold Predictions.

Sportsnet's Bold Predictions for 2022
With the new year on the horizon, we're putting our boldest predictions for 2022 on the record. Find the latest as they're published right here.

RNH to 3C

We predict a change in thinking when it comes to having the best one-two punch in the NHL today.

For years the thinking in this organization has been, “We’ve got to surround Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with enough Top 6 wingers so they can thrive.” Despite some speed wobbles, that deployment has produced the top two scorers in the NHL over the past six seasons, and they sit tied atop the NHL scoring chart this Christmas.

The problem is, Edmonton hasn’t won squat — and a major reason for that is a lack of depth. As stated above, the time has come to change course. A sea change is needed in Edmonton, where it’s time to let others win the Hart and Art Ross Trophies, and start prioritizing the only trophy that truly maters in our sport.

It’s time to deploy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a third-line centre, and make Zach Hyman his left winger to give the Oilers “third line” some oomph. RNH’s weakness as a centre is taking draws on his backhand. The right shot Hyman can take those draws, and as a line they are more than capable defensively of matching up defensively with the opposition’s top unit, when need be. Or, dominating a Bottom 6 line offensively, giving Edmonton the depth scoring it sorely lacks.

For now, under our plan, McDavid gets Warren Foegele and Jesse Puljujarvi as his wingers. Draisaitl Gets Kailer Yamamoto and either Tyler Benson or Brendan Perlini on his left side for now — until Holland goes into the trade market and finds a Top 6 winger (or two) at the deadline.

Under this system, McDavid and Draisaitl will produce less. But if playing them in separate lines makes Edmonton a tougher opponent — it does — then adding a third line of Nugent-Hopkins between Hyman and Ryan McLeod or Zack Kassian surely gives the Oilers a better chance at playoff hockey, where depth is everything.

It’s not about scoring titles anymore in Edmonton. Nor should it be.

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Ol’ Smitty

Remember during the pre-season when Mike Smith scoffed at concerns that the Oilers were going ahead with a 39-year-old starter, considering his numbers as a 38-year-old last season? “I didn’t age 10 years in the past four months,” we recall him joking. Ah, good times…

Smith was injured in Game 3 of the season and hasn’t played a minute since. This season has basically fulfilled the fears that he brushed aside, as the ageing netminder has re-injured whatever it is that ails him at least once during rehab. Is it a leg injury? Cataracts? A broken hip?

The only good news about Gump Worsl… er, Mike Smith’s injury is that it has given Stuart Skinner a chance to prove himself as a viable NHL backup. So, here’s our bold prediction:

One of two things will happen by the March 21 trade deadline: If Smith is back and playing well, Skinner’s emergence will allow Holland to trade Mikko Koskinen, and free up what remains of the final year of his $4.5 million price tag. That will help to acquire the help Holland needs up front.

Or, if Smith’s injury lags, we predict the Oilers will end his season and place him on LTIR. Then they go to war with Koskinen and Skinner, cross their fingers, and use Smith’s $2.2 million to help with acquisition space.

Either way, we predict that both Smith and Koskinen will not be on Edmonton’s active roster on March 22. And Skinner will be.

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Kailer, We Barely Knew Thee

At five-foot-eight, 153 pounds, Kailer Yamamoto simply has to be a Top 6 player. At this point, that is absolutely up for debate.

He is too small in a Bottom 6 role, on a team that has right wingers Kassian, Colton Sceviour and perhaps the established Josh Archibald under contract. Because as hard as Yamamoto battles and as many pucks as he steals, he won’t stay in Edmonton long as a Bottom 6 winger, we predict. And with two assists this season with the NHL’s leading goal scorer — and five goals, but a maddening lack of shots on goal — Yamamoto just has not staked his claim as a Top 6 NHL forward.

He has stayed at second line right wing this season largely because the Oilers don’t have anyone better. That should change at the trade deadline, and the wings will get crowded as left wing Dylan Holloway eventually arrives and Ryan McLeod (we predict) gets employed on left wing, perhaps pushing Hyman to the right side.

If Yamamoto’s production improves, he stays. If it remains down, he’ll finish the season in Seattle, perhaps in a deal involving Mason Appleton or Carson Soucy.

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