Really the only way to tell what the team is lacking is by looking at teams that are successful in the NHL. What's needed is a team to serve as the model; one which is successful both in the playoffs and the regular season. Hard as it is to admit, the Vancouver Canucks may be that team. They haven't won the Stanley Cup yet, but if they make it by San Jose it's hard to imagine one of the Eastern finalists besting them. This is a team that is good now and should remain that way for some time. Vancouver is also a fairly balanced team (they are strong at all positions), which makes them a good example to follow.
Firstly, here's a look at Vancouver's depth chart:
Vancouver's forward lines look something like this (assuming that everyone is healthy and everyone stays on for next season):
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Mikael Samulsson
Chris Higgins - Manny Malhotra - Raffi Torres
Jeff Tambellini / Victor Oreskovich - Maxim Lapierre / Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
That's pretty solid balance throughout the lineup. There's some grit and toughness there, some chirpiness, and of course there's plenty of scoring. If we compare the forward lines of the Canucks to that of the Oilers, we can start to see the holes. Oilers players are listed below if they are now - or could conceivably be - of comparable quality to the same player in the Canucks' lineup. At the positions where the Oilers can't match the Canucks player, there is an X. Where scoring ability is not so much a factor, intangibles will substitute.
Taylor Hall - X - Jordan Eberle
Magnus Paajarvi - X - Ales Hemsky
Ryan Jones - Shawn Horcoff - Linus Omark
X - Gilbert Brule / Andrew Cogliano - Teemu Hartikainen
Sam Gagner is not on this list because it seems unlikely that he'll end up being as good as Henrik Sedin, nor as complete a player as Ryan Kesler. However, he'll also probably end up being better than Manny Malhotra (at least offensively), which means he doesn't fit into the third line spot either. Thankfully for the Oilers, there's no real panic when it comes to Gagner's development, which means that they can keep him in the fold on the second line for a while and hope that he comes along as they originally thought he would. If that happens, the Oilers will have a player who, while not like Kesler in style, could conceivably get close to him in overall quality. Gagner is still very young, and it's much too early to write him off as a prospect. He could still end up as a near-elite player, which is what the team will need for the second line center position.
The Oilers are now (or in some cases, will be) as good as or better than the Canucks on the wings. It's hard to say that anyone could be as good or better than Daniel Sedin, but Taylor Hall has that kind of potential. Furthermore, it isn't as much of a stretch to suggest that Eberle will be better than Burrows, or that Paajarvi could better than Raymond. Ales Hemsky is already a better offensive performer than Mikael Samuelsson, though Samuelsson is still a very good player. Raffi Torres and Linus Omark aren't similar in style, but Omark should be able to contribute at least as much offensively.
What the team is lacking is two centers, and some overall toughness throughout the forward lines. Notice that there is no "stick optional" goon type of player who is theoretically supposed to protect Vancouver's lineup; at least not one that is only a designated fighter. Even a guy like Tanner Glass plays a somewhat regular shift. While he's not an offensive dynamo, he did manage to contribute more than the Oilers' Colin Fraser or Steve Macintyre both on the scoreboard and in terms of a physical presence. The fact that every player on the Canucks roster can actually play gives that team the flexibility to roll four lines and get their elite players at their freshest.
There are at least 3 players missing from the forward lines. Assuming that everyone develops as planned (which is sometimes assuming a lot), the Oilers should be set on the wings for years to come, and Horcoff is steady as a third line center. If Brule and Cogliano don't pan out as fourth line centers, the Oilers still have Lander, Vande Velde and O'Marra coming, so they should be set there as well. Naturally, the top two center positions are the hardest holes to fill, and also where the Oilers are the weakest, but there is the opportunity to address that particular weakness through the draft. If Nugent-Hopkins is selected by the Oilers and he pans out as well as many believe that he will, then he could eventually end up being as good a set-up man as Henrik Sedin.
Vancouver's defense doesn't boast what you could call a true number one. There's no Nicklas Lidstrom or Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger on this team, but there doesn't have to be because once again there is a good balance. This is exactly the reason that a comparison betwee the Oilers and Canucks could be a good one. Barring some unforseen trade, free agent signing or draft pick (like perhaps Adam Larsson), the Oilers will not have a true number one defenseman. However, the Canucks have shown that that doesn't mean that a team can't have a solid defensive group.
