Playing Centre & The Top Nine

Jonathan Willis
August 15 2009 01:42PM

The centre-ice position was not a strength for the Oilers last season. Despite being blessed with an abundance of natural centres, the vast majority of them were either young, inept in the faceoff circle, or both. In a recent interview with Dan Tencer, Oilers G.M. Steve Tambellini talked about what his team’s options were for the coming season.

The full interview is linked above, but here are the most relevant excerpts:

Tambellini: We’ve got a lot of people that can play centre, with Horcoff and Gagner and Cogliano and you mentioned Brule, and Patrick O’Sullivan, who headed up the top line as a centreman for Team USA at the World Championships with Dustin Brown reminded us how well he plays centre.

Tencer: When you look at the centre position - and you mentioned Patrick O’Sullivan - Marc Pouliot’s another guy who’s played a lot out of position, he’s a natural centre going back to his days in Rimouski when he was playing on Sidney Crosby’s line. Do you think about maybe moving Cogliano to the wing given his numbers in the faceoff dot last year, and moving O’Sullivan or Pouliot back to a natural position at centre? Is that an option? Tambellini: Yeah, I think it’s an option. I think at times it will be a situation maybe that changes depending on performance like any other year… Pouliot gives you that little extra size and the right-handed draw also, so I know that he’s going to get a look there also. O’Sullivan, he’s a heady guy who can make the nifty pass and he can shoot. Like I said, he reminded us when he was playing on the top Team USA line that he plays very well there.

There isn’t any reading between the lines required to get the idea that Patrick O’Sullivan is going to get a shot up the middle, and despite a lukewarm debut with the Oilers the idea that he might be a fit with Ales Hemsky remains a strong one. To quote Lowetide’s “Reasonable Expectations” post:

Today's post is brought to you by the number 259. That's the number of shots Patrick O'Sullivan posted this past season in the National Hockey League. That's 74 more shots than Ales Hemsky managed (Hemsky's total led team forwards); the last time the Oilers had a forward with more shots it was 1998-99 and Billy Guerin was scoring 30 goals on 261 shots.

That shooter’s mentality remains O’Sullivan’s greatest strength to the team; it’s a unique gift among Oilers forwards. So far, it hasn’t translated into a ton of NHL goals (O’Sullivan’s had totals of 22 and 16 goals over full NHL seasons) but it has at every other level: the four-time 30+ goal scorer in the OHL (with a miserable Mississauga team) scored 47 goals as an AHL rookie in 2005-06.

What would the Oilers’ top-nine look like if we assume O’Sullivan as Hemsky’s centre and Andrew Cogliano as a LW?

The players in the mix seem fairly clear-cut:

  • RW: Hemsky, Pisani, Nilsson/Gagner
  • C: Horcoff, O’Sullivan, Gagner/Pouliot
  • LW: Penner, Cogliano, Moreau

Frankly, I think the most likely top-nine if O’Sullivan slots into the top-line spot is as follows:

  1. Penner – O’Sullivan – Hemsky
  2. Cogliano – Gagner – Nilsson
  3. Moreau – Horcoff – Pisani

There are a bunch of possible variations; Horcoff flanked by Cogliano/Gagner, Cogliano and Penner switching spots, etc. Still, that should be close, since I imagine the organization would like to keep Gagner up the middle as well, since that’s where his NHL future lies.

There are a couple of other points worth noting about moving O’Sullivan to centre:

  1. O’Sullivan’s best NHL season (2007-08) came while he was playing centre. It may be coincidental, but his point totals went down when he moved to the wing.
  2. O’Sullivan is, at best, a very vanilla faceoff option. Excluding last year, where he got very few draws (and many of them were probably of the more-difficult-to-win replacement variety) he’s averaged 44.6% over 588 faceoffs. That’s better than Cogliano, but not worth getting excited about.

