MIDDLE MEN: QUALITY OR QUANTITY?

Robin Brownlee
September 12 2011 05:49PM

The Edmonton Oilers have a surplus of bodies and some difficult decisions to make about their men in the middle this season, and it's an issue that will likely be more pressing by the time training camp rolls around in 2012 unless GM Steve Tambellini begins thinning the herd.

I'm not suggesting a team that's finished 30th in back-to-back seasons has too much proven depth at centre -- that's yet to be seen in terms of who can play and where they fit -- but the Oilers certainly do have a glut of players at pivot heading into training camp this weekend.

By my count, the Oilers have a dozen candidates for four, maybe five, roster spots at centre going into camp. Some are long shots. Others will be weeded out based on contracts. And some who don't make the cut now will play themselves out of the picture by the time camp opens one year from now. Of course, others will play their way in.

Allowing for all that, unless my abacus is on the fritz, it looks as if Tambellini had best make some calls about his middle-men this season because the situation won't sort itself out.

NAMING NAMES

Just naming the top 11 centres off the top of my head -- the official camp list will be out this week -- the Oilers have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, Eric Belanger, Gilbert Brule, Anton Lander, Ryan Martindale, Chris VandeVelde, Ryan O'Marra, Tyler Pitlick and Josh Green at centre.

Even if you dismiss Green as minor league roster filler, look at a Pitlick on the wing, and discount O'Marra and VandeVelde as having been passed by younger prospects and ticketed for the Oklahoma City Barons -- that's not necessarily the case, yet -- there's still too many bodies cluttering up the picture.

Where do the rest fit? And for how long? That's a question that's being mulled over everywhere, with Lowetide here at Oilersnation one of the leaders in that regard. I'm guessing Tambellini et al are well along when it comes to doing the same.

INSIDE TRACK

HORCOFF: He's the captain and he's not going anywhere right now, not with the contract he's packing. Besides, if Horcoff stays healthy and has a bounce-back season, he's a valuable guy. You can't gut the team of all its veteran leadership and toss the car keys to the kids.

GAGNER: Love him or hate him, Gagner's only 22 as he enters his fifth season. I've said it before and I'll say it again, while we don't necessarily have to see the finished product from Gagner this season, he has to stay healthy and indicate if he fits, and where, moving forward.

BELANGER: He fits a need with his ability to win face-offs. At 33, he's definitely a transitional player, but he brings what the Oilers need right now. He's got a three-year deal.

NUGENT-HOPKINS: He'll start the season on the roster and stay for at least nine games. After that, opinions vary. Suffice to say, the 18-year-old from the Red Deer Rebels will get every chance to succeed. Even if he doesn't stick now, he's at the centre of the logjam forming for 2012.

PUSHING THE ISSUE

LANDER: Smart money is the Swede will start the season in OKC, but if Sunday's rookie game in Penticton is any indication, he's going to have a lot of fans shaking their heads if this is already decided. There's no need to rush the kid, and half-a-season in the AHL won't hurt him, but he's part of that glut in 2012 and will likely be a factor before then.

BRULE: Knowing what we do about the off-ice issues that compounded his injuries last season, I'm not willing to dismiss Brule's 17 goals and flashes of brilliance in 2009-10 as a one-off that can't be repeated, if an opportunity remains. Yes, he's got his work cut out to regain his place in the pecking order, but let's not forget, Brule is 24.

For me, Lander and Brule are the wildcards who could push the looming decisions for 2012 to the front of Tambellini's plate sooner rather than later. If Lander shows he's ready now, how long can you hold him back? If Brule plays like a house on fire in pre-season, then what? What if one of the other kids, like Martindale, does the same?

DECISIONS

One more time, while this is a likely a case of too many players as opposed to too much depth, Tambellini is still going to have to get a handle on who fits where, and when, and sort things out.

Who might falter from the "Inside Track" group? If it's Gagner, does Tambellini move him? If it's Horcoff, that's not even a question. The Oilers will have no choice but to ride out the contract and lean on the "good in the room" party line. Buy-out? Not with the term left.

