Size Up The Middle: Can Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner Co-Exist?

Jonathan Willis
April 20 2012 01:00PM

The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two young centres who are bona fide NHL players in the here and now, and who are only likely to get better with the passing of time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in 2011, and Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, are both excellent NHL talents and both fit nicely into the age group of the young forward corps the Oilers have assembled.

Unfortunately, neither stands 6’4” and weighs north of 200 pounds. Do the Oilers need to dump one of the two in exchange for an upgrade in size down the middle?

To answer that question, I decided to go back through all the teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the NHL lockout, and check the size of their top three centres. These centres were then ranked by total ice-time and designated first, second or third line. Here’s the list:

Team Season First Line Height Weight Second Line Height Weight Third Line Height Weight Avg. Height Avg. Weight
Boston 2010-11 David Krejci 72 188 Patrice Bergeron 74 194 Chris Kelly 72 198 73 193
Vancouver 2010-11 Ryan Kesler 74 202 Henrik Sedin 74 188 Maxim Lapierre 74 207 74 199
Chicago 2009-10 Jonathan Toews 74 208 Dave Bolland 72 184 Patrick Sharp 73 199 73 197
Philadelphia 2009-10 Mike Richards 71 199 Claude Giroux 71 172 Jeff Carter 76 199 73 190
Pittsburgh 2008-09 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Detroit 2008-09 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Detroit 2007-08 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Pittsburgh 2007-08 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Anaheim 2006-07 Ryan Getzlaf 76 221 Samuel Pahlsson 72 202 Andy McDonald 71 185 73 203
Ottawa 2006-07 Jason Spezza 75 216 Mike Fisher 73 208 Antoine Vermette 73 198 74 207
Carolina 2005-06 Rod Brind'Amour 73 205 Eric Staal 76 205 Doug Weight 71 202 73 204
Edmonton 2005-06 Shawn Horcoff 73 207 Mike Peca 71 183 Jarret Stoll 73 213 72 201
Average 2005-11 First Line 6'1" 203 Second Line 6'1" 194 Third Line 6'1" 203 6'1" 200

One point of interest before I get into the size numbers is how ice-time arranges these players. In many cases, the guy centering a team’s second scoring line finishes third in total ice-time – Mike Peca in 2006, Samuel Pahlsson in 2007 and Dave Bolland in 2010 are a few of the unlikely “second” line guys.

Getting back to the main point, the average top-nine centre on a Stanley Cup finalist over the last six seasons isn’t especially big by NHL standards: 6’1”, 200lbs. Pittsburgh’s trio is the biggest on the record here, coming in at a combined average of 6’2” and 205lbs; their opponents in Detroit are the smallest of the group at an average of 5’11”, 197lbs.

The Oilers top three centres today – Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Shawn Horcoff – come in at an average of 6’, 192lbs, just slightly shorter and lighter than average. Horcoff and Gagner, listed at 207 and 195 pounds respectively, are both right around the league average; the still-developing Nugent-Hopkins is definitely on the slight side, listed at just 175 pounds. He’ll put on more weight as he gets older, and the Oilers should be right around the average of our group of finalists when he does so.

Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg.

Leaving aside Detroit and Boston – teams that didn’t really have much snarl up the middle when they went to the finals – most of these teams had a hard-nosed guy to complement the two scorers. It’s the role Mike Peca in 2006, Mike Fisher in 2007, Jordan Staal in 2008 and 2009, and Dave Bolland in 2010 all played for their teams. If the Oilers hang on to both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.

Of course, other changes may be needed. Detroit has some beefy wingers, and Boston was famous for the grit (personified by Milan Lucic) and, umm, personality (personified by Brad Marchand) on their wings last season. I’ll be doing this same comparison between Edmonton and Stanley Cup Finalists, only focused on the other forward positions, in the near future.

