I agree there's a problem, but I'm not crazy about the solution

Jonathan Willis
September 16 2008 11:31AM

A couple of days ago, I wrote about what I felt was the most glaring hole in the Oilers’ lineup—the third line centre position. I suggested Bryan Smolinski as a possible solution, although a trade for a similar veteran player could fill the hole as effectively.

Craig MacTavish, however, seems to have discovered a different plug. A big-bodied plug with a nice face-off presence, questionable defensive zone awareness, and less than stellar skating. That’s right, according to Pierre Lebrun of ESPN (hat-tip to OilFaninCowtown on HFBoards), Craig MacTavish is strongly considering Dustin Penner as his third-line centre. The lines that Lebrun was told about are as follows:

Erik Cole – Shawn Horcoff – Ales Hemsky Robert Nilsson – Andrew Cogliano – Sam Gagner Ethan Moreau – Dustin Penner – Fernando Pisani

Does this remind anyone of a similar move MacTavish made a few years back? Moving a goal-scoring left-winger into the pivot position to fill an obvious hole? Browse down the comments in that HFBoards thread, and you’ll see that commenter Misfit had the same thought I did. In 2003–04, the blinding lack of a first-line centre led MacTavish into moving Ryan Smyth into that slot on the Oilers’ first line (the role was eventually filled by Petr Nedved, who helped lead the Oilers on a remarkable late-season run that ended with a 9th place finish). Smyth had his worst season in four years, and the Oilers struggled until the hole was filled.

Now, obviously, the stakes here are much lower. Equally obvious is the fact that MacTavish will change his lines repeatedly this season, and that his mid-September lines are likely to look vastly different from even his early-November lines. That said, the fact that this hole hasn’t been filled is somewhat inexplicable—players are available, and they won’t cost much. Is the log-jam of forwards really this formidable? Will this team be better off minus a third-line centre, and with one of Ryan Potulny or Rob Schremp on the 4th line instead of in the minors? I think not.

I somehow doubt this is the role that Kevin Lowe envisioned for Penner when he acquired him at great cost from the Anaheim Ducks and it really raises the question of what Kevin Lowe was thinking, spending assets, money and good will on a player who one year later would be in a support role and not a key part of the team. It makes the offer sheet seem even more desperate and ill-planned than it looked last season, and that’s something that I didn’t even think was possible.

The effects of this long-term are probably mixed. Penner looked OK playing tough competition with good line-mates, and between Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani he may continue to refine his game as a two-way player. The real question is why he’s doing it at centre, rather than on the wing—between Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff and Andrew Cogliano, it’s difficult to ever see Penner playing centre in a top-six role for the Oilers. It’s clearly a stop-gap move by the coach, and it isn’t one he should need to be making.

It also seems to indicate a lack of confidence that either Marc Pouliot or Kyle Brodziak is prepared to do that particular job this season, and I’d imagine that the fourth line features Stortini on right wing, Brodziak at centre and Pouliot subbing in as needed. The position up for grabs would appear to be 4th line LW. The other possibility is that one of Pouliot/Brodziak is on the way out.

The final thought I have on these lines is that there is little doubt now that MacTavish is going to run the Horcoff line in a power-vs-power role, a decision that makes a world of sense, given the makeup of this roster.

—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 bebop
September 16 2008, 12:12PM
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uhhhh, way too early for a MacT headache...

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#2 5_cups
September 16 2008, 12:16PM
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I wonder if MacT putting Penner in between has less to do with Penner, and more to do with not wanting to have your captain on the 4th line.

I think everyone is fairly certain that at some point Cogs will get moved into that 3rd line center role at which point Penner can go back to the wing and Moreau becomes a baby sitter/pentalty killer.

It just feels to me like an effort to keep Moreau on the 3rd line as opposed to the 4th.

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#3 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 12:18PM
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I doubt that these lines last long- Penner will be on the second line, and Cogliano on the 3rd or 4th soon enough, I imagine.

I think the biggest thing here is what it says about a) the other players on the roster b) Kevin Lowe's decision making, circa Summer 2006

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#4 Cam
September 16 2008, 12:25PM
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Who is Pierre Lebrun? Is he someone who we should really be listening to? I ask only out of ignorance since the line combinations he's suggesting just look like someone having fun with the numbers game.

Could MacT just be trying to make sure that there is a burr in the saddles of Brodziak and Pouliot? what about Shremp? The way MacT juggles lines around I can see him playing with this combination some night just to shake things up... why not?

I believe this speculation has more to do with having too much talent on Left wing, not a lack of it at centre. It is definitely not something I am overly worried about.