We'll have to keep an eye on Lander. Likewise, Brule, who was being hailed as a part of the plan moving forward a year ago before falling off the map. And there'll be some comers among the rest.

No doubt about it, there'll be some tough calls to make in the middle at this training camp, but unless I've got it all wrong, it's not going to be any easier a year from now if Tambellini doesn't make a call on what's what well before then.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

Aceb4a1816f5fa09879a023b07d1a9b4
A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#1 Chris.
September 12 2011, 05:59PM
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I liked Gagner better on the wing.

Edit. (Remember how he played on the right side as a rookie and scored 49 points without being a total liability in his own zone?) *sigh*

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#2 Peterborough
September 12 2011, 06:27PM
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Curtis Hamilton is not a centre and won't be a pivot for this team or OKC and hasn't been in junior or at the WJC or for a long time. He doesn't play there and never will. Thats just bad journalism.

Period.

Step it up a bit, please.

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#3 ItsTheBGB
September 12 2011, 06:29PM
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Hamilton is a left winger brooooo.

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#4 spOILer
September 12 2011, 06:38PM
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I concur. Hamilton is definitely a left winger. Never will be a consideration for Centre. Pitlick is a different story.

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#5 buckwheat
September 12 2011, 06:44PM
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Yeah Brownlee, step it up a notch. Mistaking Hamilton for a center is out of character for you. Maybe too much time with the top down in your Bentley?

Anyway. Left wing is going to be every bit the problem center is. Way too much talent for way too few positions. If Oilers management is a shrewd judge of horseflesh, it might soon turn out to be a significant advantage. If management is able to correctly identify the core, they may just have 1st and 2nd round draft choices coming out their ears for years to come. (Via trade of course.)

Kinda looks to me as if Uncle Stu is the brains of the amateur talent identification brigade. If/when Stevie T. takes the gaspipe, would MacGregor be considered for G.M.?

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#6 ClosetGM
September 12 2011, 06:47PM
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I liked the article Robin and you are correct there is a log jam forming and its going to be very interesting in the coming months and years.

Btw seriously why does everyone have to jump on the guy cuz he makes one mistake in an otherwise great article. To me this is what has been wrong with the oilers culture for a long time. People just wanna b?>

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#7 Quicksilver ballet
September 12 2011, 06:49PM
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I'm not so sure Horcoff will be as difficult to move as some think. Look no further than the few teams looking to get to salary floor. With the floor rising beyond expectations there should be a taker sooner rather than later. The Oilers just need to find a club similar to the way the Blackhawks did when they moved Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers. The time may be now to move Shawn Horcoff, especially with the last two yrs of his deal being of the bargain basement variety. So what if you have to send an Alex Plante type with him in exchange for a second rounder.

Not sure why they insist hanging onto guys like O'Marra and VandeVelde when guys like Lander,Pitlick and Martindale will be needing those minutes. The Oilers will be fortunate if even two of these five kids mentioned turn into decent NHL players. The Oilers are still a long ways away from having quality hockey players starting to back up at that center ice position.

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#8 @Oilanderp
September 12 2011, 06:49PM
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I am excited about this logjam and the decisions coming up. It's not ALL depth but there is some for a change. I just hope they don't throw away young but not rookie players on a whim. Let the rookies play their way onto the roster. Spend some time in AHL, Major Junior. No more being handed jobs. Good times for Oil fans coming up for sure!

Messier was a winger too. I thought Hamilton was drafted as a C who has been playing the wing.

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#9 @NateInVegas
September 12 2011, 06:52PM
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Robin,

Were the L.A Kings unable to buyout Brule's contract as a result of physical injury, or did they simply pass on him due to depression?

If the NHL is protecting the contracts of players with mental health issues, shouldn't it be easier for players to get help? At the very least it protects them from being bought out.

I think this looks bad on Tambellini AND Lombardi now that we've been made aware of Brule's problems.

(Brule's speed/hitting/shot would be best suited on the wing IMO)

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#10 Muji 狗
September 12 2011, 06:54PM
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If they all show strong, move Brule to goalie and buy out Khabi. The goaltending will improve and we'll clear up the logjam at center. Lander can start in the AHL until Horcoff/Gagner gets injured.