But for right now, I think there’s an obvious conclusion: the Oilers shouldn’t be in a rush to move Sam Gagner down the line because they’re too small up the middle. Stanley Cup history shows plainly that teams can win with two centres – and in Detroit’s case even three – of below-average NHL size.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, 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 book¡e
April 20 2012, 10:13PM
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JohnS wrote:

Edmonton is a very weak team, I could play second line center for Edmonton

Shut up Shremp, you had your chance - stop trolling here and get back to the SEL.

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#2 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 08:13PM
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@DSF

How many 8 point games did Wellwood have last season?*

*TrumpCard

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#3 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 02:55PM
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I think the point is find players who can contribute points. If they produce at a proper pace, then their size shouldn't be a determining factor.

Finding players who have that competitive element should be the next concern, kids who are willing to do the gritty things necessary to continue production in the playoffs.

Again size is not an indicator of this. For proof look no further than philidelphias gritty tiny tots up the middle and how they compete against pitsburgs bigger centres.

Trading skill and production for physical size is just silly... But it sure is an easy way to critique players.. /sigh

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#4 Quicksilver ballet
April 20 2012, 04:11PM
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Size isn't that important, it's the size of the compete inside the player that wins battles. Players with the highest compete level aren't always 6'2+.

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#5 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 09:17PM
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DSF wrote:

Wellwood scored .88 PPG as a 22 year old.

Gagner just scored .63 PPG.

I'm no mathematician, but I don't think 45 points in 81 games comes to .88 PPG.

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#6 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 02:24PM
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@Gord

Actually I really dont think that's the point of the article at all. I dont even think you're in the same ballpark as the point.

@Quick

The return for Gagner has always been speculated to be a defenseman, not a forward. The offense he provides from the C position would disappear into nothingness. Not impossible to overcome, but worth noting.

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#7 John Chambers
April 20 2012, 03:32PM
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We're a group of fans with an irrational size envy. Looking around the league at young C's who one might covet as a replacement to Gagner, none of Derek Stepan, Marcus Johansson, Kyle Turris, Derek Brassard, or Cody Hodgson are any better, or any bigger.

Sure you might deal Gags for a D if the plan is to move Hall to C, or if you magically acquire Logan Couture, but otherwise the grass is probably greener under your feet.

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#8 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 04:05PM
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@Rondo

Can you do something for me quickly, just so the rest of us can judge your comments with some idea of where you are coming from?

Please define the role of the 2nd line for us.

Thanks!

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#9 DSF
April 20 2012, 07:57PM
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The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33 wrote:

Is there an ON awards night coming up that I don't know about. This Rondo guy seems to be making a late push to try and take DSF's title.

Many have tried...all have failed.

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#10 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 08:45PM
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@DSF Except for the fact that he was the 45th best in Centre production last season?

Oh wait he was 39th best this season you say? So he was in the top 9 for second line centre production, hrmm... Yah throw him away your right, who wants that... Also he is 22, so there is no room for him to improve on that either, right?

/sigh

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#11 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 09:05PM
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DSF wrote:

Wellwood scored .88 PPG as a 22 year old.

Gagner just scored .63 PPG.

Wellwood scored 0.88 PPG when he was 24. He was in the AHL at 22.

Nice try though.

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#12 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 01:11PM
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Keep Gagner. Trading him means we're counting on Horc to provide "2nd line" Offense. I dont see that happening any time soon.

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#13 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 05:22PM
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Rondo wrote:

There are players in the league that can score goals and points when they don't mean much then there are players that score important points. Gagner is a regular season player. Sutter is a playoff player.

Ah yes. Sutter and his long history of great playoff performances.

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#14 Quicksilver ballet
April 20 2012, 07:05PM
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Jonathan, i studied 80 Oiler games this year, charting Edmonton players advancing the puck into the neutral/opposition zone success rates.

A) Successfully entered/advanced the puck through the neutral zone. Turning the puck over in the neutral zone. (after having uncontested possession of the puck)

B) Players whom turn the puck over in the opposition and defensive zones.(after having uncontested possession of the puck)

Is there someone already doing statistical analysis on these areas?