Compared to some of the signings that took place this summer I really don't consider Penner too highly priced for his skill and size and upside. I believe he will put in 20-25 goals this year, and guys who do that get paid what Penner is getting paid.

Everyone keeps saying the Oilers have to get bigger and then condemning Penner in the same breath; I don't get it. If Penners feet (remember I said IF) are moving he's a notable threat and I am pretty sure he is wearing out defenders who are trying to clear him out of the crease, which can only be good for the next shift on the ice. I can only see him getting better and he did improve his skating as the year went on last year, it just wasn't as notable as the dominance of the kid line.

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#5 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 12:47PM
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Who is Pierre Lebrun? Is he someone who we should really be listening to?

Yes, he is. He's had a TV gig with both The Score and Sportsnet, and he's been a print guy since forever. These days, he's jumped ship to ESPN, and as far as being in the know about things on a league-wide basis, outside of Bob McKenzie he doesn't have a ton of competition.

I believe this speculation has more to do with having too much talent on Left wing, not a lack of it at centre. It is definitely not something I am overly worried about.

We have one veteran guy who barely hit 50 points last year, a sophomore player who just hit 40 points, a 6'4" behemoth who oculdn't hit 50 points playing with Horc & Hemsky, and a guy who hasn't played since the 2006 Finals.

Trust me, it isn't the overflow of talent at LW that signalled this move.

Compared to some of the signings that took place this summer I really don’t consider Penner too highly priced for his skill and size and upside.

I don't have a big problem with Penner's pay cheque; my issue is that if Kevin Lowe feels that investing 1) 4.25 M/yr for 5 years 2) 3 draft picks and 3) a ton of bad blood between him and Burke in a player, it seems to me that player ought to be a key cog going forward. Not, say, a guy that you drop to the third line because there isn't room for him in the top 6.

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#6 Scott
September 16 2008, 12:50PM
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Pierre LeBrun is with ESPN. He has actual media access and there is nothing to make me believe MacT didn't suggest this as his lineup. Actual journalists don't blatantly lie where they can easily be caught (looking at you, Dwayne).

That said, I'm hoping this is a challenge to Brodziak (a guy Mac really likes) in the mould of the "for all his strengths, Horc isn't a 90-point guy" challenge to Horcoff (another guy he likes).

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#7 Moose
September 16 2008, 01:20PM
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When I thought about Penner dropping down on the depth chart, my initial fear was that his production would dip if he didn't have anybody to get him the puck. To that end...Pouliot? He's got playmaking skills, and if he shows up to camp prepared, who knows? Penner - Pouliot - Pisani? How does that strike you? Brodziak and Moreau would still get their minutes 'cos they kill penalties.

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#8 Tony Romo
September 16 2008, 01:21PM
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Honestly I don't even think its worth discussing MacT lineup changes. You can just wait for 10 minutes and they will change. This is one of things I seriously HATE about him as a coach. Give the players a chance to gel for heavens sakes.

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#9 Ender the Dragon
September 16 2008, 01:22PM
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Pencil me in as another guy who isn't worried at the suggestion that Penner may get a couple of shifts at centre. If you guys remember the same MacT that I do, many of his line combination theories don't last a period, forget a week. MacT will probably try it out, see it work or fail, and abandon it at the first sign of trouble. 3 or 4 guys are going to get a shot playing that 3rd line center slot this year, Penner being only one and probably the most brief.

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#10 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 01:23PM
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When I thought about Penner dropping down on the depth chart, my initial fear was that his production would dip if he didn’t have anybody to get him the puck. To that end…Pouliot? He’s got playmaking skills, and if he shows up to camp prepared, who knows? Penner - Pouliot - Pisani? How does that strike you? Brodziak and Moreau would still get their minutes ‘cos they kill penalties

That seems fine to me, IF Pouliot can handle tougher sledding, and despite the love he gets from some folks, I don't think he's proved that he can yet.

I also think Penner will still get points, unless MacTavish is also planning to take his powerplay time away from him.

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#11 Moose
September 16 2008, 01:30PM
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Yeah, unfortunately we're STILL asking that question about Pouliot.

PP units?

Hemmer-Horc/Gags-Cole-Visnovsky-Souray. Nilsson-Horc/Gags-Penner-Gilbert-Grebs

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#12 outKast
September 16 2008, 01:42PM
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Has anyone on the Nation staff seen Penner all summer? You guys blogged about how huge Smid looks. You also went over how Pisani is looking a lot like the Pisani of old...

Is Penner still a fatty? No.. that's rude, let me rephrase that...

- is he a now a dress wearer or a pants wearer? - can he play softball? Is he an catcher or infielder? - could we share a rowboat? I think I’m being very clear, what I’m asking. Would an average size rowboat support him without capsizing?

