Why Raphael Lavoie didn’t make the Oilers and other roster questions ahead of regular-season opener

EDMONTON — An injury to blueliner Markus Niemelainen put a wrinkle in the Edmonton Oilers’ plans to set their season-opening roster. It’s causing them to carry 11 forwards and eight defencemen as part of their 21-man group instead of the split being 12 and seven.

What Niemelainen’s status didn’t do is influence their decision to put Raphael Lavoie on waivers.

GM Ken Holland told The Athletic that the 23-year-old winger would have only made the Oilers if they were able to have 13 or 14 forwards on the roster. To Holland, it comes down to where Lavoie is at in his career in concert with where the Oilers are at in their evolution.

“He’s coming. He’s improving,” Holland said. “By making Raphy available, we took the risk that he was going to be claimed.

“With a 19-skater roster — 12 forwards and seven D (ideally) — it doesn’t give us the luxury to carry a young player that we can grow. We need everybody, all hands on deck.

“We’re trying to field the best team that we can.”

Much to Holland’s relief, Lavoie cleared waivers Monday along with defenceman Ben Gleason and centre Lane Pederson.

Holland’s message to Lavoie is clear. He wants the young winger to keep impressing in AHL Bakersfield the way he did in the second half of last season. He wants him to keep building his resume.

It’s going to take an injury or two — probably of the LTIR variety to clear cap space — or some subpar play from a depth forward for Lavoie to get his chance in the NHL now. But Holland can see Lavoie getting into anywhere from 10 to 30 games for the Oilers depending on the circumstances.

He thinks Lavoie — the second draft pick he made as the team’s GM, 38th in 2019 — will be an NHL regular one day.

“If you look at all these (young) guys,” Holland said, mentioning Evan Bouchard, Dylan Holloway and Philip Broberg, “they didn’t just all of the sudden show up and play 80 games. I don’t envision Raphy could do that.

“When we’re only carrying 12 forwards, we’ve got to carry forwards that are going to be in the lineup every night. They can’t go through growing pains.”

So, this begs the question: Who’s the 12th forward once Niemelainen is healthy and someone (likely him) needs to be moved off the roster to facilitate a call-up?

It doesn’t appear as though Lavoie is the first choice — at least, not at this very moment.

Adam Erne skated with the Oilers on Monday but doesn’t have a contract yet. The Oilers are still mulling that over. There’s no room for him on the roster right now.

Sam Gagner also skated with the team on Monday and said afterward that he feels close to being ready for game action. Bakersfield appears to be the best starting place for him.

Pederson, especially since he’s a centre, could be a reasonable option. Holland even pointed to Brad Malone, Drake Caggiula and James Hamblin as possibilities. All, like Lavoie, could get time with the big club this season.

It’ll take a little time to figure out the answer to this question — especially on a more permanent basis. It’s a question that’s the most pressing of many heading into the start of the season.

Will the Oilers dress a full lineup to start the season?

Getting injury information from the Oilers in the Jay Woodcroft era has been a challenge. A day-to-day ailment has turned into someone being sidelined for a few weeks on a handful of occasions.

Though it’s hard to say for certain just who will take to the ice against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, the Oilers are planning to dress 11 forwards — everyone on their roster. Ryan McLeod is expected to play after missing the entire preseason.

On defence, both Mattias Ekholm and Brett Kulak were full participants in Monday’s practice and the indications are that they’ll play, too. We’ll see for sure in the hours to come.

The Oilers are anticipating at least six defencemen dressing, so it’ll either be an 11/7 or 11/6 lineup.

How will the defence pairings look?

It seems the only thing set in stone for now is that Bouchard and Darnell Nurse are a duo. After that, let the guessing begin. Monday’s practice provided few hints with all the defencemen rotating in during drills.

The expectation early in camp was that Ekholm was going to start the season next to Broberg (more likely) or Vincent Desharnais. That’ll depend on a few factors: his health, Kulak’s health and how the coaching staff chooses to work in seven defencemen (if both veterans play on Wednesday).

Kulak and Cody Ceci mostly skated together until the former didn’t play the last week of preseason games. If Kulak takes the ice in Vancouver and Ekholm doesn’t, it’s possible that pair is broken up. Ceci and Broberg got minutes together in the preseason. Kulak has experience with both Broberg and Desharnais.

How should we make sense of the bottom six?

Well, for one thing, it’s a bottom five until a 12th forward joins the mix.

Based on Monday’s practice, McLeod will centre Holloway and Warren Foegele. That trio should be speedy, good on the forecheck and drive play when in use. Any production from them is gravy.

That leaves Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark to round out the group. Both are wingers who’ve been asked to fulfill centre responsibilities during the preseason. It’s likely their pivot work will drastically decrease while the Oilers are using 11 forwards.

The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to take shifts with fourth-line wingers. Ryan can also jump up and spell someone on the third line. He played with McLeod and Foegele in the playoffs, for instance.

There probably doesn’t have to be much handwringing about the fourth-centre spot until the forward group is made whole.

Will Draisaitl’s line work out?

Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman played almost 30 minutes together at five-on-five during the preseason, per Natural Stat Trick, and the results weren’t great.

The Oilers were out-attempted 36-21, they marginally outshot the opposition 11-10, the expected goals favoured the opposition and the on-ice score was 1-1. The Oilers will need more than that from their second line.

Woodcroft believes the three vets have the making of a good line. Given the sample size and the nature of preseason play, there’s nothing to get too worked up about yet.

It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, though.

Who’s the starter?

To the surprise of no one, Woodcroft didn’t name a starting goalie on Monday for the season opener. He reiterated that the preseason was an open competition.

Jack Campbell clearly was better than Stuart Skinner across three starts each. He deserves to get the net on Wednesday based on Woodcroft’s criteria.

Will that happen? We’ll find out soon enough.

From there, it’ll be up to one goalie to command the net more often than the other as the Oilers plan to use both plenty.

(Photo: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

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