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#11 The Towel Boy
September 12 2011, 07:03PM
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Hey Robin, apparently Hamilton is a winger. I learned that from the jerks in these comments.

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#12 JOFA
September 12 2011, 07:17PM
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Too much depth at centre isn't a bad thing. You just have to look at teams like San Jose or Boston who ice more than 4 natural centremen on a nightly basis. There will be many instances when Coach Renney will want two centremen on the ice. Maybe its to match up against particular line, defensive zone faceoffs, the point on the powerplay, late game or shorthanded situations. There is no doubt that there is enough minutes in game to utilize more than 4 centres. I'm sure injuries will come into play at some point during the season and the team has the options to send Lander to Oklahoma and RNH to the World Juniors. All in all, I think the Oilers are in a pretty good situation down the middle. They shouldn't feel pressure to make any moves to free up space at the present time.

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#14 Dave
September 12 2011, 07:34PM
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I have great respect for Robin's experience and knowledge but I am not sold on Gagner. I think that we have seen what he has and I can't see the Oilers improving if he is one of the centers. He is too small etc etc.

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#15 Wax Man Riley
September 12 2011, 07:35PM
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Peterborough wrote:

Curtis Hamilton is not a centre and won't be a pivot for this team or OKC and hasn't been in junior or at the WJC or for a long time. He doesn't play there and never will. Thats just bad journalism.

Period.

Step it up a bit, please.

Wow. In fine form tonight aren't you Peterborough?

First calling an article a "rediculous piece of garbage" and the author the most, and I quote, "irrevant writer in the nation family", and now calling a respected writer out for "bad journalism".

What do you add to the Nation can I ask?

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#16 Quicksilver ballet
September 12 2011, 07:58PM
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ClosetGM wrote:

I liked the article Robin and you are correct there is a log jam forming and its going to be very interesting in the coming months and years.

Btw seriously why does everyone have to jump on the guy cuz he makes one mistake in an otherwise great article. To me this is what has been wrong with the oilers culture for a long time. People just wanna b?>

It's not just limited to the Oilers......

http://youtu.be/8r1CZTLk-Gk

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#17 bobo
September 12 2011, 08:01PM
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Jumping on Brownlee like that is classless to say the least. On that note, robin please unblock me already. It not easy writing comments from my bb!

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#19 DSF
September 12 2011, 08:24PM
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Lander is going to take Gagner's job in short order.

With Horcoff a continuing brick in the wall, Belanger signed for three years, RNH arriving shortly and Sam being defensively inept, the writing is on the wall.

We may see Lander in OKC to start the season but I would wager both Gagner and Hemsky are gone before the deadline.

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#20 Kodiak
September 12 2011, 09:01PM
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With the maturity, experience and leadership Lander has, I'm thinking he might be the one to push RNH back to Red Deer. I'm ok if RNH makes the team, but it has to be because he has earned the spot over Lander, not because he's the 1st overall pick.

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#21 Peterborough
September 12 2011, 09:02PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

I hadn't seen your comments -- they shout, "I'm-an-internet-chicksh!t," by the way -- directed at another ON writer until Wax Man Riley pointed them out, so I must recant my relatively civil response directed, in part, at you.

Let's try this: if your primary intent in commenting at ON is to belittle or ridicule writers here, as opposed to disagreeing with or debating points you have a different take on, then save it or trot it out somewhere it might fly. It won't happen here. No chance. No way. Do it again and you're done here.

By the way, even a modest grasp of spelling and grammar might help you get your point across.

Point taken and I do apologize for being a touch harsh. I'm just used to better from you thats all.

We all have our days.

EDIT: thanks for fixing this peice it looks good now. I will hold you up to a high standard you're writing about the best team on the planet (or it will be in three years) and I would say it to your face as well, fear is not talking to a writer for me :) I work with my hands in the woods.

Keep up the good work and I'll try not to be too harsh if I see an error . . . gawd knows we all make enough.

