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.
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.
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?
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.