I do believe we’ll see Andrew Cogliano move to the port side regardless. He’s been miserable on faceoffs, and the lessened defensive responsibilities have t be regarded as a good thing at this stage in his career. If that happens, and O’Sullivan also stays on left wing, I imagine we’ll see Penner move to RW. He played it a bit under MacTavish as part of the former coach’s ill-fated third line (Moreau – Pisani – Penner) and that would allow him to slot into the second-line wing spot with Sam Gagner – something that seems like a natural fit. That would give the Oilers’ the following top-nine:

  1. O’Sullivan/Cogliano – Horcoff - Hemsky
  2. Cogliano/O’Sullivan – Gagner – Penner
  3. Moreau – Pouliot - Pisani

I think that’s a reasonable group of forwards, although of course I’d prefer a more established option than Marc Pouliot for the third line and it also means the team will be banking on scoring by committee and steps forward from Cogliano/Gagner. Unfortunately, both seem inevitable, but fortunately both could work out for the team. It’s a gamble.

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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#51 Chris
August 15 2009, 09:35PM
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@ Arch

Lanny McDonald turned 56 last feburay... Classy old timer. Really classy. Wasn't he still playing when the flames won their only cup over twenty years ago?

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#52 oilersseasonticketholdersince99
August 15 2009, 09:36PM
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It will be interesting what lines Quinn and Renney put together,they must have sat down with Tamballini and have a plan,If you look at our team, we have alot of talent we just need to get all the pieces together and watch out,thats what I hope is going to happen.

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#53 Chris
August 15 2009, 09:37PM
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@ Archaeologuy:

Oh, I forgot. You were probably still in diapers the last time Calgary won a cup.

@ Librarian Mike:

I'm trying. I'm really trying. I love trolls.

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#54 OpenAir
August 15 2009, 09:49PM
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@ FlamesRule:

Obvious Troll is obvious

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#55 oilersseasonticketholdersince99
August 15 2009, 09:50PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Jonathan Willis wrote: 1. Penner – O’Sullivan – Hemsky 2. Cogliano – Gagner – Nilsson 3. Moreau – Horcoff – Pisani and a fourth line of Stortini, Brule and JF Jaques.That would be a pretty good all round line up and should be able to compete with most teams.Add to that the Strength of our D and Quinns and Renneys coaching and maybe we do have a chance to compete and make the playoffs.
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#56 oilFan
August 15 2009, 10:04PM
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What ever the line up is we will score more goals then Calgary. Plus are tender will have at least a .900 save %. Kipper was ranked something like 32nd in the league last year. Anyone know what Bulin ranked ?

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#57 Andrew W
August 15 2009, 10:34PM
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@ FlamesRule:

Sorry to disappoint you but I have a university education and maybe thats why I live in Calgary.We ship out all the losers and uneducated people to Deadmonton.

I love how you're putting down the quality of education in Edmonton, yet in the same sentence you make a mess of basic english: you should have written "that's why I live in Calgary..." not "thats why I live in Calgary".

It's nice to know that they give out degrees in Cracker Jack boxes down there, though.

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#58 Andrew W
August 15 2009, 10:40PM
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And, by the way, I make typos and blog them by accident all the time, but I sure as hell don't do it while putting down the intelligence of an entire city.

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#59 Jonathan Willis
August 15 2009, 10:47PM
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Fun fact for everyone:

oilersseasonticketholdersince99 FlamesRule BigBanana DannyHateley

all post from the same IP address and same email account.

I've deleted most of this poor sap's comments, but don't feel the need to continue to engage this idiot.

And Bruno - stick to one account. You're bothering me.

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#60 Archaeologuy
August 15 2009, 10:49PM
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Chris wrote:

Sorry. Re-read your comment. I thought you were maybe suggesting Gagner may be ready to leap to first line duty

I dont think Gagner was ready at all last season for the first line, but this has to be the season where he really pushes it.

Chris wrote:

Oh, I forgot. You were probably still in diapers the last time Calgary won a cup

I was 6, however even then I could read and write better than FlamesRule would be able to after his "University Education".

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#61 Archaeologuy
August 15 2009, 10:51PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

oilersseasonticketholdersince99 FlamesRule BigBanana DannyHateley all post from the same IP address and same email account.

I feel more cheated than when I found out that Chris Gaines was Garth Brooks.

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#62 Nik
August 15 2009, 10:52PM
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Thanks JW. Thinking about the Kitties huh? Damn Trolls

- has anyone thought of having Brule on the 3rd line? I think he has the drive to push Moreau and Pisani! Horcs would be way better, but his chemistry with Hemmer needs to stay pat till one of the kids can step up

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#63 oilFan
August 15 2009, 11:03PM
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So schremp , Nilson, Big Mac but the line looks good.