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#22 gongshow
September 12 2011, 09:24PM
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RB/or anyone else - How many of the players forming this logjam have a legitimate shot at turning into real players for a contender. I'm not talking about just making the roster of a bottom feeder squad - are there keepers in this logjam who will turn into something more than guys who can make a 30th place team? (Just thinking about how not watching a real hockey team for a few years can make several of us get so excite over Reddox for a short spell there).

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#23 gongshow
September 12 2011, 09:27PM
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Also, split up my season's tix with the pals tonight and against my better judgement, I went heavy on the stretch drive. Not expecting playoffs, but right now, even a push for the playoffs would feel good.

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#24 Peterborough
September 12 2011, 09:44PM
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gongshow wrote:

RB/or anyone else - How many of the players forming this logjam have a legitimate shot at turning into real players for a contender. I'm not talking about just making the roster of a bottom feeder squad - are there keepers in this logjam who will turn into something more than guys who can make a 30th place team? (Just thinking about how not watching a real hockey team for a few years can make several of us get so excite over Reddox for a short spell there).

Well there's a chance Brule can be good NHLer if he can get his head right: he has all the tools.

Anton Lander, Ryan Martindale and Tyler Pitlick are all really good prospects with ceiling of being a 2nd liner. Lander seems to be an ideal 2/3 tweener and I think will be a really good Oiler for a long time. the other two have more work to do but their is a really good chance at least one of them makes it.

VV and O'Marra are looking more like 4C's at this point if they ever make it.

That's still the kind of depth that most teams dream of and their is more depth still in the system. It looks good down the middle at long last.

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#26 Eulers
September 12 2011, 10:19PM
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Trade for a D-man? Not necessarily for the big club, but a trade down OKC might be a good depth move. Who's coming up after Petry? Yikes!

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#27 Craig1981
September 12 2011, 11:09PM
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Its about managing assets, but I'm not sure they have over done it on the frount end. I hear every year how we have all these players that will be great. Then so many of them don't work out but over stay their welcome cause we have no one to replace them. See Reddox, Nelsson, Pouliot, Thoresen and so on. Extra players never hurt.

Brownlee, though you may of miss spoke when you called Hamilton a center (I'm not sure if anyone told you) I must say I do remember you artical on Brule last year saying you felt like there was more to his "man games lost" than just injuries. When askled about it, you wouldn't comment without fact, sighting it would be wrong to. Peterborough, please recall that next time you go on a rant to belittle.

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#28 TigerUnderGlass
September 12 2011, 11:49PM
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@Peterborough

I work with my hands in the woods.

Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

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#29 Peterborough
September 12 2011, 11:59PM
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Craig1981 wrote:

Its about managing assets, but I'm not sure they have over done it on the frount end. I hear every year how we have all these players that will be great. Then so many of them don't work out but over stay their welcome cause we have no one to replace them. See Reddox, Nelsson, Pouliot, Thoresen and so on. Extra players never hurt.

Brownlee, though you may of miss spoke when you called Hamilton a center (I'm not sure if anyone told you) I must say I do remember you artical on Brule last year saying you felt like there was more to his "man games lost" than just injuries. When askled about it, you wouldn't comment without fact, sighting it would be wrong to. Peterborough, please recall that next time you go on a rant to belittle.

Noted and I do admit it was wrong to be so harsh and apollogized. You're right, we should all try to be more civil: we all want the same thing here.

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#30 knobby
September 13 2011, 01:18AM
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Thought provoking article. I think the talent base is there. I'm concerned with the team building skills of management or the lack of same. The GM is going to have to start making decisions before being forced into doing something foolish because he hesitated too long.

Gagner is taking too long to improve. It's not a question or love or hate. In fact how can he get bigger, faster or more tenatious in his level of play? I think he is at some sort of a developmental ceiling. Oiler fans tend to fall in love with certain players and loose their objectivity. It's time to fish or cut bait on him. They don't have to do anything rash right now but the horizon is looming and something is going to have to happen. The players coming behind him are liable to pass him...and soon.