Speaking of the draft, the Canucks prove yet again that there is no need to draft a defenseman with a top-five pick in order to build a solid blueline. Vancouver drafted only two of their regular defensemen: Bieksa and Edler. Obviously those two are key cogs in the Canucks' defense, but Edler was drafted 91st overall and Bieksa was a 5th round, 151st overall pick.
In order of regular season ice time per game, here are the Canucks' regular rearguards:
Alexander Edler (8-25-33)
Christian Erhoff (14-36-50)
Dan Hamhuis (6-17-23)
Kevin Bieksa (6-16-22)
Sami Salo (over 27 games) (3-4-6)
Aaron Rome (1-5)
Keith Ballard (2-5-7)
Not a true number one among them. However, it is a solid defense. Luongo and Schneider certainly had something to do with it, but this team had the fewest goals scored against it in the regular season. That stat is due, at least in part, to this defensive group.
So how do the Oilers stack up? As you might imagine, they don't stack up well. Once again, here is a list of the Oiler's current defensemen who can match (or could one day match) those of the Canucks. Where the Oilers can't match, there is an X.
Jeff Petry gets an asterisk because it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that he'll end up being as good as Edler at this point. Certainly the potential is there for him, but he's got a ways to go. Whitney has shown that he can put up points like Erhoff can, and he can also eat up a large amount of minutes. Smid and Peckham can bring the physical presence and log similar ice time to Rome and Ballard, but Peckham in particular has work to do to be more complete.
The Oilers have no legitimate answer for Hamhuis, Bieksa or Salo. It could be argued that Tom Gilbert is somewhat similar in style and usage to Salo, but Gilbert is a poor-man's Salo at best. This list is being kind to the Oilers' defense because it also accounts for players' potential, but right now the drop-off in talent from Whitney is huge.
Seeing that there are at least 3 defensmen missing (and possibly more depending on the development of the rookies) might make some argue that the Oilers should draft Adam Larsson first overall. But, as stated previously, the Canucks defense was not built that way. Of the regular defensemen listed, only Hamhuis and Ballard were drafted in the first round, and none were drafted in the top ten overall. Also, this defense was amassed slowly, over a period of several years as the team improved, which is something that the Oilers will have to do as well.
In goal, the Canucks have the arguably the best goalie in the league, who is backed up by a guy who could probably be a number one on most teams.
This is where things get a bit more dicey. Having a goalie like Luongo definitely helps a team, but recent history shows us that it's not absolutely necessary to have the best goalie out there to win the Stanley Cup. Antti Niemi has silenced a lot of doubters in these playoffs, but he's also had some shaky performances. His opponents in last year's Stanley Cup Final, the Philadelphia Flyers, didn't have a real number one goalie.
Then again, stout goaltending is important come playoff time. Nikolai Khabibulin probably won't be around when the team starts winning, which means that the mantle will pass to his current backup Devan Dubnyk. Once again, we can only look at Dubnyk in terms of projections because the sample size of his NHL work is so small. He has the potential to be a number one goaltender, and even though he didn't always win, he showed that he had the mental toughness to withstand the rigors. There weren't many nights when he seemed like his head just wasn't in the game, which is a strong indicator for goalies.
If Dubnyk develops as Oilers' management hopes he will, he will probably be good enough to backstop the team's future. After that, the Oilers will need to find a solid backup, which is relatively easy through free agency. Also, the team has prospects Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz who could both end up as legitimate backups at least.
The Oilers are at least 6 players away from being a contender. Less if Sam Gagner develops as planned; more if you count a goaltending backup and if the other rookies don't progress properly.
This is another case study that can be used in the argument for drafting a center first overall, because players like Henrik Sedin do not appear in free agency, and there's not really ever a good reason for teams to trade them. Conversely, the Oilers' defense could be built in the same way that Vancouver's was and still end up being just as good one day. Even though the Oilers' defense is their weakest point right now, in the long view it is better to let quality, experienced rearguards come to you.
So if the magic number is 6, there is work to be done. We already knew that. What we don't know is how all those holes will be filled. Painful though it is to watch a losing team, watching it be built and growing it together is a special thrill in itself.