JW what do you think a trade (schremp or Nilson ) would bring the Oil? Just saying if it was possible. Also how do you think the D-line would look ? Staios or Pekham ? Where does Strudwick fit ? I really like Strudwick I how he makes the line up .

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#64 oilFan
August 15 2009, 11:05PM
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Sorry "hope"

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#65 Dallas
August 15 2009, 11:10PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Fun fact for everyone: oilersseasonticketholdersince99 FlamesRule BigBanana DannyHateley all post from the same IP address and same email account. I’ve deleted most of this poor sap’s comments, but don’t feel the need to continue to engage this idiot. And Bruno - stick to one account. You’re bothering me.

That is fricken hilarious goddamn loserville flameout hahahaha. They may be better then us this year but not much and our time is coming when we will walk all over them and they will go back to being the losers they always have been

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#66 Nik
August 15 2009, 11:11PM
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Personally I want to see the current lineup dressed. Our D are most definitely our strong point. We just need to pray our top 6 can pull their potential out this season and we will make more then one critic of the off season moves eat crow!!

I'll even cook it for you, lol

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#67 oilFan
August 15 2009, 11:17PM
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Some one please break down the Oil compared to the rest of the division. Other then the Flames d line we are better then the rest. Solid tender. Just hope the kids give us what we need.

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#68 Nik
August 15 2009, 11:27PM
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oilFan wrote:

Some one please break down the Oil compared to the rest of the division. Other then the Flames d line we are better then the rest. Solid tender. Just hope the kids give us what we need.

I think the Oil have a better D then the Flames. Oil have much better upside there. Plus you have to note that Habby vs Kipper I think we win there too.

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#69 oilersseasonticketholdersince99
August 15 2009, 11:31PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: My apologies Willis and to Oilers nation,My son and his friends deceided to have fun at my expense, I can assure you it won't happen again.

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#70 Jonathan Willis
August 15 2009, 11:41PM
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oilFan wrote:

JW what do you think a trade (schremp or Nilson ) would bring the Oil?

Apparently the Oilers attempted to move Schremp at the draft and couldn't.

I'm guessing no more than a late draft pick for either of them.

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#71 Chris
August 16 2009, 03:42AM
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I left four hours ago for some heavy drinking... there were 72 comments...

Came back for an update; hit f5... then there were 66...

Blew my mind.

@ oilersseasonticketholdersince99: Impersonating a Flames fan is worse than stealing a car with a baby in it. I hope your justice was swift my friend. I need sleep now.

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#72 Hemi989
August 16 2009, 09:15AM
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A lot of people see horcoff on the 3rd line, but I can't see them paying 7 million for a 3rd line center, or atleast we shouldn't be

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#73 Archaeologuy
August 16 2009, 09:18AM
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@ Hemi989: I dont think Pat Quinn will care who makes what, as long as the Oilers win.

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#74 Milli
August 16 2009, 09:23AM
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I would like to see horc stay as the #1 center to start the season and see if he can shoot like 2 years ago (before he got hurt). If not, the second set of line combos is a good one. It would really help to have a true shut down line, and Horc with Pisani and moreau would do a good job of that. I'm interested to see how it plays out and weather Tambo is able to make a deal to bring in some size. Getting closer!!!!!

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#75 Deke Rivers
August 16 2009, 09:25AM
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Hemi989 wrote:

A lot of people see horcoff on the 3rd line, but I can’t see them paying 7 million for a 3rd line center, or atleast we shouldn’t be

Horcoff is a 5.5mil cap hit, not 7. If Brule plays well and the Horcoff is on the third line (the lines as outlined look good), does this make Horcoff more expendable?

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#76 Lofty
August 16 2009, 09:27AM
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Dallas wrote:

That is fricken hilarious goddamn loserville flameout hahahaha. They may be better then us this year but not much and our time is coming when we will walk all over them and they will go back to being the losers they always have been

I don't understand the post that said the Oilers will score more goals than the flames this year? I also think the Flamers will be a hell of a team this year and over the next few.

Vegas odds has the flames around 20/1 odds which I would not be scared to throw 20 bones at.

The Flames dont have many players comitted after this season other than the core of the defense and Iggy. I like how Sutter has used the cap and believe he will have a lot of options with almost no bad contracts (as long as Kipper gets some form back.)I like players like Bourque, Glencross, Dawes, and Pardy.