Example: 83 had uncontested possession entering the neutral zone 489 times this past season. He had a success rate of .613 bringing/passing the puck through the neutral zone into the opposition zone. He had a fail/success rate of .489/.511 when the Oilers had possession of the puck in the opposition zone, meaning the play ended while on his stick almost 49% of the time.

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Is there an ON awards night coming up that I don't know about. This Rondo guy seems to be making a late push to try and take DSF's title.

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Thanks for this article JW. I think it shows that since the salary cap was put in place, there is more parity in the league. No repeat champs since. All this talk about, big centers, this and that to win the cup is great but all I can get out of that list is that there is no magic formula to win the cup. I really think now more than ever, every team that makes it to the playoffs has a legitimate chance to win the cup.

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#17 kinnickkinnick
April 20 2012, 07:22PM
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DieHard wrote:

Parise and Gagner are approx same height and weight. There is nothing wrong with Gagner.

There are probably a few more nhl players that are the same height and weight as Gagner that aren't named Parise. Probably a few more that aren't in the nhl as well. Doesn't conclude anything.

With that said I agree there is nothing wrong with Gagner, but just suggesting that there is a lot of time spent deciding whether or not the current center line up is up to the challenges of the playoffs, and I guess only time will tell.

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#18 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 07:47PM
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@Rondo

In Junior Sutter never set a ppg pace, nor did he even put up 60 pts..

He has only posted 40 pts once in his career and for the last 2 years not even close to that.

Do you have any clue what that means?

He is a great 3rd line player, but a point producer no? He would be crucified here, hell Gagner is for not popping 60 every season even though he is in the mid 40's for NHL Centre production. (Making him a lock for 2nd line centre production)

Sure Sutter is 6'3", but that doesn't mean he will produce all of a sudden.

Your second line is a scoring line, this idea that 2nd line centres need to be big 2-way checkers is wierd and seems to have permeated up recently, someone must have written an article somewhere.

You understand that the 3rd line is your shutdown line and as such the 3rd line forward tends to log more icetime than the 2nd? So if you want to compare Sutter to someone on our team its Horcoff...

What you want is to trade a decent 2nd line centre who can produce and play the position. For a really good young 3rd line centre that will post mediocre production if he is bumped to the 2nd line... I think its harder to find legit top 6 centres over good 3rd liners, I may be out to lunch here, but thats my opinion.

I'm not hating on Sutter I think he is good for his position, but nothing in his history says 2nd line material on a contender. (Production is what your second line is for!)

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#19 Oilers89
April 20 2012, 08:07PM
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DSF wrote:

You mean other than Parise scoring 31 goals and 62 points in his second NHL season and followed it up with 65 and 94 point seasons?

Yeah, Gagner is just the most.

Jeebus.

You are right. Height and weight are measured in points.

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#20 Rondo
April 20 2012, 08:39PM
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Any team with Eric Staal there is respect from other teams . Also they are a big nasty team.

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#21 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 08:40PM
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@Rondo

You mean besides his junior seasons of:

16 years old 66 points in 57 games

17 - 74 points in 54, and

18 - 33 points in 17 games.

This is Sutter's 22 year old season. When Messier was 22 he had 106 points.

These two are definitely the same.

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#22 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 08:42PM
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@DSF

Being 22 instead of 28 also has its value.

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#23 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 08:48PM
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Rondo wrote:

I'm not comparing players, one of the greateest ever please, but you do see potential you see numbers.

s/o

What?

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#24 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 08:50PM
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Spydyr wrote:

About as many games as Wellwood played between Hall and Ebs.

Gagner played most with Hemsky.

Hall and Ebs played most with Nuge.

