A balanced top-six

Jonathan Willis
August 23 2013 07:55AM

I’m starting to wonder if the arrangement used for most of last season, one that saw the Oilers’ top line loaded up with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, was the best use of the team’s personnel.

Splitting Up The Difference Makers

Sticking the team’s best players together on one line isn’t something that every coach in the NHL does. For example, last year’s finalists in the West both tried something else:

Patrick Kane played 743:40 for the Blackhawks at even-strength; just 99:41 of that was spent on the same line as Jonathan Toews. Splitting up Toews and Kane let the Blackhawks run two extremely potent lines, one centered on Toews and Marian Hossa and the other on Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.

Pavel Datsyuk played 667:39 for the Red Wings at even-strength; 195:07 of it with Henrik Zetterberg. It’s a slightly different situation because Zetterberg plays both centre and wing, but the idea is the same: rather than running one super-powered line the Red Wings ran 1 and 1A lines.

If the Oilers go with a conventional one/two line arrangement, than one line will feature Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins and the other will have Gagner, David Perron and Nail Yakupov. It’s not a bad setup, but for opposing teams with one really good defence pairing it doesn’t take much thinking to decide where to put them.

Alternatives

Assuming that the top-six group is set with the players named above, if the Oilers want to split up the three difference makers how might they do it? There are four options:

If the object of the game is to create two lines of roughly equal ability, the first alternative strikes me as the best bet. Taylor Hall is the best forward on the team by a considerable measure; the only way to force opposition coaches to think hard about the matchup is to load up the other line as much as possible. It’s much the same thing the Oilers did with Doug Weight in 2000-01 when Mike Comrie made the team: if I remember correctly they gave Comrie Ryan Smyth and Anson Carter as wingers while Doug Weight packed around Dan Cleary and Sergei Zholtok.

Hall would have it a little better than Weight did. Sam Gagner’s a fine player, especially offensively, while Nail Yakupov is a truly remarkable talent in the early stages of his career. On the other line, the duo of Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins add David Perron, who while not Hall’s equal is a fine two-way player with goal-scoring ability.

It’s certainly a more balanced setup on a team that would lean heavily on both lines. Is it better than the conventional lineup?

Recently around the Nation Network

The player who might have been this summer's most controversial free agent seems to have finally found a new home. According to multiple reports, Mikhail Grabovski has agreed to a new contract with the Washington Capitals. From Leafs Nation:

I would suspect... that Grabovski took a while to sign because he was looking for the right situation, and he wouldn't be happy playing in a third line role again. Grabovski will probably have a chance to prove himself offensively, a tall task for a 30-year-old that is probably through with his scoring prime.

Click the link above to read more, or check out some of my recent stuff:

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
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 Sailge
August 23 2013, 09:04AM
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The talent is our top 6 is great, I want results and tons of goals this season!

I hear Grabo signed with Washington. That's weird, my source said he was going to sign with the Flamers.

Oh wait, my source was DSF.

Wrong again.

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#2 2004Z06
August 23 2013, 08:08AM
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At least we can finally stop hearing about all the Grabovski talk now!

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#3 Archaeologuy
August 23 2013, 07:59AM
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Alternative 3, "The Flying Firsts" is a sick line. That is all.

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#4 Marshall Law
August 23 2013, 09:14AM
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Didn't Gagner have an 8 point night playing between Hall and Eberle?

I'd say that combination worked fairly well.

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#5 Todd
August 23 2013, 09:22AM
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The thing that strikes me is that all he alternatives are solid. This is a fun debate because we aren't trying to slot JFJ or Pouliot or Hoc into the top 6

It's refreshing.

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#6 Lochenzo
August 23 2013, 08:45AM
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You're assuming Yakupov won't be better than Eberle this year. I doubt it happens this year, but I think Yak will get there one day.

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#7 Czar
August 23 2013, 09:24AM
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If I have to play along,I'd love to see Nuge feeding Yak one timers.Hall will be fine regardless of who he plays with.Teams will fear our powerplay!

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#8 God
August 23 2013, 08:10AM
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I agree that option #1 is best, giving both lines fine balance. The news about Grabo disappoints me in that I had a dream of creating 3 solid scoring lines with Grabo & Hemmer in the mix as well.

