September 08 2008 04:21PM
I’m one of those people who oscillates between optimism and pessimism when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers this coming season. The reasons for optimism are compelling (Cole, Visnovsky, improving kids) while the reasons for pessimism are probably equally so (holes up front and on the backend, questions about goaltending, record last year was misleading because of the sheer volume of shootouts). One thing that I think is obvious is the need for a third-line centre. I’ve previously suggested that it might make sense (if this team is not expected to contend) to send out Brodziak/Pouliot/Cogliano and see if any of them can get the job done on the third line. In retrospect, that seems foolish. Why jeopardize a playoff position to develop a checking line forward? Bryan Smolinski is the remaining free agent most clearly able to fill the third line centre slot. He’s got the size (6’1”, 205lbs), the right-handed shot, face-off ability (51.8% last season) and defensive chops to do the job. He led Canadiens forwards in difficulty of opposition last season and played with pretty bad line-mates to boot. Despite this, he finished only -7 (2.63 GAON/60). In 2006–07, Chicago employed Smolinski in a soft-minutes role (only three regular forwards faced easier competition), and he was an out-scorer (3.10 GFON/60, 2.53 GAON/60). The goals-for number is interesting, because if a player like Smolinski were signed, I’d expect him to line up between Erik Cole and Fernando Pisani on a strong two-way line. Smolinski has some offensive ability (he’s an underrated play-maker), although that’s offset to some degree by his below-average skating. With Smolinski, the Oilers lines out of training camp would look something like this (ranked by difficulty of minutes): Penner – Horcoff – Hemsky Cole – Smolinski – Pisani Nilsson – Cogliano – Gagner Moreau – Brodziak – Stortini With that lineup, I imagine that Nilsson and Penner would be exchanging places at some point, but the key point here is that the Oilers could ice four lines that would each have a good chance at outscoring their opposition, and they’d still be able to shelter the young players. When injury starts knocking players out of the lineup (and it will), players like Pouliot, Schremp, Brule and Potulny could step in. It’s a deep, versatile group, and one that I’d prefer immensely to the current group. —Jonathan Willis is the owner of Copper & Blue, a blog dedicated to all things Oil, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.