MEN IN THE MIDDLE

Robin Brownlee
August 19 2013 07:37PM

It's obvious it doesn't take a vast intellect to see that the Edmonton Oilers remain alarmingly thin up the middle as training camp approaches because just about everybody who follows the team, be they fans or paid observers, has mentioned it or written about it this off-season.

The exception, at least in terms of public proclamation, seems to be GM Craig MacTavish, who, having played in 1,093 regular season games and another 193 in the playoffs as an NHL centre, should be the first person to recognize the merits of strength and depth down the middle. Yet, the Oilers, as of now, have neither.

While MacTavish has made moves to bolster his wing, adding David Perron, and his blue line, signing UFA Andrew Ference, and goal, jettisoning Nikolai Khabibulin and bringing in Jason LaBarbera, it looks to me and a lot of people like he hasn't done enough down the middle.

With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, MacTavish's best offensive centre, likely to miss the start of the season after shoulder surgery, Edmonton's middlemen look short on offensive chops. It's an undersized bunch with RNH, Sam Gagner, acquisition Boyd Gordon and Anton Lander in the first four spots. Even with Gordon, this isn't exactly Murderer's Row on the face-off dot, either.

And there's more, or should I say, less . . .

GAMESMANSHIP, PLEASE

Their individual attributes and shortcomings aside, the group MacTavish has penciled in right now for camp collectively is woefully thin on experience as actual NHL players. Gamesmanship, if you will.

In terms of NHL experience, Gordon leads the way with 486 games. The much-maligned Gagner, inked to a new deal, has also been around the block with 414 games on his resume. That drops off to 102 games for RNH, which isn't a big deal because he's easily the best of the bunch, and is getting better.

After that? Hmm. After RNH, you can add up the games of NHL experience for every other centre with an invite to camp and you won’t come up with 102 games combined. Lander could start the season here with 67 games in the NHL. Little Mark Arcobello has one game. Add up NHL games for Will Acton, Andrew Miller, Ryan Martindale and Travis Ewanyk – long shots each and every one -- and you get, well, zero games. Zip. None.

Problem? Is there anybody out there who thinks it isn't?

WHAT'S THE PLAN?

Without the addition of at least one more bonafide NHL pivot, heaven help the Oilers if Nugent-Hopkins misses more than a handful of games to start the season or if he struggles out of the gate because of limited playing time in the pre-season. Can Gagner carry the offensive load by himself? No.

Even if RNH gets back in a hurry and knocks off the rust, an injury to anybody in that top three puts the Oilers in a pickle, especially if Gagner goes down. Even with RNH, Gagner and Gordon in the fold, who pushes that trio for ice time? Lander? Not likely? Arcobello?

Isn't there anybody out there – Jason Gregor mentioned Brad Boyes and Manny Malhotra today – worth a phone call? Nobody who'd rather take a one-year deal than a PTO or sit at home waiting for their agent to call? You’d think so, and maybe MacTavish has already made those calls and continues to – even if he's indicated publicly, for now at least, what we see is what we get.

I hope so, because while the Oilers are hardly set from top to bottom at any position, they don’t look nearly good enough or deep enough down the middle. I can see it. You can see it. And you, MacT? What say you?

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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#51 BaconWrapped
August 20 2013, 08:01AM
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Interesting article RB. But what I really want to know is: how do we get Couturier out of Philly and/or Weber from Nash using only two of Omark, Gagner, Paajarvi (sigh), Lander, and Potter plus one player from OKC? I await your answer under the bridge.

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#52 j
August 20 2013, 08:11AM
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It would be hard to accept the current group out of training camp with all the expectations surrounding the team. MacT has done quite well in terms of adding effective pieces and can't be expected to turn the team over in one year. However, the centre depth is a glaring issue that had been for years. Going into the summer months, it was right up there with the need for serviceable defensemen. Nuge and Gagner are the top two centres on this team for years to come. We should just accept that as fact. But I would be surprised if there weren't a few PTOs with the intent of bolstering the bottom half of the roster.

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#53 They're $hittie
August 20 2013, 08:15AM
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So trading Gagner helps our center depth?

Uncertainty with nuge and we want to trade our highest scoring center at the moment. What team would take Gagner for a bigger more two way center that gets that many points. No one. You can throw in hemsky but with his cap hit he has no value until the deadline. Yes Gagner had a bad year defensively. Did anyone see his PK stats. Top of the team. Also 2012 his defensive stats were at the top of the team as well. Eberle had his break out year in 2012 but his defensive stats were at the very worst of the team.

They are all evolving as players and teams. IF everyone is healthy and there is a better balance of the work load, and more depth on D than the teams "corsi" will be better all around.

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#54 They're $hittie
August 20 2013, 08:18AM
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BaconWrapped wrote:

Interesting article RB. But what I really want to know is: how do we get Couturier out of Philly and/or Weber from Nash using only two of Omark, Gagner, Paajarvi (sigh), Lander, and Potter plus one player from OKC? I await your answer under the bridge.

I hope your not serious. The only thing you would get is laughed at.

Gagner for Couturier is not happening either. They have offensive centers. Couturier does not bring enough offense at the moment and while he looks to be great defensively he took it on the chin last year. He is not fully established yet and we dont know yet what he will be.

I would love him on the oilers but not at the cost of Gagner.

