MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 15: Sam Walsh of the Blues in action during the 2019 AFL round 13 match between the Carlton Blues and the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium on June 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The West Coast Eagles have played in the finals more often than not in recent years, and many believed that trend was set to continue. But 2021 didn't quite go as planned for Adam Simpson's side, as they finished with 10 wins and 12 losses.

By Round 15, the Eagles had eight wins, but failed to secure a finals spot from there. The squad is gearing up for another season in 2022, but several players are ageing and approaching retirement.

 

Their return to the top hinges on finding some youthful talent, particularly in the midfield, as well as a tall target in the forward line.

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Gaps in best 22

With an older squad that houses a dozen players over 29 years old, the Eagles' regeneration should come by way of youth. Their list has an average age of 24.9, making it the third oldest in the AFL behind Geelong and St Kilda.

Veterans Shannon Hurn, Nic Naitanui and Jack Redden are among those who will look to hang up the boots soon, following Brad Sheppard's recent announcement of his retirement. Jeremy McGovern, Jamie Cripps, Andrew Gaff are all approaching the 30-year milestone.

The Eagles will be carrying an ageing list into 2022, and injecting some youthful talent - particularly in the midfield - would be beneficial.

Likewise, Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy are getting older, and Kennedy will be off contract at the end of 2022. Versatile tall forward Jarrod Brander was also moved on, signing with the GWS Giants in the delisted free agency period.

The Eagles have marked their intentions to find a new tall forward to replace the the veteran duo by picking up Brady Hough with Pick 31 and Jack Williams with Pick 57 in last month's National Draft.

Options to steal

Option 1: Sam Walsh

SAM WALSH
Midfield
Carlton
2021 SEASON AVG
29.8
Disposals
4.5
Tackles
4.8
Clearances

At just 21 years old, Sam Walsh is already a star of the competition as he carves up the midfield for Carlton. With up to ten years left in his career, his exceptional services would be on offer throughout another premiership cycle at the Eagles.

Walsh was taken at pick No.1 in the 2018 National Draft and is already making a name for himself at the Blues, finishing fourth in the 2021 Brownlow Medal count. His tally of 30 votes was the most votes polled by a Blue in a single season, equalling Chris Judd's record.

After debuting in 2019, Walsh has continually built on his game and has reached a pinnacle of nearly 30 disposals per game in 2021. His game style breaks lines in the middle of the ground by moving the ball forward with crisp decision making, which would be welcomed in the Eagles' side.

Option 2: Clayton Oliver

CLAYTON OLIVER
Midfield
Melbourne
2021 SEASON AVG
31.6
Disposals
5.4
Tackles
7.5
Clearances

Like Walsh, Oliver is another young midfielder dominating the competition at the Melbourne Demons. His potency is characterised by brute force and power - averaging 5.4 tackles per game.

Alongside Gaff, Yeo, Shuey and Sheed, Oliver's power and strength would not be out of place at the Eagles, but his primed age of just 24 years of age would see him continue for many years to come in the wake of imminent midfield retirements at West Coast.

Oliver came tantalisingly close to snagging the Norm Smith Medal in his side's 2021 grand final victory over the Western Bulldogs, proving that he is also a big game player. He picked up 33 disposals and a game-high 10 tackles in the drought-breaking win.

Option 3: Harry McKay

HARRY MCKAY
Forward
Carlton
2021 SEASON AVG
9.7
Disposals
1.4
Tackles
0.1
Clearances

Harry McKay was the leading goal-kicker in the competition in 2021, playing for the Blues - who finished 13th on the ladder. He picked up the Coleman Medal with 58 goals, fending off Tom Hawkins (54 goals) and Jack Riewoldt (51 goals). Over his career, his average goals per game hovered around 2, before jumping to 3.1 in 2021.

He has proven his ability to hit the scoreboard consistently, having kicked a goal in every game he played this season, except for one match in Round 12. He kicked big bags too, notching up seven goals in Rounds 3, and six goals against Brisbane.

He's just 23 years old and could play under the guidance of Darling and Kennedy, or wait in the wings and succeed them in fine fashion.

Option 4: Ben King

BEN KING
Forward
Gold Coast
2021 SEASON AVG
8.2
Disposals
0.8
Tackles
0.1
Clearances

Ben King, alongside his brother Max King, are both set to be future stars of the competition as tall forwards. Max is contracted at the Saints until 2026, but Ben is only contracted at the Suns until 2022, making his potential transfer to the Eagles more feasible.

Much like McKay, Ben King is just 21 years of age, potentially providing the Eagles with a long term prospect.

He averaged 2.1 goals per game in 2021, up from 1.5 in 2020 and hasn't missed a game in those two seasons. He can take a grab too - clunking four on average per game, with two of those inside 50. He's also proven himself to be a versatile player with the Suns, with the potential to rove down back as an intercept-marker.

Verdict

Adam Simpson has taken the current crop of players to the pinnacle when they won the flag in the 2018 season. But as the Eagles' squad ages, it is unclear which players are coming through after the current squad.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 18: Sam Walsh of the Blues in action ahead of Shai Bolton of the Tigers during the 2021 AFL Round 01 match between the Richmond Tigers and the Carlton Blues at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Injecting youth, particularly in the midfield and key position forward stocks would best meet the needs of the Eagles. In this hypothetical, hardened young onballers Sam Walsh and Harry McKay are thought to inject a game style akin to the Eagles' best.

With tall forward stocks diminishing with the eventual retirements of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, Ben King and Harry McKay have been identified as potential players that could move to the Eagles in this hypothetical scenario.

With the thought of McKay pairing with Oscar Allen in the future, the decision for the Eagles might be an obvious one.