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#31 Death Metal Nightmare
September 13 2011, 02:02AM
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i like Gagner off the team. nice kid, nice compete... not enough hockey skill/physique overall to dominate either the 1st or 2nd slot. if thats what your build is - you better have elite wingers with him.

i need to see some form of offensive "control" (some might say "dominance") out of him this season to be won over. where he controls the play. is creating defensive chaos with that control. etc... up until now hes been a vulture offensively more than a predator - to use crappy stereotypical national geographic perspectives of animals.

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#32 pelhem grenville
September 13 2011, 04:15AM
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Peterborough wrote:

Curtis Hamilton is not a centre and won't be a pivot for this team or OKC and hasn't been in junior or at the WJC or for a long time. He doesn't play there and never will. Thats just bad journalism.

Period.

Step it up a bit, please.

"bad journalism" i know how stupid that looks and sounds...but

a simple mis-take in your feeble cherry picking opinion needs to be called out like that?

to HIM? you want HIM to step it up?

OH PLEASE!

get a broom and sweep yourself into the recycle bin

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#33 mayorpoop
September 13 2011, 06:56AM
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i like the depth management has obtained in the past few years. clearly tho they had no choice considering we keep finishing last and the by-product of that is depth in picks.

my concern is that we have some players marginal and some not so much, but we will hang on too long at not make decision when they need to be made.

asset management is is a nice catch phrase but amounts to nothing if we don't manage those assets properly. this is a business like all others and oiler management needs to, as callous as this sounds, maintain a well oiled ferris wheel of player movement.

at least we should take the safety off the gun so we can pull the trigger if need be.

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#34 what's the scoop
September 13 2011, 08:39AM
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I might be missing something... but what has been Brule's off ice issues?

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#35 JJmorrocco
September 13 2011, 08:40AM
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What are the buyout rates on Horcoff next year?

If he has antoehr year of injuries or medicore performance it will be our only way to free up a spot at center.

He will be the highest paid center with the lowest amount fo skill.

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#36 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
September 13 2011, 08:55AM
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JJmorrocco wrote:

What are the buyout rates on Horcoff next year?

If he has antoehr year of injuries or medicore performance it will be our only way to free up a spot at center.

He will be the highest paid center with the lowest amount fo skill.

You know he's still likely our best all around center, right?

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#37 Bob Loblaw
September 13 2011, 09:05AM
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I think we will need all of the players due to the inordinate amount of injuries our team incurs.

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#38 mayorpoop
September 13 2011, 09:08AM
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OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F wrote:

You know he's still likely our best all around center, right?

agreed. now hopefully that designation only last for a very while and we have others who step up.

i wish people could seperate bad contract from bad player. they are 2 seperate issues with horcoff.

horcoff didn't offer himself that much money, and yes he is a heck of a good defensive center. on any team he would be a #2 but #3 for certain.

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#39 TonyDanzaPervo
September 13 2011, 09:11AM
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Sammy G is gonna turn some non-believers this year. 18-45-63 if he plays 70+ games. He's *bleepin* 22 years old!

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#40 Dman09
September 13 2011, 09:33AM
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Eulers wrote:

Trade for a D-man? Not necessarily for the big club, but a trade down OKC might be a good depth move. Who's coming up after Petry? Yikes!

Did you not watch the propects game, there were a few Dmen that looked pretty good and one that is supposed to be just as good or better hasn't even left Europe yet. I don't think the defensive depth is as bad as you think.

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#41 Dman09
September 13 2011, 09:47AM
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Kodiak wrote:

With the maturity, experience and leadership Lander has, I'm thinking he might be the one to push RNH back to Red Deer. I'm ok if RNH makes the team, but it has to be because he has earned the spot over Lander, not because he's the 1st overall pick.

Disagree. As good as Lander is, and I'm a big fan, his contract allows the team to have flexibilty to move him back and forth between the AHL and the NHL. RNH can't come back if he is sent back to Red Deer and if the last game was any indication, the kid doesn't need to go back down its no longer a challenge for him. I would keep him and then send him to the WJ if no injuries allow lander to come up. That way at least lander gets a shot and RNH gets to futher his resume and support his country.