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#13 misfit
September 16 2008, 01:55PM
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Tony Romo: Talk to fans of any team in the league and they'll tell you the same two things about their coach. 1) He doesn't give the prospects enough icetime to develop, and 2) He changes up the lines too much.

What MacT has done with the lines is true of retty much every coach in the league. Plus, MacTavish hasn't had the luxury of having all of his players together for a full season, or even most of one, in a long time.

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#14 DBO
September 16 2008, 02:06PM
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I think in the journal today it talks about how Penner has lost a few pounds of fat and put on some muscle. So now he's a huge 240 lb wiger with more strength. Hope they give him a chance at winger.

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#15 DBO
September 16 2008, 02:07PM
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that should say Winger.

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#16 doritogrande
September 16 2008, 02:29PM
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"Everyone keeps saying the Oilers have to get bigger and then condemning Penner in the same breath; I don’t get it."

I like this statement because it's partly right. Getting bigger up the middle is always a good step in the NHL. Thing is, we don't have to move a winger to do it. Brodziak's 6'3". There's your size Craig. Don't like the move. It puts two players on last year's team out of position. With the possibility that Penner gets moved to C, that displaces one of Pouliot/Brodziak to the wing on the 4th line, and everyone who caught even a bit of TC last year remembers how badly Pouliot did on the wing.

MacT's trying to put a square peg (top-6er) into a round hole (checking C)...again. Of course, all this won't matter once grandpa Moreau has hip replacement surgery on the fourth day of training camp. Move Penner to wing on the 3rd line, move Brodziak to the 3-line and take Brule for the 4th line.

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#17 Fiveandagame
September 16 2008, 02:38PM
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Penner was a center before his time in Anaheim. This isn't a completely foreign position to him, and I think they even experimented with it last year.

That being said, I don't like it. At LW his lack of top end speed can be made up for with positional play. At center he would have to handle to puck too much and

//We have one veteran guy who barely hit 50 points last year, a sophomore player who just hit 40 points, a 6?4? behemoth who oculdn’t hit 50 points playing with Horc & Hemsky, and a guy who hasn’t played since the 2006 Finals.//

I have a problem with people bashing the guy, when he was out leading goal scorer last year, had a decent plus minus, and hell at the end of the season he was on the PK. the kid is great. And as for the Bashing of Cole. The guy has scored 30, 29, and 22 goals in the last three seasons while battling injuries. Name me one other Oiler on the roster to hit thirty goals...ever? and score that many goals in the last three years? (his total points and goals are comparable to Ryan Smyth but Eric Cole plays a punishing physical game. He is the best LW we've had in years.

Speculation on line combos before camp even opens is ridiculous (especially considering MacT is the guy in charge of making them).

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#18 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 02:43PM
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have a problem with people bashing the guy, when he was out leading goal scorer last year, had a decent plus minus, and hell at the end of the season he was on the PK. the kid is great. And as for the Bashing of Cole. The guy has scored 30, 29, and 22 goals in the last three seasons while battling injuries. Name me one other Oiler on the roster to hit thirty goals…ever? and score that many goals in the last three years?

I'm ot bashing; I like all of the guys they have at LW in their respective positions. My point (in overly dramatic rhetoric) was that the Oilers aren't overflowing with super-duper left wingers. They can all play their position, and the team would have a balanced left side.

Speculation on line combos before camp even opens is ridiculous (especially considering MacT is the guy in charge of making them).

Except that MacTavish told LeBrun what his thoughts were making them, at least IMO, fair game.

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#19 MikeP
September 16 2008, 03:53PM
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I don't mind Penner as a centre, provided he learned him some footspeed this summer. He did fairly well at faceoffs last year and I thought his defensive awareness was ok. (OK, I'm Brownleeing it a bit, I don't have stats to back me up, but I did start crunching some numbers on him earlier this year.) He'd certainly be better than Smyth was - could hardly be much worse.

Checking centre though? 4mm+ is a lot of dosh for that role. Guess we'll see.

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#20 Arnold Drummond
September 16 2008, 05:14PM
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MacTavish should be an expert at identifying holes.

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#21 Dennis
September 16 2008, 08:10PM
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Nice recall on the 94 thing.

One thing that lends weight to this story is that Lebrun's a real journalist so this is coming from a reputable source; even if it's nothing more than MacT thinking out loud in late summer.