Anyhow, that's a dream for a fan of a playoff team. I'm humble, no worries MacT.

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#9 Hayek
August 23 2013, 09:20AM
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Alternative 3 would be so exciting. Seeing Hall and Yakupov together, even for just a short period, would be amazing to watch.

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#10 Yakman
August 23 2013, 10:51AM
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The most likely outcome is line juggling all season long. That said, has there ever been a line of three #1 overall picks in NHL history?

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#11 Craig1981
August 23 2013, 09:08AM
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I have been think this for a long time. I like Gagner with hall and Eberle. He has shown he is good enough to play with Eberle and Hall. RNH makes everyone better around him. Eberle and hall don't need that as much as Yakapov and Perron (no slight on them) that give you 2 lines that can play 20+ min making our weaker bottom lines less of an issue

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#12 Rama Lama
August 23 2013, 12:00PM
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I think it's time to admit we have the makings of two first lines.......in my mind which ever trio is playing better than the other trio, for that game they should be considered the first line.

Mix and match as you like coach Ekins.......you have been blessed with two first lines.

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#13 Marshall Law
August 23 2013, 09:19AM
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I also like the idea of having the team's best playmaker playing between 2 goal scoring wingers who play on their off wings. Could be a tasty combination. I'll go for alternative #2.

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#14 Dan the Man
August 23 2013, 09:10AM
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#3 could be the best top line in hockey in a few years. For now I really like option 1.

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#15 David S
August 23 2013, 12:01PM
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GET OUT OF MIND RAMA LAMA!

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#16 Czar
August 23 2013, 09:22AM
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"Is it better than the conventional lineup?"

I don't think any of the options are better than the conventional lineup. We have a true #1 line that has come into their own and I don't see the benefit of splitting them up.The addition of Perron, a fine two way player,will solidify the second line defensively. Increased minutes and better linemates for Yak should result in more wicked celebrations.

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#17 916oiler
August 23 2013, 10:53AM
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I think that with Perron, and Yak having some experience now, the second line is extremely potent as is.

The chemistry of the Kid Line is something you don't want to break up - unless they're in a slump and not producing for an extended stretch.

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#18 lolhockey
August 23 2013, 12:19PM
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Alternative 2 please. RNH as a left handed playmaker with Yak as a left handed RW would be perfect for Yak's one timers.

Hall, Gags and Ebs have played well together in the past.

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#19 Supernova
August 23 2013, 10:04AM
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Maybe its possible that Dallas Eakins looks for pairs of forwards and then blends the rest.

Maybe something like

RNH and Ebs, Gagner and Perron,

then Hall and Yak, and Hemsky slide around every few games.

I know that they don't play the same wing but the demands on wingers aren't as high and versatility is a good thing.

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#20 The Soup Fascist
August 23 2013, 08:39AM
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Mark me down for option #1.

I would love to watch Hall and Yakupov on the ice together. RNH in the middle would leave little doubt who the oppositions top pairing D would key on. Gagner would be fine there and free up Nuge and Eberle for some easier minutes. However, that makes for a pretty small line where you would be depending on Perron to be the "muscle".

As skilled as all these guys are, you can sure see how a big talented forward with a little grit would significantly change the dynamic and cause more matchup problems for the opposition.

Le "sigh".

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#21 godot10
August 23 2013, 10:15AM
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In the end, to beat Boston and LA, Chicago had to put Toews and Kane back together. This is not unusual. In the playoffs, typically, your best players have to beat the other teams best players. Tactics don't much matter.

The regular season is more tactical. The playoffs not so much.

If Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle can outplay and outscore whoever the opposition puts outs against them, there is no reason to separate them.

If they can't, well then you separate them.

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#22 Czar
August 23 2013, 01:11PM
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@God

I think a surgically repaired Nuge will prove that he's a #1 center. In fact,I wouldn't be surprised if he's a selke nominee in 3 years, the kid is wicked good at both ends of the ice.

I want to see some consistency with the lines so they develope some chemistry. That's not to say you don't double shift the hot hand on any given night or change things up on occasion when things aren't going well.

Multiple partners is the key to success if your a man whore,right?

