While the Edmonton Oilers have not been short of drama through the early portion of the 2023–24 NHL schedule, and many situations take precedence and priority over the play of a singular depth forward, Raphael Lavoie does provide an interesting storyline into the fabric of the team. Though we hardly have enough information to make a declaration one way or another, such a point might be fast approaching. Just how effective can Lavoie be at the NHL level? Might the brightest hopes come to fruition in the season ahead? Through six games let’s check in on how the start of Lavoie’s NHL career has gone.
The under usage of Lavoie
The most salient thing that jumps out is that Lavoie has not seen a lot of ice time. In fact, Lavoie has seen a general downward trend since debuting November 4 against the Nashville Predators. Lavoie’s season high in ice time was just 9:46 two nights later against the Vancouver Canucks. The shortest and simplest analysis of Lavoie’s season so far is that he has not seen enough ice time for us to really have any clear answer on what level of play he is capable of.
In turn, Lavoie is being used in a depth role, alongside depth players. While it is difficult for any player to impress under such circumstances, these roles are best filled with high energy players, those who lead with intensity and reckless abandon, more than they do with smarts or skill. For this reason, this is the worst case scenario for Lavoie, a winger who is best when relying on his immense skill rather than relying on his immense frame.
Lavoie alongside Hamblin
For all but one game, this has meant that Lavoie has been stapled to James Hamblin’s wing. For his part, Hamblin has done well in playing his part as a depth centre, though the expectations here are limited. A favourite of former Coach Jay Woodcroft, Hamblin will need to rely on his effort and responsible disposition at the NHL level. Hamblin hasn’t served the line’s usage, as the Oilers have often had to chase the game of late, but the line’s results have not necessarily warranted more icetime.
By many flow of play metrics this line, most recently with Adam Erne, has lagged behind the rest of the forward group despite seeing sheltered zone starts and quality of competition. While this is somewhat expected given the nature of a fourh line on a team that is, on paper, a legitimate contender, diving into the splits of Lavoie’s results with and without Hamblin might offer some additional context.
|Player 1||Player 2||GP||TOI||xGF||xGA||xGF%||GF||GA||CF%||FF%||SF%||Off. Zone Faceoff %|
|Raphael Lavoie||James Hamblin||4||25.12||0.73||0.98||42.65||0||0||44||40.63||46.15||68.75|
|Raphael Lavoie||w/o James Hamblin||5||14.58||0.6||0.42||58.7||0||1||65.22||53.33||63.64||50|
|w/o Raphael Lavoie||James Hamblin||4||7.67||0.05||0.2||19.52||0||0||33.33||33.33||50||0|
|w/o Raphael Lavoie||w/o James Hamblin||14||618.23||34.39||25.26||57.65||23||31||58.12||56.4||54.42||53.76|
Though the sample size is limited, we can still try to find some meaning in these results. Lavoie has performed better without Hamblin, mostly by means of defensive play as Lavoie has seemed to be able to generate a similar rate of offence regardless of Hamblin. In fact, we can see that Hamblin has performed better alongside Lavoie as well, perhaps pointing to Lavoie being worthy of a move up the lineup. While ultimately Lavoie has only been on for one even strength goal for either team, the early underlying numbers do suggest an argument for an increased role.
The fact is, from a tactical standpoint the Oilers are not leveraging Lavoie’s skill set or putting him in a position to succeed. Lavoie does find himself at an interesting crossroads, though, as with a new coach behind the bench the lineup will be in greater flux than usual. This does speak to the catch-22 that Lavoie finds himself in: not enough icetime to prove himself worthy of more icetime.
What to do with Lavoie
While the Oilers could certainly deploy Lavoie in more favourable spots in the lineup, the team has dug itself a hole in which not much patience can be afforded. From a developmental standpoint, and even a team culture standpoint, there might be something to be said about making players earn such drastic changes in icetime. Since training camp the Oilers have been reluctant to make Lavoie’s path an easy one, and yet the winger continues to show signs of progress.
Given that Lavoie’s hurdles have revolved around consistency, it might be understandable that the Oilers want to test his mettle. Mentally, Lavoie remained focused after being waived to start the season, and proceeded to continue achieving the high level of AHL production he enjoyed over the second half of last season. Is this merely the slow transition to a bigger role? Will Lavoie become a more fundamentally sound player by slow cooking? While some might argue this low usage might wither away Lavoie’s confidence, displaying that he can continue to remain focused might be exactly the test that the Oilers are giving Lavoie.
Lavoie best suited for offence
If the Oilers truly wished to deploy Lavoie in a way that would support his confidence there are a few factors that are vehicular to the right fit. First, we want Lavoie to be in an offensive role, as his greatest attributes are on offence. For this reason a spot alongside checking centre Ryan McLeod might be out of the question, or at least unlikely. Still, as McLeod has posted excellent defensive performances alongside either or all of Warren Foegele, Derek Ryan, and Dylan Holloway, Lavoie could be an offensive catalyst. At the very least we should hope to see Lavoie get some time on the Oilers power play, though the team is not short of strong options.
For the time being, Sam Gagner finds himself in a role that might be appealing to Lavoie. Elevated into the top six, Gagner produced immediately upon being called up from the AHL. His results were clearly enough to buy him some more time, but it’s reasonable to say that Gagner’s grip on this spot is only so tight. Holloway and Connor Brown missing time with injury offers extra spots up for grabs as well. Perhaps it won’t be long until Lavoie overtakes Gagner, though Gagner has performed at least as well as we could have hoped for so far.
While any scoring role might be welcomed for Lavoie, there might be some things to pay attention to in finding the right linemates. Lavoie is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, but does have some puck dominant skills. While the finer details might be a bit lost on Lavoie, or perhaps even a certain reckless intensity left to be desired, it might be worth giving Lavoie a linemate that thrives in these areas.
Lavoie has a great shot, and would seem to be a great shooting option for an elite playmaker. Lavoie might not bring enough dirty work to succeed on a line with both McDavid and Draisaitl, while the opportunities for one-timers would be glorious and plentiful. Presumably either one of the MVPs would be ideal alongside a more workmanlike winger in tow.
The best fit for Lavoie
In truth, the ideal duo for Lavoie to share a line with might be Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hyman brings all of the effort and intensity, some of which we should hope would rub off onto Lavoie, while Nugent-Hopkins is a great playmaker to orchestrate the attack. Lavoie provides an element of speed that the Hyman-RNH duo appreciates, as well as providing some much needed spacing thanks to Lavoie’s ability to score from a distance. Just as Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins provide elements that Lavoie would appreciate, so too would his shot and speed contribute to the group.
Lavoie is by no means a lock to reach the lofty potential that he holds, but he does find himself in a position to be a major x-factor to the Oilers offensive game. The Oilers have not been their usual selves offensively, even on the power play, though this probably has more to do with the negative energy surrounding the team amidst a poor start and an injury to McDavid that clearly limited his effectiveness after initially keeping him from the lineup. Still, with Mattias Janmark injured, with the Brown situation up in the air, and with Holloway’s middling offensive performance preceding his injury, have left a bit of scoring punch to be desired.
By all accounts the Oilers shooting and saving luck should be turning around, at least to some extent. In terms of scoring goals, it will be curious to see how new Head Coach Kris Knoblauch navigates Lavoie’s usage the rest of the season. At the very least, Lavoie has done enough for hope to persist, that the Oilers have affordable upward mobility built into their roster.