Source: Behindthenet.ca

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#25 Wanyes bastard child
April 20 2012, 11:40PM
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jack wrote:

gagner is not really one of our biggest players on our team, just to let everyone know, his height and weight are bs

Really??? And your just telling us now? ... dang :(

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#27 michael
April 21 2012, 08:25AM
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@Saytalk. The book is not yet complete on MP. Soft? He is still adapting to the North American game. He hasn't had the benefit of the CHL to develop the kind of game that we expect from a player of his skill and size. From my perspective I think we need to give him the same time that we are giving Hartsy. Given that Hartsy has more of the physicallity in his game already. A couple of seasons in the trenchs of the AHL should hone MP game to a more NHL style. Be patient. I think he'll be a 20-25 goal 2cd line winger.

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#28 Archaeologuy
April 21 2012, 08:26AM
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Spydyr wrote:

The game he got 8 points was with Hall and Ebs......one of these things is not like the others.

Are you trying to suggest that an 8 point game is easy to do when playing with Hall and Ebs? Because neither Hall and Ebs have done it themselved, neither player has produced at a super elite level before, no other Oiler has accomplished the task while partnered with those two, and further than that the feat hadnt been accomplished in the league in almost 20 years.

Any attempt to downplay the accomplishment is nonsensical. Just accept it happened and move on. Sam Gagner has proven an ability to compliment good players. Thats not a bad thing.

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#29 Saytalk
April 21 2012, 09:16AM
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@michael

The same could be said of Omark. So how long do we wait for these guys to adapt to the North American game? By the time they reach age 25? By the time they become waiver eligible? By the time they get tired of waiting for a decent shot, complain about it and then go to the KHL/SEL? Every player, regardless of where he played his junior career, has to show a steady uptrend towards becoming an NHL player; otherwise we should trade him and make room for better assets.

I'm okay with keeping Paajarvi in the AHL for a few seasons to see how he pans out, but I'm tired of other posters here that continually whine for Omark and/or Paajarvi to get top-6 minutes on the Oilers (centered by Lander no less; there is some sort of magical Tre Kroner line that dominates the league in their fantasies). An NHL club should not run like a developmental team, the Oilers had that in the 2010-11 season and it was outright embarassing.

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#30 Eulers
April 20 2012, 01:03PM
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Midget Fist!

Good read, but its hard to see these guys surviving the first round of the playoffs this year given how physical it has been.

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#31 David S
April 20 2012, 01:36PM
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"...that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line."

"When"?

WHEN?????

*Slaps self in disbelief*

Mother of god. Isn't Shawn Horcoff already a third-line C?

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#32 David S
April 20 2012, 01:37PM
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*Assuming of couse Horcoff is untradable, which to my mind he is.

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#33 Quicksilver ballet
April 20 2012, 01:57PM
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@ Archie

Horcoff's still going to get 18 minutes a night going up against the others teams best line. The math may make it doable if the return is right for Grange.

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#34 gord962
April 20 2012, 02:08PM
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@ Arch - one would presume that if we traded Gagner we would get more than a bag of pucks back. The point to Willis' article was trade him and get some size on the 2nd line C position, not move the existing elements up one line.

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#35 Rama Lama
April 20 2012, 02:10PM
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I think that trading Gagner is required as he is too slow for the wingers he will have to play with.

If he cant address his foot speed then we should not keep him, as most nights he looks like he is skating with a boat anchor tied to him........most confounding given small players are usually fast?

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#36 Team Hall
April 20 2012, 02:21PM
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Very interesting approach Mr. Willis. I like it. I sure wouldnt rush to trade Gags unless we have a great deal coming back. Thanks for the insight.

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#37 FastOil
April 20 2012, 02:44PM
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Gagner has to stay unless an equal talent emerges. That being said, I still worry about his skating. Smyth isn't fast but is an effortless skater (ok when not exhausted) and turns very quickly. He can get in front of an opponent on the boards to keep a cycle going.

I don't know if you see Gagner this way JW, and I agree that some heavier wingers might be needed in the corners at some point, unless the lighter guys can figure out a way to get the puck and keep it longer.

