You wouldn’t think it, but center ice was an area of concern for the Edmonton Oilers in 2020-21. Yes, the club had Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl terrorizing the rest of the league in their top-six, but it was slim pickings after that. Kyle Turris, last year’s free agent haul, turned out to be a bad fit and was quickly relegated to the press box and eventually the taxi squad.
Ryan McLeod, a second year pro who was outstanding for the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors, was recalled and was largely good over the course of the last ten regular season games. He’ll be a full-time NHL’er in 2021-22, but only has those ten games and four playoff contests under his belt.
Asking McLeod to be the third-line center on an every night basis may pay off, but is also a massive risk.
In an ideal world, Oilers GM Ken Holland would sign a veteran third-line center and run with him and McLeod in the bottom-six next season. There are a few options in free agency, including Derek Ryan and Erik Haula.
On Thursday, while meeting with the media for his pre-draft press conference, Holland admitted that the club would like to add a veteran third-line center to bolster their strength down the middle. He also admitted that it may not be as easy as many think.
“I’d love to have a third-line center that can chip in 10-15 goals, get 30-40 points, kill a penalty and be a plus player who plays with speed, plays with energy and can get in on the forecheck but that’s fantasy hockey material. I got a cap,” Holland began. “That comes back to the question asked before about trading the first-round pick. I’m hoping that Ryan McLeod, Evan Bouchard, (Philip) Broberg, (Dylan) Holloway, (Raphael) Lavoie and some of these players over the next two or three years grow into these things. I’ve got some priorities.
“Certainly, a third-line center would be a priority but we’d love to add a top-six forward. We certainly have talked about a third-line center.”
The good news for Holland is that it appears he’ll have his top-six forward wrapped up pretty soon. The club had pending UFA Zach Hyman in town on Wednesday and reportedly agreed to parameters for both seven-and-eight-year deals. That should give Holland a clearer picture of what he can and can’t do the rest of the way.
“We’ve talked about signing some defensemen here,” Holland continued. “If I do a buyout, it’ll free up some money and I know how much money I’ve got but I don’t know what some of these players are going to cost. You sign somebody and take that money off your board and see what you got left. Ultimately, as I whittle my way through, we’ll do the best that we can to try to get somebody here that can play in the third-line center spot.”
Whether or not that player comes via free agency or trade remains to be seen. There are plenty of options, however, and the need is clear. At the very least, expect some kind of competition for the job to be brought in between now and the start of camp.