Smoke, or smoke and mirrors?

Jonathan Willis
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.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Ender the Dragon
September 08 2008, 05:48PM
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I notice you didn't even deign to mention Strudwick. Have we written him off as a bad investment even before training camp opens?

On the main point, though, Smolinski turns 37 this Christmas. With 25 points for the Habs last year, I can't see him improving significantly on those numbers a year older with the Oilers. Why was he skating with those bad linemates in Montreal? Maybe his linemates were asking the same thing about him.

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't take a stab at signing the guy. He's got experience and he's reliable, something we know MacT dotes on. But I hope he's not asking for a big chunk of change because we're already paying these younger guys to perform and now we're suggesting paying Smolinski to do better. If he can, ok, but he better cough up another 25 points this season or that signing is going to look pretty silly. Another Peca we don't need.

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#2 mjsh
September 08 2008, 06:35PM
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Peca played ok before Nash nailed him and he played very well in the playoffs. Having said that, I believe in Brodziak. I would much rather have him with Pisani and Cole or Moreau taking tough minutes than Smolinski. The Oilers are built on speed and the smarts will come with experience. First in the Northwest divison 2008-2009

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#3 doritogrande
September 08 2008, 07:13PM
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Ender: Jason Strudwick is a defenseman who can play forward in a pinch, not the other way around.

Jonathan: Like your idea beacause it gives the young-uns someone to learn the job from. It's kinda hard to learn from Marty Sakic when he's tying your laces together and passing out whoopie cushions. The Smolinski option is a good one, but let's make it a TC tryout instead, so that we're not immediately burdened with another contract if he's lost another gear.

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#4 Jonathan
September 08 2008, 08:30PM
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Ender: yeah dg nailed it. Strudwick is far more valuable to this team as the 7th dman than a 4th line forward. I would think that smolinski would take a 1yr/800k deal at this point. Jon- via cell

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#5 Kish
September 08 2008, 09:04PM
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All good points with which I agree. But, the one point that hasn't been mentioned? His nickname. It. Is. Awesome. One of the best all-time NHL nicknames. I mean, Smoke. C'mon. Cool word, great to say, etc., it pretty much has all the greatest nickname virtues. Normally, a nickname counts for squat, but his is so awesome that it should be mentioned in this FA debate. Right? Right?

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#6 Fiveandagame
September 08 2008, 09:04PM
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Why would we have a 37 yr old Smolinski when we had a 30 year old Reasoner for about the same price? I fully believe that our playoff hopes are not in the hands of our third line, we're not Vancouver Jonathan, we have good depth. But part of improving that depth is giving the young kids ice time, giving our young centers faceoffs. I would hate to see, Brule, Cogliano, Brodziak and maybe even Shremp, lose out on critical minutes just so we can have a mediocre Smolinski in the lineup.

Remember the incredible progress Gilbert made last year, and Grebeshkov, and Gagner, and anybody else on the team who's last name started with a "G" (ahem Garon). That progress and source of so much optimism for this season was only made possible by injuries which increased the minutes those guys played. Adding a guy who is one hit away from retirement and is comparably slow to everyone on the Oilers except for Roli, is bad for the team, and is harmful to the players we'd like to continue to develop.

Having said that, adding a premiere 2 way guy at the deadline as a way of solidifying the team? That is a great possibility. That way you get the best of both worlds, the continued development of the young players you want in the position and the security of the veteran when all the chips are on the line.

As for having a guy to learn the ropes from, you couldn't ask for a better role model than Horcoff. Solid in the circle, solid in his own end, a constant threat in the offensive zone, with a die hard work ethic.

With our wealth of young talent, it would be counter productive to bring in Smolinski for the season opener. It is exactly why Sanderson (who is a much better skater by the way) and Reasoner and heck even Stoll were let go, because we have young incredibly skilled talent that needs NHL minutes to develop into the great players they'll be. K-lowe and company believe in the kids too much to second guess them before the puck even drops.

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#7 misfit
September 08 2008, 10:00PM
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Right idea, but I think you've got the wrong guy. I'd rather see if the Islanders would give us Sillinger for a guy like Schremp. So what if we give up more "value"? Sillinger not only has experience starting every damn one of his shifts in the defensive zone, but he's scarily adept at getting into the good end, and creating more than he gives up in the process. He's also one of the league's top faceoff men, and is only signed through the end of the year. And Schremp might actually do something for their powerplay, because he's not getting anywhere near ours (yeah, I said it).

In short, Schremp provides nothing we need where Sillinger provides everything we need.

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#8 Matt
September 08 2008, 11:33PM
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I think everyone can agree that the third line center is the biggest question mark on the team and that it could hurt us. But I approach the problem from a different direction: Signing a veteran outperformer will eat up cap space, take playing time away from one of a number of young guys who are all pushing for a roster spot, and probably won't be a significant enough weakness to keep us out of the playoffs. That having been said, Brodziak could fill in there nicely, we'll have to wait and see. Coming back to all those bubble players, we're looking at a whole whack of young guys that are going to have to clear waivers next year, and if one or a couple of them go to bring in a center who can play tough minutes then that's probably not such a terrible thing.