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#38 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 02:56PM
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Double post :P

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#39 Ducey
April 20 2012, 02:58PM
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Good article, Willis

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#40 db7db7db7
April 20 2012, 03:36PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Keep Gagner. Trading him means we're counting on Horc to provide "2nd line" Offense. I dont see that happening any time soon.

Not if you were to move hall to center.

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#41 Rondo
April 20 2012, 03:38PM
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You already know what I'm going to say

Brandon Sutter

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#42 What
April 20 2012, 03:41PM
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Hey where'd that lovely tilted kilt lady go to

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#43 Rondo
April 20 2012, 03:52PM
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Look at the top 2 centers of teams that won the cup , there is always a bigger two way center

Boston Krejci Bergeron

Chicago Toews Sharp

Pittsburgh Crosby Malkin

Detroit- Datsyuk Franzen

Anaheim Getzlaf Macdonald

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#44 admiralmark
April 20 2012, 04:00PM
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Question might be are we big enough in all our forward positions? Seems to me that al of Boston,Pitts, and Detroit have beefy wingers if not centers. Not sure what we have can handle the rough going in a 7 game series of pounding.

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#45 Rondo
April 20 2012, 04:24PM
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Given The # 1 center for Edmonton is skilled, you need a two way center that is big that plays against the #1 center of the other team. You look at the most complete players in the league Crosby Toews Datsyuk Bergeron they are all two way players that are physically tough. Yeah I know they are #1 centers but you really need that side when you have a very skilled smallish center RNH. Look at Vancouver Sedin skilled then you have Kesler a two way player. Successful teams always have this combo. Years ago I was saying go after Hanzal , now the ship has sailed I think Brandon Sutter could fill that role. Having for example Hall RNH and Eberle was One line the other Pääjärvi Sutter and Yakupov . I'm not to worried about Brandon getting point.

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#46 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 04:27PM
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@Rondo

So the point of a second line is to check and be defensively responsible? Not to score and take pressure off the 1st line?

Honestly?

Madjam is that you?

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#47 Rondo
April 20 2012, 04:43PM
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@Clyde frog

I'm not going to convince you regarding Brandon Sutter. You look at points only so in your mind Gagner is superior. I think your wrong and you think I'm wrong.

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#48 They're $hittie
April 20 2012, 04:46PM
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Isnt the best all around center on the team Gagner. (corsi - good, Plus minus - best on the team, POD - near top of team, 5x5 per 60 - 2nd on team. You have to wait another year for RNH to progress further and get use to tougher minutes. Look at your center options, who do you want to take the hard minutes. So If he is gone for D who is available to play these minutes?

Brandon Sutter? Really, that guys production is terrible.

Gagner is average weight and his height is just below average. So using his size as an excuse is terrible, and Nuge will grow to the same size slightly taller. Our Centers are and will not be as small as you think.

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#49 They're $hittie
April 20 2012, 04:48PM
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@Rondo

nope brandon sutter is terrible. I watched this kid since he played midget. Never understood why he got drafted as high as he did. Let him run around hitting. If he doesnt start producing more he will turn into Torres.

Oh and Brandon Sutter is 183lbs, Gagner is 194. Size argument is gone. In the world of physics Mass is in the equation and Height is not. So If you want to say he is a better hitter and plays bigger good. That is your argument. But he doesnt produce as much as Gagner.

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#50 Oilers89
April 20 2012, 04:54PM
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@Clyde Frog

Once again you are right. Two lines that could score a goal really easily (which is the way our first and second line are coming together) will be tough to beat. Sure they won't be huge but if they compete hard and are dangerous does it really matter that they give up the odd goal because of defensive problems. If we are in the business of scoring more than the other team then we should be fine. Our third line should be assembled to shut others down and our first two can go out against anyone and give up a goal but score more than they are giving up, which IMO is very likely.

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