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#42 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
September 13 2011, 09:56AM
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Dman09 wrote:

Disagree. As good as Lander is, and I'm a big fan, his contract allows the team to have flexibilty to move him back and forth between the AHL and the NHL. RNH can't come back if he is sent back to Red Deer and if the last game was any indication, the kid doesn't need to go back down its no longer a challenge for him. I would keep him and then send him to the WJ if no injuries allow lander to come up. That way at least lander gets a shot and RNH gets to futher his resume and support his country.

So because RNH dominated a bunch of never will be's, the best course for RNH and the team, long term is to have him here. With, outside of a two week tournament, no other options for him should he falter?

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#43 Dman09
September 13 2011, 10:09AM
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OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F wrote:

So because RNH dominated a bunch of never will be's, the best course for RNH and the team, long term is to have him here. With, outside of a two week tournament, no other options for him should he falter?

A lot of those Never Will Be's have already graduated from juniors to the AHL. If he is out performing AHL players who are older, more developed, and better skilled than Junior players what purpose does it serve to send him down to play against younger and less skilled players. I personally think he should be with OKC this season but league rules don't allow it so I think he should remain with the big team and see how it plays out.

There are a lot that would argue RNH has, in only one game of course, showed better than Hall did last year. By your reasoning he should have been sent down to and if I recall he ended up being one of the Oilers top players last year.

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#44 vetinari
September 13 2011, 10:34AM
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Horc is probably our #1 centre for this year, if not next, until Nugent-Hopkins is physically and mentally ready to take the reins, and then I think Horc will drop down to a #2/#3 role based on whoever else moves up or down (i.e. Gagner, Lander).

I hope Brule bounces back and I'm pulling for him, but at this point, I think this might be his last year in Oiler silks unless he can redefine his game to be a complimentary scoring winger or a #3/#4 centre. I see him making the opening night roster with the hope that he finds his game again, but most likely, so that he could be trade bait by the deadline.

Gagner needs another year or two to evolve into whatever his end product is, and I think the Oil need to be patient with him. If Nugent-Hopkins can enter the picture as a #1/#2 centre on a permanent basis in 2012-13, I can see some pressure coming off Gagner to produce points and let him develop the defensive side of his game more.

Lander looks like the real deal and is probably the best physically and mentally prepared of the prospects and I think he's going to force the Oil to find a home for him in the big's as soon as possible. I would love to see him line up with Paajarvi-Magnusson and Omark in preseason, just to see if there is any chemistry.

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#45 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
September 13 2011, 10:58AM
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Dman09 wrote:

A lot of those Never Will Be's have already graduated from juniors to the AHL. If he is out performing AHL players who are older, more developed, and better skilled than Junior players what purpose does it serve to send him down to play against younger and less skilled players. I personally think he should be with OKC this season but league rules don't allow it so I think he should remain with the big team and see how it plays out.

There are a lot that would argue RNH has, in only one game of course, showed better than Hall did last year. By your reasoning he should have been sent down to and if I recall he ended up being one of the Oilers top players last year.

By my resoning, one game in a rookie tournament is a horific way to try and qualify his current ability.

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#46 Talbot17
September 13 2011, 12:54PM
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I think Gagner should be slotted on the right side, i think he would be a more efficient and creative forward with less responsibility at the centre position. He can also step into a face off when the linemate centre gets sent out by the ref. You would almost be stupid to not get Lander in the dressing room sooner then later who can add to his already impressive leadership aspects by connecting more with Smyth and the Vet Oilers.

RNH will be on the team this year. Lets not even debate it anymore. Tambi in interviews has played the "OH I DONT KNOW...IF HE EARNS IT.." card for long enough. Katz is in the backround as always and wants the kid to play.

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#47 Wax Man Riley
September 13 2011, 03:47PM
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@Peterborough

Point taken and I do apologize for being a touch harsh. I would say it to your face as well, fear is not talking to a writer for me :) I work with my hands in the woods. Keep up the good work and I'll try not to be too harsh if I see an error . . . gawd knows we all make enough

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