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#22 R-Gib
September 17 2008, 09:49AM
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I like Penner sticking at left, but providing faceoff support when needed. I know people are going to hate me for saying this, but break up the kid line and put Penner out with 89 and 22. Gags and Cogs are AWFUL in the FO circle... and that line will not stay together for that reason. Put 13 on the third line with 51 for now. This is a temp fix tho. I would like to see Schremp shipped outta dodge for a quality checking center, like a Scott Nichol. I touch on this more here: http://theoil-slick.blogspot.com/

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#23 Chris.
September 17 2008, 10:31AM
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Injuries will probably resolve the dilemma on left wing. Do you really believe that both Moreau and Cole will play most of the season? I honestly believe that Cole doesn't fit into the long term plans of this team. Will an Eastern Conference Guy with only one year left on his term re-up with the Oil? It's my contention that Lowe brought Cole on board to push Penner. I hope Dustin can take a step forward and seize that first line spot.

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#24 Jonathan
September 17 2008, 11:17AM
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I like Penner sticking at left, but providing faceoff support when needed. I know people are going to hate me for saying this, but break up the kid line and put Penner out with 89 and 22. Gags and Cogs are AWFUL in the FO circle… and that line will not stay together for that reason. Put 13 on the third line with 51 for now.

Completely agree that Penner should end up on Gagner's wing at some point this season. Penner - Gagner - Nilsson, with Penner taking most of the draws seems like a logical combination to me; a combination that would just kill softer opponents. Plus, I have more fiath in Moreau/Pisani being able to carry Cogliano than Penner. The size gets lost, but the speed more than makes up for it.

I would like to see Schremp shipped outta dodge for a quality checking center, like a Scott Nichol.

I like Nichol just fine, but if Schremp's going the other way I want a bigger return.

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#25 Kevin
September 17 2008, 11:27AM
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Penner may start on third line but I would be surprised if he stays there. The kid line is too small and will need some size to give it some room. I think you will see Cogs move into the checking role with Pisani & Broziak (sub-ins with Moureau). Cogs is good but doesn't possess the soft hands.

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#26 R-Gib
September 17 2008, 12:15PM
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Jonathan -

I absolutely concur that we should see more return for Robbie... whether that is picks/prospects/whatever... it was more of a basis to get out that Schremp does not fit into this roster, and in my mind should be moved to fill a hole. For that reason I would like to see him going for a decent return as we currently have a glaring need.

Sure, he might turn into a stellar PP specialist in the league, but he also might turn into a bubble player for the remainder of his career. I say ship him while we can still get a decent return.

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#27 Ryan
September 17 2008, 10:03PM
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I really think you are wrong on that one; I sure hope anyways. Penner at centre makes no sense. He is a big body that needs to work the boards, he can't do that at centre. He has good hands, he committed himself this summer by losing 10-15 pounds. Gagner and Cogliano are small bodies that would benefit with a big body like Penner to give them puck support. I see Penner along side Cogs and Gags. No doubt about it.

I see Brule stepping in on the 3rd line at centre, with Nillson and Pisani. Brule is a hard hitter who has some skill, I think he will fit in nice with Nillson...and Pisani is a very reliable two way player that will correct any unstable young mistakes Brule and Nillson may make.

There is no other way of doing it. I don't see why there should be an issue.

Cole-Horcoff-Hemsky Penner-Cogliano-Gagner Nillson-Brule-Pisani Moreau-Brodziak-Stortini (strudwick can play forward too)

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#28 Jonathan
September 18 2008, 08:55AM
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Cole-Horcoff-Hemsky Penner-Cogliano-Gagner Nillson-Brule-Pisani Moreau-Brodziak-Stortini

Who, outside of the top line, plays quality opposition? Penner's line can't do it, a combination of Nilsson-Brule-Pisani can't do it, and Moreau-Brodziak-Stortini doesn't fill me with confidence either.

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#29 R-Gib
September 18 2008, 09:09AM
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Agreed. No matter how you shuffle it, there is a hole that needs addressing.

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#30 Ryan
September 20 2008, 01:35PM
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Who, outside of the top line, plays quality opposition? Penner’s line can’t do it, a combination of Nilsson-Brule-Pisani can’t do it, and Moreau-Brodziak-Stortini doesn’t fill me with confidence either.

What we are lacking is a Stoll and a Reasoner, however positioning can be taught...skill can not. Horcoff, Moreau, Pisani are all great two way players. Brule, Brodziak, Cogliano, Nillson etc are all young developing players. (Pouliot showed he can play a grinding roll) I sure the heck hope MacT can teach them how to play a defensive game. Otherwise, like Schremp, they're not in the line up.

We are rolling with 4 lines, the style is going to be an offensive style. The best defense is to keep puck possession in the offensive end.

The only problem with this team is the lack of a good face off man. After Horcoff it's gets a little worrisome.

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