Oilers sign Miller, what MacTavish said, and questions needing answers

Jonathan Willis
April 18 2013 12:17PM

Lots of stuff after the jump, starting with the Oilers' most recent free agent signing and getting into some of the key questions to answer in the 2013 season's dying days.

Miller Time

Yesterday, the Oilers signed free agent forward Andrew Miller out of Yale. He’s small for pro hockey (the Oilers’ Twitter account originally listed him at 5’8”, then corrected itself and said his official height is 5’10”, which presumably means he’s 5’8”). He’s old, too, turning 25 in the off-season. He’s the same age and size as Mark Arcobello (and the two were teammates in 2009-10). Hockey Prospectus’ Corey Pronman describes him (in part) this way:

The 24 year old center is a classic small, skilled college player. Miller displays above-average qualities in terms of his speed, puck skills and overall offensive instincts. In his Senior season especially he showed the ability to consistently create scoring chances and keep the play flowing in the right direction. The concerns I would have with Miller are firstly his physical game. He’s a 5′9′’ forward and although he does work hard, I’m not convinced he has the necessary grit and physical qualities to be anything more than replacement level in that area in the pro game. With Miller you also wonder if he has enough offensive talent, meaning if he’s dynamic or merely good, to overcome his size. I see reasonable arguments for and against him on that issue depending on which night you saw him.

College UFA signings are basically the NHL equivalent of found money; expectations of the team for Miller should be modest (essentially, that he be a useful AHL’er) with the hope that he’s a pleasant surprise.

What MacTavish did, and did not, say at his press conference

There’s been a lot of ‘the Oilers are going to move one of their big names!’ talk from a lot of different places. The amount of chatter – and the quality of the people engaging in it – suggests to me that more is being said behind the scenes and off the record than was said publicly. However, I do feel compelled to point out that for all the talk of doing bold things and exposing the team to risk, Craig MacTavish made his view of at least the first overall picks very clear at the presser which introduced him as general manager:

If you’re referring to the young core that we paid such an exceptionally high price to acquire, we would part with those assets very begrudgingly.

My guess, and a guess is all it is, is that the five young players integral to the rebuild – the three first overall picks, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz – are all Oilers at this time next year. Sam Gagner, whose exceptional offensive season has been a mixed blessing given the one-year contract he was signed to a year ago, strikes me as the most plausible candidate for a “wow” move because he has youth and real value on his side (everyone in the ‘why don’t they trade Hemsky for a top-pairing defenceman’ camp, this is the reason) and because the role he’s playing (centre of a secondary scoring line) is (comparatively) easy to replace via trade or free agency.

The things left to find out

Stauffer’s comments above make sense, and with Hemsky and Petrell both known quantities losing them doesn’t hurt the evaluation process. The questions I’d like to see a little more data for are these:

  • Are Anton Lander and Jerred Smithson good candidates for roster spots next year?
  • How good is Teemu Hartikainen?
  • Can Ryan Smyth still play if he’s put back on left wing?
  • Does Ryan Jones belong on this team next year?
  • Can Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle generate offence without Hall?
  • Do Corey Potter, Mark Fistric, and/or Theo Peckham belong on this team next year?

Some of those questions, doubtless, have already been answered in the minds of management. Theo Peckham’s played four games this year, and it seems a good bet the organization is done with him; if he doesn’t play between now and the end of the season we’ll know for sure. Smithson and Jones getting scratched last game could be tells, too.

Putting Hall with Gagner and Yakupov, and sticking Paajarvi in Hall’s spot on the Nugent-Hopkins line in that last game seem like attempts to answer some of these questions. So does putting Anton Lander in a third line role, with Shawn Horcoff on the wing, and dressing Fistric and Potter as the third pairing. A fourth line of Smyth, Smithson and Jones would help answer questions about that trio – Smyth’s been bad at centre, and both Smithson and Jones are pending UFAs – and would likely be more effective than any combination based on putting Smyth at centre.

My current answers to those questions, by the way:

  • Lander's a good choice as first call-up, team can walk from Smithson 
  • Good enough to be on the 2013-14 opening night roster
  • Yes, in a reduced role
  • Depends on salary, but if it's reasonable he'd be a very good fourth-liner (who could play special teams and move up as necessary when injuries strike)
  • I really don't know, but if they could play effectively apart it would make it much more difficult for opposing coaches to match against the Oilers, particularly on the road
  • Potter and Fistric are both fine 6/7 options, depending on what else happens with the defence. 

But I'd like to see the last few games of the season to help answer all of those questions. 

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.