Don't get me wrong, I am a die-hard Oil fan but I envy the position that the flames are in right now.

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#77 Librarian Mike
August 16 2009, 09:32AM
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@ Lofty:

I know what you mean, but the problem with the Flames is what happens when someone gets hurt like last year. All of a sudden they have no money and no players and have to ice fewer players.

I don't question the talent on that team, but I'm still not sold that Bouwmeester is all that. We'll see I guess...

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#78 Archaeologuy
August 16 2009, 09:36AM
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@ Librarian Mike: ugh, i forgot about Bouwmeester. I hope he's not as good as the massive hype that surrounds him suggests.

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#79 Hemi989
August 16 2009, 09:43AM
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I know the cap hit is only 5.5 mil, but they are paying him 7. He is the guy making 1st line money with only 16 other centers in the league making more money that he is. I just think he atleast has to be our 2nd line center, if not we are paying a lot of money for a 3rd line checking center.

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#80 Lofty
August 16 2009, 09:51AM
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Librarian Mike wrote:

I know what you mean, but the problem with the Flames is what happens when someone gets hurt like last year. All of a sudden they have no money and no players and have to ice fewer players. I don’t question the talent on that team, but I’m still not sold that Bouwmeester is all that. We’ll see I guess…

Its not like there are many other teams in the NHL that are in better shape. If there are serious injuries they loose the salary and make a trade for someone to fill it as best as possible. Still doesnt sound that bad to me.

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#81 Nik
August 16 2009, 10:18AM
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It has been stated several times that developing within is going to be the best way to build a team in cap system. Only wish the Oil and other teams thought of this earlier (as Gagner and Brule would be primed to hit the ice this year boasting big numbers I bet)

If you look at just the Oil vs Flames, we by far have more talent on all sides of the ice then Calgary in the minors. I just hope they develop them otherwise we should follow Sutter's lead and trade the talent for proven players. Like a good cowboy he sold his farm and I think he is making a last ditch effort for a cup within 2 years. If not he will be run out of the office.

Good on Lowe and Tambo IMO for stocking our farm so we the fans can look forward to Omark, MPS, Eberle, Rajala, and Plante Jerseys in a few year.

Lets put the faith in the team guys...hate it when the bandwagon gets full after a few wins. Get on now and get a good seat

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#82 Lofty
August 16 2009, 10:28AM
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@ Nik:

Saying the Oilers will score more goals than the flames this year is quite a stretch. Always on the bandwagon though!

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#83 oilFan
August 16 2009, 11:04AM
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How does calgary have to score goals ? Only guys are Iggy and Oli. The rest of there team are jobers. Remember Horcoff scored over 30. So Oli has scored in the past so has Horcoff Cogs Gagne.

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#84 oilFan
August 16 2009, 11:11AM
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Glencrose , Pardy, Bourque and Dawes, are 3rd line players on the Oil. I would say Moreau, Pisani, Smid, Stortini are equal to those guys. The Flames scored more then the Oil last year yes. They had Cammy and Bert that's almost 60 goals, who did they replace them with ? Dawes come on. I like there d line but that's is you think Dion is any good judging blast year I think he compares with Grebs minus charging or running the other teams small forwards

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#85 Nik
August 16 2009, 11:33AM
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Lofty wrote:

@ Nik: Saying the Oilers will score more goals than the flames this year is quite a stretch. Always on the bandwagon though!

never said they have to score more goals. Not disputing the fact of the Flames current talent either. just we have more upside over the next few years then they do.

Glad to see some optimism from the bandwagon though :)

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#86 J.L.
August 16 2009, 04:55PM
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@ Jonathan Willis:

Do you think O'Sullivan would be a better fit as centre on the top line than on the second or third lines?

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#87 oilerdiehard
August 16 2009, 05:55PM
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It seems like Cogliano on the RW never gets discussed. Would this be a bad idea? He seems to score many of his goals coming down the right side.

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#88 Arek Gruszowski
August 17 2009, 01:41AM
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@ oilerdiehard: I agree, every time I see Cogliano go free-wheelin he always charges down the right wing then cuts in left and shoots top corner. I don't remember him ever doing this from the left wing.

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#89 Question Marks, Part II: The Kiddie Pool - Stillnoname
August 30 2009, 11:28AM
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[...] 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 [...]

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