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#9 Matt
September 08 2008, 11:35PM
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When I talk about swapping young guys for a center who can play tough minutes I am basically saying this is a problem that can be addressed at a later date when we have a better grasp on what each player's capabilities are. Like at the trade deadline.

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#10 jdrevenge
September 09 2008, 07:06AM
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I think the probability of one of the three succeeding in the role is pretty high. Both Pouliot and Brodziak are players on the rise and Pouliot may surprise everyone with his two way ability this season.

I think to go for an experienced guy like Smolinski right now is not what's needed. We need to see what the young kids have without hindering they're development.

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#11 Sean
September 09 2008, 11:04AM
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Jonathan we're gonna disagree on this one till either Brodziak proves to be successful or falls on his face. Brian Smolinski turns 37 in December. In 2009-2010, the year I think the Oilers become legitimate contenders, he will be 38. Give Brodziak the minutes and give him a healthy Pisani as a winger. He will succeed at a cheaper cost with better long term value.

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#12 misfit
September 09 2008, 12:32PM
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Why guarantee a spot for a guy you don't know can perform to the level you need rather than bring in someone you know can? It's not like Brodziak needs to be given hard assignments off the hop in order to improve. And it's not like you can't play him in that capacity throughout the season just because you've signed a vetran centerman. I'd much rather bring in a guy for one year who's proven he can do it than hand the spot to one of 4 sophomores who've been sheltered their entire NHL careers.

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#13 Fiveandagame
September 09 2008, 01:23PM
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misfit - Unless you give those guys the playing time and the harder minutes in their development they will stall and their emergence as the type of player we want them to be will be delayed. Smolinski offers the team some security but at the cost of the further development of jr centermen. PLUS smolinski is slow. We are a fast team in a faster division, he would get left behind and end up riding the pine for a million bucks. Remember we will have a healthy Horcoff for our toughest d faceoffs. Adding a guy like Smolinski at the start of the year would be a huge mistake and would send the wrong message to our young players. If you were going to bring in a guy, why not trade our assets like Pouliot, Brule and bring in a premiere two way guy who is under 30? That way you get rid of the players who need icetime and are unproven and you get a solid guy with a future.

K-lowe and company will stay with their youth until the new year, when they'll make the type of moves they did in 06 which made us stanley cup finalists.

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#14 Jonathan
September 09 2008, 03:03PM
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A couple of points for everyone:

1) Smolinski's hardly the only player who fits the role, he's simply the most obvious free agent choice. I certainly wouldn't be averse to a trade for a similiar player (Sillinger was mentioned).

2) One of the reasons to like Smolinski is that he'll probably come cheap (Marty Reasoner cheap) at this stage in his career. If the money was heading north of 1M/yr, I wouldn't consider signing him.

3) If it turns out that the kids can do the job, it certainly wouldn't be difficult to trade Smolinski as the "warm body" part of a deal at the trade deadline. Deadline deals generally involve some talent going the other way, so rather than upgrading Pouliot at the deadline, why not upgrade a better player in Smolinski?

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#15 Fiveandagame
September 09 2008, 03:37PM
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Jonathan- Why would we have let the same player go in Marty Reasoner( except 7 years younger) to bring in Smolinski for the same price? It makes no sense. The reason Reasoner was reluctantly let go (MacT loved the guy) was we have too many young players in need of those minutes. What service would Smolinski be to the long term betterment of the team? None. He'd be a waste of a Million bucks, there is no point bringing in a guy that could be obsolete by November.

Sanderson was brought in for the same reasons last year. A dependable veteran presence on the team. What was Sanderson? A 1.5 mil practice player, who despite his still impressive wheels, had his role taken by younger forwards. Their development was more important then the occasional mistakes they made.

If you are reluctant to send talent the other way in a trade then you should also be reluctant to stall the development of that talent. We all know playing in Springfield is a lot different than the NHL just ask JF Jaques.

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#16 Jonathan
September 09 2008, 03:52PM
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//Why would we have let the same player go in Marty Reasoner( except 7 years younger) to bring in Smolinski for the same price? It makes no sense.//

Because Smolinski was put in a very similar role to Marty Reasoner last season, and performed much better. Reasoner was -17 and had a 3.33 GAON/60 average. Smolinski's number (2.63 GAON/60) is much better; i.e he's a superior player. Additionally, Smolinski brings a RH face-off to the team, Reasoner was LH, so Smolinski is effectively replacing Stoll, not Reasoner.

Also, I don't expect Lowe et al. to bring in Smolinski; I was arguing that it would be a good idea, not that I expect it to happen.

//Sanderson was brought in for the same reasons last year. A dependable veteran presence on the team. //

Except that Sanderson has never been dependable. He's a scorer, not an out-scorer, and playing weakish competition in Philadelphia, he posted a 4.01 GAON/60. He was done, and the only plausible reason for Lowe taking him was to balance out the ability/salary in the Lupul-Pitkanen trade. Bottom line: I doubt very much he was brought in to play tough minutes, which is what Smolinski would be asked to do.