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#55 seanjohn
August 20 2013, 08:45AM
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i think we are just going to have to accept this lineup for what it is. Lander, Arcobello and Acton are the 4, 5, 6 centres. that's all there is too it. this little lineup up of 5'10", 180lb zippy little howdy-doers will have one year to prove they can compete with the big boys. if they their show gets run and end up no higher than 18th in the league, expect to see a very important winger (Eb or Yak) and/or a prospect D (Nurse or Marincin) leave town.

i hope they can do it, but i'm not placing any 4 figure bets on it.. or even 3 figures.

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#56 Brian
August 20 2013, 08:52AM
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Maybe MacT has tried but why not sign or offer Brad Boyes a PTO?

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#57 Rama Lama
August 20 2013, 08:54AM
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It seems that everyone is concerned about depth down the middle, except Mac T? He must have a card up his sleve, otherwise as everyone has mentioned, we are nude, screwed, and tatooted without a top 2 centre.

I for one have been campaigning for Brad Boyes...........cant figure out why a recent 40 goal scorer is still unsigned. This guy has put up serious numbers and of all the UFA's deserves some serious thought.

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#58 2004Z06
August 20 2013, 09:20AM
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Todd wrote:

Whats wrong with Grabovski?

Grabovski wants a minimum 3 yr deal @ around 4 mil per. Oilers can't afford him. He also wants second line minutes which creates a conflict when RNH comes back unless you move Gagner to the wing. If you move Gagner to the wing, do you move Yakupov or Perron to the 3rd line? I wouldn't, and Gagner is not a 3rd liner.

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#59 Smokey
August 20 2013, 09:39AM
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106 and 106 wrote:

Didn't Hall say that he talked to Eakins and was "prepared to play centre" to start the season?

In that case, Hall, RNH (till he gets his legs), Gags, Gordon looks great to my eye, shuffle around the wings and throw Hemsky into the top 6 and that's a threat.

Hall for 1C?

I think the Hall experiment at center is the plan to eventually have RNH and Hall as your centers. I think everyone should have figured out after 6 years this team won't win with Gagner at center, and will ultimately move to the wing.

The RNH injury gives the Oilers a chance to try it and if it did not work well, well there is no pressure on Hall. 9-10 games in the preseason and regular season will hopefully give the Oilers a chance to properly evaluate. I don't think they will make a change to Hall at Center if he can produce and be successful.

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#60 Reagan
August 20 2013, 09:41AM
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Ironically enough I believe that Mac T has a deal in place or in the works. Maybe some time was taken off untill training camp. Preliminary camps may show the weaknesses of what is already here. Still lots of time to address things.

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#61 VK63
August 20 2013, 09:41AM
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Nice article Robin.

I ponder young Sam Gagners 414 games and am struck with a certain resemblance to Forrest Gumps box of chocolates.

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#62 Smokey
August 20 2013, 09:57AM
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They're $hittie wrote:

I hope your not serious. The only thing you would get is laughed at.

Gagner for Couturier is not happening either. They have offensive centers. Couturier does not bring enough offense at the moment and while he looks to be great defensively he took it on the chin last year. He is not fully established yet and we dont know yet what he will be.

I would love him on the oilers but not at the cost of Gagner.

Oilers would do that trade in heartbeat...Your right you don't totally know exactly what Couturier is. But you know what Gagner is, a soft one way center, poor on the draw, and lacks physicality.

Couturier would produce just fine in a situation where you had the wingers he could have. He would just have to concentrate on playing a sound two way game.

Holmgren or any sane GM would not give up a big, future 2nd line center on a value contract for a slightly overpaid quasi 2nd line small center with a no movement contract. Holmgren would slam the receiver down on MacT. Holmgren can have Gagner light, Wellwood if that what he wants.

I'm not bashing Gagner, but we have watched 6 years. The more he produces the more pucks go in the other end. His Corsi blows cause he can't win draws, and lacks physicality and skating ability to win puck battles. He is redundant on a team plagued with this dimension. The improvements in his game last season were his offensive numbers, and his penalty killing. Even with this he hardly produced after Hemsky went down and was terrible in crunch time. Is he ever going to win 50 percent of his draws or be a possession player? I don't know. I'd take the risk on a big 2 way player in a conference dominated by big centers who can skate, or explosive skilled centers. How do we expect to compete against Kopitar, Getzlaf, Thorton, McKinnon Duschene and O'Reilley, Hank and Kesler, Seguin and Benn, Backlund. We can't...

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#63 jake
August 20 2013, 10:50AM
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The Islanders are building around Tavares so it would have never happened but I was imagining last year pre-draft (2012) trading Gagner + 1OV for Tavares whose 6 year deal had not yet kicked in at 5.5M. Would have given you Tavares, Hall, Eberle, RNH (and now Perron) in your top 6...I'll take that any day of week.

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#64 Wax Man Riley
August 20 2013, 02:30PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

I'm sure that ship has sailed. He's probably expressed an interest to stay out east. It's really too bad they overpaid for Gordon, having Boyes and Gordon at 2 per each, is what Edmonton needed.

Gordon could be bought out next summer though if he flops as expected.

Why is he expected to flop? Who expects this flop?

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#65 Serious Gord
August 21 2013, 07:33AM
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Darrell wrote:

Just a guess but assume you have gm'd zero games too ....

Ridiculous counter argument - but you probably already know that.

It doesn't take a chicken to judge an egg.

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