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 The Last Big Bear
August 19 2013, 09:03PM
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I'm curious how the PK time and difficult defensive starts are going to be divided.

Obviously Gordon will take the brunt of it, but then you have to choose between Nuge and Gagner.

Personally, I'm a big fan of having your stars killing penalties and taking the edge off the worst of the defensive zone situations. Perhaps more to the point, I'm a big fan of having stars who are good options for those tough situations.

I suppose we'll eventually see how Eakins feels about that... after RNH comes back from injury. Until then, the Oilers will have only 2 NHL-calibre natural centers, and thus not a lot of options for deploying them.

And I suspect that they will all be getting a lot of defensive zone face offs... because I think the Oilers are going to be seeing an awful lot of their own end while RNH is injured.

But it could be worse. Look at Calgary's centre depth chart.

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#52 Woogie63
August 19 2013, 11:38PM
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Young Oil wrote:

Wait...you're concerned about RNH, but think Johansen is a 'reasonable gamble'?

RNH was injured basically all of last year, after a phenomenal rookie year (in which he was injured as well). He had shoulder surgery, and will likely follow the same recovery path as Hall.

Ryan Johansen has 33 points in 107 games, and was a healthy scratch in the AHL playoffs this past year.

RNH has 76 points in 102 games before he even turned 20. The only thing keeping him from being an elite player is injuries.

Don't get me wrong, Johansen could turn out to be a great player, but right now he is tracking more similarily to Gilbert Brule. Furthermore, he has a big draft pedigree, being drafted 4th overall, and would take a LOT to acquire. That is a bit more than a 'reasonable gamble' IMO.

I am not saying Johansan for RNH, I am saying;

1) You have to look deep into advanced stats to see progress from RNH. When Horcoff got hurt RNH struggled to carry the team at center. Finishing 141 in league scoring is a troubling stat for me.

2) We can't seem to find a legit number 2/3 center, for all the reasons you pointed out, could we make a hockey trade to get Ryan a new lease on life... And maybe re-discover some of that elite player so many of us saw in him. (Aka Cam Barker with a better out come).

Ryan would be higher on the depth chart than Lander, so that could improve our team.

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#53 Quicksilver ballet
August 19 2013, 11:51PM
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yup wrote:

i think the oil should pick up boyes for the 3rd line and move the gordon who fans will be surprised how bad he is to the 4th line

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.

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#54 TayLordBalls
August 20 2013, 06:35AM
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wait a minute....

we have plenty of scoring power on this team - even if the center position is weaker, we have some of the best wingers in the league.

all we have to do is score more than the other team and to do that, its going to be up to the defense.

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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 Todd
August 19 2013, 10:11PM
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Whats wrong with Grabovski?

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#57 Reg Dunlop
August 19 2013, 10:59PM
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Jerod wrote:

People think Malhotra is secret answer. He cannot play hockey he is virtually blind in one eye. The Insurance issues and the moral issues are to much for anyone one to sign him.

Give your heads a shake.

And you know this how?

MM at 33 and with injury concerns would be our 3c until RNH is back to normal(December?) and 4c after that. Any team willing to gamble on Barker or Grebeshkov should have no trouble taking a flyer on MM.

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#58 yup
August 19 2013, 11:45PM
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i think the oil should pick up boyes for the 3rd line and move the gordon who fans will be surprised how bad he is to the 4th line

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#59 toprightcorner
August 20 2013, 02:46AM
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Firstly, Brad Boyes os not a cerntre and in last 5 years has taken less that 900 faceoffs combined, about as much as 2nd line centre in one season.

Secondly, we are talking about PTO's not signings. These players need to earn the spot with good play. play bad in camp, not signed, simple as that. We don't know who will or won't be good but we need to add a few PTO's to add a veteran presence at centre and possibly other positions.

With primary need being 4C, I would get PTO's for Malholtra, Steckel, Halpren and Reasoner. All would be a valueable assed, win faceoffs, PK specialists and lots of experience. If none of them prove to be assets at camp, no loss, but the competition for that spot needs to be there and all of those competeing have minimal or no NHL experience. If a young unexpirienced player shows they are the bast at the end of the camp, so be it, lets just not make it easy on him

I would definitly prefer to see Lander get 19 min a night on teh farm then 8 min in the NHL

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#60 The Oilers Shot Clock
August 20 2013, 03:43AM
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Not buying out Either Hemsky or Schultz is costing us a chance to sign a center. I don't fault MacT for keeping Hemsky. But not buying Schultz out after adding Ference,Belov and Grebs was a mistake. Dumping him at the trade deadline for minimal value when he already cost the team an opportunity to sign something useful would be a fail. MacT still has a lot of time to sort this, but his comments regarding the center situation are less than reassuring, especially when we consider how open and truthful he has been in the moves he has already made.

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#61 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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#62 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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#63 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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#64 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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#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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