//If you are reluctant to send talent the other way in a trade then you should also be reluctant to stall the development of that talent.//

I see your point, but at the same time, I'm a fan of making young players earn their spot. IF (and I can't emphasize what a big if that is) Smolinski plays like Sanderson did a year ago, a young player (Pouliot/whoever) needs to be able to supplant him. If he can't, he isn't ready for NHL hockey.

Young players should earn their ice-time. If they aren't good enough for a 4th line role, then they can develop in the AHL.

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#17 Fiveandagame
September 09 2008, 04:54PM
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Jonathan. I see your point. I get what you're saying, I just think that such an addition would be better suited 40+ games into the season, there by maximizing the development of our players.

I think just due to our depth, all of the players save for Horcoff and Hemsky are going to be working hard to earn their ice time. Especially when a players like Moreau and Pisani would gladly eat up more minutes.

We have a wealth of young, and yes mostly unproven centers, and yes they're far from rocking the face off circle, but at the same time that competition between them will only push them further. We saw how the kid line reacted when they had increased responsibility (I know they faced weak opposition before you point that out). Having Horcoff back playing in all situations helps too.

The other thing is, Stoll and Reasoner may have won the faceoff, but they couldn't shut down the other team.

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#18 misfit
September 09 2008, 05:01PM
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Fiveandagame - Pouliot, Brodziak, Cogliano, and Gagner are the centers we have right now beyond Horcoff. According to Desjardins, they ranked 16th, 11th, 12th, and 9th respectively last year in quality of opposition among Oiler forwards who played at least 20 games (16 fit the criteria), and all of them were minus ES players even with the light workload. To compare, Reasoner and Stoll were 1st and 3rd among the same group of forwards in that metric. I'm not saying don't give the kids a shot at playing tougher minutes this year, I'm just saying don't line them up against Iginla quite yet. Or if you do, make sure you've got a Sillinger, Peca, or Smolinski there to play the next shift if (when) they get killed.

The idea that not playing Brodziak or Pouliot on the 3rd line against the best (or even 2nd best) players the other team can send out is going to stall their development is frankly a little rediculous. If anything, playing them in a role that they have little hope in being successful at with nowhere to hide when things go south will probably do more harm than good.

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#19 Fiveandagame
September 09 2008, 08:05PM
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misfit-

I don't disagree that the Oilers are lacking in NHL experience down the middle. And I don't think they should be thrown to the dogs either. But I think you either trade Pouliot or Shremp and try to bring in an elite 2 way guy or you go with what you have. Scraping the bottom of the left over UFA's is not the answer. we have to many bodies as it is. If they aren't getting minutes they aren't developing.

With so many NHL calibre forwards on our roster, the cream will rise to the top and the players capable of playing those tough minutes against other teams 2nd and 3rd lines will become clear.

Horcoff and company will be up against the other teams top line 90% of the time.

Also, the 3rd and or fourth line are going to benefit from a healthy Moreau and Pisani, that immediately improves us in the defensive end. Our defense is also incredibly mobile and makes great first passes making it even harder for teams to trap us in our own end.

I guess I just don't see the gap that you and Jonathan see. Come december you could prove right, but you have to give the kids a go before you relegate one of the NHL ready guys to the AHL because there is just too many bodies.

I believe if this were a bigger issue, the Oil management team would have held onto Reasoner, no matter what his + - was. He was a well liked guy in the room and positive influence on the young kids.

I think you'll see the kids excel this year. It will be a great improvement over the tandem of Stoll and Reasoner last year.

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#20 misfit
September 09 2008, 08:49PM
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"But I think you either trade Pouliot or Shremp and try to bring in an elite 2 way guy..."

Isn't that what I suggested in my first response?

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#21 Fiveandagame
September 09 2008, 09:56PM
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//Isn’t that what I suggested in my first response?//

Yep it sure is. That we can agree on:)

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#22 Dennis
September 10 2008, 10:09AM
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The thing that really smacks true from this entire post is why potentially waste a playoff type season on developing a young centre.

Even though the Hossa and Jagr interest flies in the face of this argument, I still think the Oilers look at this season as one last development year before they really get serious in terms of moving pieces around to go for it.

Otherwise, they'd be packaging Cogs and Souray in return for a real EV difference-making Dman.

And they'd sign a Smolinksi as well.

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#23 Go Lawyers
September 15 2008, 01:05AM
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Your point in an obvious one, Jonathan: The Oilers are icing a lot of youth and have experienced a stupidly high injury rate the past two seasons; they would be much stronger defensively with a veteran 3rd line centre than Brodziak. Don't get me wrong, I really like Brodziak's play. I was pleasantly surprised by his offensive talent: He created a couple chances every game regardless of the line he was playing on, and later in the season he really sparked the 4th line with glencross. If the oilers are trying to make the playoffs though, and it's clear that they are, it seems they are over estimating the team that they have. A veteran 3rd line centre would give them a much better chance.

With that said, kevin lowe's comments, and the lack of talent remaining in the FA crop indicate that the oilers may be waiting until the trade deadline to pick up that player, so that brodziak gets half a season of tough minute experience, and they get a better player.

I think this overconfidence could very well cost them a playoff spot.

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