Not a reference to the glut of young, smallish kids with mostly one-dimensional skill, but a reference to the Oilers’ apparent depth at centre. Since 2006, the Oilers have lost Michael Peca, Jarret Stoll, Marty Reasoner, and Kyle Brodziak. While the first was a decision clearly out of their hands, and the second was a necessary evil in the business of trading hockey players (and the return was solid), the other two, I can’t quite explain. I mean, neither guy is the mythical Third Line Centre we’re looking for at this stage of their careers, necessarily, but both were capable in the face-off circle and good penalty killers, and that’s something that this team severely lacked last season. You wouldn’t think a little thing like face-offs would have a ripple effect through the lineup, but there’s some good reasons, when you think about it. Winning face-offs, of course, always improves possession time, which is critical in the small-sample world of special teams. Being able to put two capable centres out for certain draws allows one to cheat a little, because if he gets waived, there’s another man there who can take his place, instead of having the winger come in and almost assuredly lose it. Most importantly, for a man like Craig MacTavish, who was big on line-matching and face-offs, having a trustworthy guy out against the best and/or in the defensive zone was critical; last season there were two, with Horcoff taking the lion’s share of the draws and the now-departed Kyle Brodziak doing an able job of mop-up from the 4C position. The fact that Horcoff was frequently playing both 1C and 3C took a huge toll on him, even as well-conditioned as he is, and I think it’s the primary reason for his relative lack of offensive contribution last year: we’ve seen in the past that when Horc has someone capable backing him up on the checking line, and can take a load off, he’s a near-PPG player, and an extra 20-25 points from your top-line centre is huge.
Of course, this isn’t Craig MacTavish’s team anymore: this is Pat Quinn’s and Tom Renney’s and Wayne Fleming’s team. Pat Quinn is, at least during the regular season, an old-school line-roller who is content to have the other coach react to him, rather than the other way around. Some would argue that it’s folly, but given that almost every coach is a line-matcher in some form these days, doing things a little differently may work to his advantage. Certainly, Horcoff will be less bagged come March, at least in theory. The problem, as I see it, lies in the fact that he only has one proven defensive centre now, with the departure of Brodziak, so unless someone can rise up and do the job in the bottom two, i.e. not get clobbered by the Iginlas and the Getzlafs of the world when the matching starts, it could be a long year. All three veterans on the coaching staff see themselves as teachers of the game, so one hopes that they’ll be able to get the most out of each young player, because if it doesn’t, we’ll be in a world of trouble.
I started to go through all the advanced stats, so I could get an idea of guys’ whole games, but then got bored and wandered off in the direction of something shiny, because I lack either the knowledge or interest to try to tease out linemate effects and find out who’s really accomplishing what, and without strong memories of everyone’s individual play at this point, I’m not sure I can analyze this situation with the kind of logical support I’d like. So instead, I’m going to go bullet-point form, with a few observations:
- Andrew Cogliano: Should never be allowed to take a face-off again. Great off the rush, cashes a lot of high-percentage chances, seems to play well with Gagner. Quinn might like to try him on the RW and see what happens. Renney might like to try him on the PK, because he’s still got that “Marchant with hands” vibe about him, and I’d like to see if he can’t spring himself loose for a few short-handed chances. Could be fun.
- Sam Gagner: Not much better at face-offs than Cogliano, but seems to be playing better hockey by the BTN numbers, despite spending half the season barely able to find the back of the net. Has always said the right things, and understood what it takes to become an NHL-calibre hockey player. (Helps that his father was one for many years, and started instilling those lessons early.) If he can start a season the way he finishes it, we’ll have no complaints about young #89; I’d bet good money he breaks out this year.
- Patrick O’Sullivan: Bit of a wildcard. Anecdotally played better at C than on the wing in LA, and the numbers from 2008 to 2009 seem to bear that out a little, though his face-off numbers are mediocre at best. Dark horse candidate for 2C or 3C, though I bet he starts the year at 2LW. While Willis’s post, linked above, suggests O’Sullivan for the Hemsky (“1C”) job, I’m not too keen: he’s not as good of a two-way forward, though that may not matter without Horc on the line, and there are very few centres who’ve been able to work well with Hemsky (or, perhaps more accurately, that Hemsky is comfortable with), at least that I’ve seen. He’s a shooter, but that’s not really enough of an argument for me, at least not until I’ve seen him play more.
- Marc-Antoine Pouliot: As previously noted, he must be the organization’s first choice for 3C, because he’s being given every opportunity. Not much sense in rehashing everything else I wrote yesterday, so moving right along…
- Gilbert Brule: Banger and mucker in the pros who previously lit it up in junior. Did alright in the 4C position with the Jackets in ’08. Spent most of last season hurt or in the minors, as the Oilers tried to get him back on track to be the guy the Jackets drafted from the Vancouver Giants a few years ago. Could make his way to the third line if he succeeds and Pouliot fails this winter. Random trivia: I took a university-level German class with his girlfriend a couple of years ago. Nice girl.
So where does this leave us, at the end of the day? I want very dearly to be an optimist and say it’ll all pan out, but I just don’t know. Both Gagner and Pouliot seem to be fighting consistency issues, while Brule’s had the reset button pushed and is a bit of an unknown quantity. Much as I’d like to think that everything’s going to be hunky-dory, I think that basically requires the assumption that all of the kids are going to take a step forward, and succeed in a sink-or-swim environment. It’s not unfeasible by any stretch, because as I noted above, Quinn et al. are all teachers and should be able to get more out of the kids than MacT did, in theory, it’s an awful lot to pin the hopes of a season on. I definitely think this is going to be a defining issue this year: if one or two of these guys can make a firm grasp at a role, particularly on the defensive side of the puck, it should ripple forward through the lineup and give poor Shawn Horcoff a break, and allow him to focus on producing offence, to say nothing of the other tangible and intangible effects the development of one or more young players will have. It’s a hell of a gamble, but if it pays off, this is probably a playoff team.
I apologize for the very superficial look at this thing, but as I said before, I do enough stats and research in my day job; spending too long at BTN makes my head hurt (and spending too long with the CBJ numbers reminds me how awesome Jan Hejda was; Goddamnit). Coming up tomorrow: a defence of Nikolai Khabibulin, and a cursory look at the other two goaltenders.