Lowetide: Is Edmonton Oilers prospect Raphael Lavoie a tweener?



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Earlier this week, Raphael Lavoie scored his 20th goal of the 2023-24 AHL season for the Bakersfield Condors. He has scored 11 times on the power play, the second-best total in the league.

He is one of 18 men to score 20 times this season, and for Lavoie it’s the second season in a row.

Why is he still in the AHL? Is Lavoie a tweener? Will he become an NHL regular with the Edmonton Oilers?

Defining a tweener

The word is not a compliment. In sports parlance, a “tweener” is a player who is plenty good enough to play in the minor leagues but doesn’t have enough skill to grab a regular job in the highest league.

It’s often balderdash, an excuse used to keep a player out of the NHL due to biases that might include size, foot speed, defensive acumen, unwillingness to go to tough areas and other assorted sins real or imagined.

In the case of Lavoie, he’s done everything required for an NHL audition, but the Oilers are focused on the Stanley Cup and for general manager Ken Holland that means veterans.

So far this season, management has invested 39 games on rookies (3.5 percent of overall), including seven for Lavoie in his first trip to the world’s best league. Other players, no longer rookies, are being held back from NHL games due to veterans brought in to occupy those roster positions.

This has been a practice of Holland since his arrival, when men like Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard were signed from European leagues to make certain the Oilers didn’t have to rely on young and unproven talent like Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson.

The time never came for those men to play as NHL regulars with Edmonton.

Is this unusual

Lavoie has scored 20 goals in back-to-back seasons. Is that rare?

The answer is no. In fact, another AHL Pacific Division winger has done it three times in a row and is still waiting in line.

Samuel Fagemo of the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings affiliate) has scored 20 goals three years in a row. This season, he has 29 goals in 34 AHL games. As impressive as Lavoie’s goal-scoring is this season, Fagemo is delivering at a higher level. He has played just four games in the NHL this year, three fewer than Lavoie.

The best scorers in the AHL don’t stay long. Dallas Stars forward Logan Stankhoven is playing his first NHL games after a sensational rookie season in the AHL with the Texas Stars. Stankhoven is at 47 games, and there’s every chance he’s playing in his final minor-league games for a decade or more.

Oilers future high-end scorers who spent fewer than 50 games in the minors include Esa Tikkanen (15 games), Ryan Smyth (nine), Leon Draisaitl (six) and Mark Messier (four).

Based on the travels of Fagemo and the Oilers’ history with future impact scorers, Lavoie’s deployment over his first four pro seasons is not unusual. He’s a fine scorer, with NHL potential, but he is not an impact player trapped in the AHL.

That doesn’t happen. Teams are far too hungry for goal scorers.

Running up that hill

There have been several opportunities over the last couple of seasons for a recall.

Holland’s decision making has been consistent all down the line. Given the opportunity to invest NHL playing time in Lavoie, or even more promising talents like Dylan Holloway and Philip Broberg, have been met with a flurry of veteran options via trades and free-agent signings.

It’s a fact that 11 of Lavoie’s 20 goals this season (through Saturday morning) came on the power play. His chances of making the Oilers power play (first or second unit) is not high, so even-strength scoring is vital.

If we break out the even-strength goals for the season, Lavoie is the best of the Condors but there are others who are close and two who are scoring at a higher goals-per-game rate.

Player EV goals EV goals-game

Cameron Wright

7

0.25

Tyler Tullio

7

0.23

Raphael Lavoie

9

0.21

Ben Gleason

8

0.21

Drake Caggiula

8

0.2

All numbers even strength

Cameron Wright is on an AHL contract, and an older prospect, but he’s having great success at even strength in Bakersfield this season.

Tyler Tullio is coming on in his second season in the AHL and is a player to watch.

Is he improving?

Lavoie’s 2023-24 season will see him exceed last year’s career high in goals. His power-play goals have increased, but his even-strength goals-per-game has fallen.

There’s also the matter of even-strength goal share.

Stat 2022-23 2023-24

EV goals-game

0.3

0.21

PP goals-game

0.11

0.26

EV GF-GA

47-33

24-19

EV Goal Share

59 pct

56 pct

EV GF-GA w/o Lavoie

113-119

88-74

EV Goal Share w/o Lavoie

49 pct

54 pct

Is Lavoie improving? His goal-scoring is down at even strength but he remains a productive outscorer at the AHL level and that’s key for players trying to make the NHL.

Lavoie’s GA-per-game at even strength year over year is heading in a good direction. In 2022-23, Bakersfield allowed 0.54 goals-against per game in the game state when he was on the ice, and this season that number is just 0.44 goals-against at even strength.

Bottom line: Lavoie is scoring less at even strength but his line remains an outscoring trio. He will likely play middle-six (second or third line) when he gets another NHL chance, suppressing opposition goals will be paramount.

The eye test

Let’s answer those questions.

Why is he still in the AHL?

The organization made a decision to fade young players (Broberg, Holloway, Lavoie) in favour of established veterans.

Holland is risk averse when it comes to trusting young players.

The only exception during his five years as general manager came during a brief period when Jay Woodcroft elevated goaltender Stuart Skinner and defenceman Vincent Desharnais from the AHL, and gave increased responsibility to centre Ryan McLeod.

Since then, it’s been a hard road for young Oilers players.

Lavoie has received some NHL games this season, and if he survives the trade deadline will be a good bet to have a role on the 2024-25 Oilers.

Is Lavoie a tweener?

History tells us the forwards who play most or all of their entry deals (and beyond) in the minors and then succeed in the NHL are able to eliminate mistakes while also contributing at even-strength offence.

Since 2000, examples of Oilers prospects who have managed to do it include Jason Chimera, Fernando Pisani, Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Kyle Brodziak, Tyler Pitlick and more recently Ryan McLeod.

Many of those players were or are centres, and that’s one of the hurdles facing Lavoie. Many of the previous successes were better skaters (compared to the players of their era) than Lavoie.

Several of those players were given an NHL chance by Craig MacTavish, a coach who (the record shows) often eschewed the first-round selections and looked for the hard workers who could help him during five-on-five minutes.

Will he become an NHL regular with the Edmonton Oilers?

Lavoie is shy of being an ideal candidate for the role that will be made available to him.

His junior career, and the 20-goal seasons in the AHL, both indicate a feature role on an NHL team (in this case the Oilers).

Next season, Edmonton’s skill wingers will (very likely) be Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane and possibly the player Holland will acquire before the deadline.

There is a job waiting for a player in a two-way role, and it could be Lavoie. He is inexpensive, has learned to use his size effectively and there’s little doubt he will be able to score enough to stay in the league once he gets established. There’s reason to believe he’ll help his line out-score opponents, too, based on his Bakersfield resume.

What he’ll need is an opportunity.

When he gets it, Lavoie will have to impress with his reliability across 200 feet of NHL ice.

He arrived in pro hockey as a hotshot scorer with a quick release and plenty of potential.

Lavoie is not a tweener. He is a young player trying to fit into a role that is not a natural fit. He will not be applying for a job as a skill winger in Edmonton but it is a role he could grow into over time.

(Photo: Perry Nelson / USA Today)





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