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#23 Jordan Nugent-Hallkins
August 23 2013, 10:40AM
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Splitting up Nuge and Hall could work out in the Oiler's favor. I think those two will be the focus of most teams (until Yak activates [yaktivates?] like Hall last year). Alternative 1 would be my choice, that way one of either Nuge/Ebs or Hall/Yak could wreak havoc against softer opposition. We need to see a Hall - Nuge - Yak line at least once this season though, that would be electric.

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#24 Lochenzo
August 23 2013, 12:06PM
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Stacking your line should kept as an ace up your sleeve until you need it. Babcock will stack Datsyuk and Zetterberg together at the right moment of the game. And was saw Chicago dominate after Toews, Kane and Bickell were re-united mid-series with Boston having no answer, not even Chara. I think having that option is like having an extra gear that you keep in reserve. Cruise in 5th gear and let the opposition get used to that, then surprise them mid-game when you kick it into 6th gear.

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#25 bwar
August 23 2013, 12:39PM
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I would love to see RNH and Yak paired together. I also feel that Hall can produce no matter who he is paired with. Switching the lines around could have a very nice effect on scoring production.

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#26 GLS
August 23 2013, 01:31PM
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I like option #2. Playmakers are best with sharp-shooters (recall Gretzky/Kurri). But I think chemistry should be the top consideration. Certain people click together better. From what I can tell Gagner clicks better with Eberle and Hall than he does with Yak. What do you think?

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#27 oldhippy
August 23 2013, 08:58AM
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Option 2. I like the idea of keeping Hall and Eberle together. But I really like the idea of an all Canadian powerhouse line in the conventional option. I think they would be a handful playing fourth line minutes for team Canada. They have chemistry and have played together a lot the last two years. In a year where team Canada has to build chemistry in a hurry, you have a ready made, speedy, talented line. Personally I think Hall should make team Canada on his own merit, but this line is more than the sum of its parts.

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#28 G Money
August 23 2013, 09:48AM
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I like that Eakins has said he'll adjust the teams tactics (of which personnel and line combos are an obvious one) depending on who they're playing.

So it wouldn't surprise me if we see all four of the options above, and maybe others during the season (cue the "DalBlender" complaints).

Personally, all I hope that we achieve this year is that both our top two lines last year generate more than they give up. That would be a nice change from last year when only the top line was in plus territory, while 2 and 3 were in the red and 4 was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

I still fear that we'll see more of the same on 3 and 4 this year.

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#29 **
August 23 2013, 10:54AM
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I like alt 2 better because it splits Gagner and Yakupov ( they have been poor defensively together) and because it balances the size up front as best as possible. Yakupov could feel more comfortable going on adventures to the net knowing that RNH's excellent two way play is there to cover for him.

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#30 **
August 23 2013, 10:58AM
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godot10 wrote:

In the end, to beat Boston and LA, Chicago had to put Toews and Kane back together. This is not unusual. In the playoffs, typically, your best players have to beat the other teams best players. Tactics don't much matter.

The regular season is more tactical. The playoffs not so much.

If Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle can outplay and outscore whoever the opposition puts outs against them, there is no reason to separate them.

If they can't, well then you separate them.

You must have missed the playoff series between Toronto and Boston. That series was won purely on strategy. Oh how I loved those ice time comparison graphics from TSN ( I think it was TSN)

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#31 Will
August 23 2013, 11:29AM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Alternative 3, "The Flying Firsts" is a sick line. That is all.

I Agree, we didn't get to see this historically unprecedented line even once last year. This is potentially even more of a loaded first line then what they currently have setup now.

No other time in hockey could you have three consecutive first overall picks, on a line, on one team, all playing their natural positions. Why can't they just put this line out once?

As for the actual balancing I have a few thoughts. First, with the current stats on the pipeline Hall, Nuge, Eberle, the outshot and outscored their opposition, and playing against bigger teams wasn't a factor. Thus, they can be considered one of the best top lines in the NHL, poised to only get better, and better and better. So a team with a big top defence pairing is obviously going to stack up against these guys. Say that defence is successful in shutting down our top line. That means our second line of Gagner, Yak, and Perron don't have to face the toughest opposition. Our second line looks very skilled. Against a teams second toughest competition, assuming Gagner can improve in the face off dot or he's given some defencemen to help get the puck back, this second line should be able to chew apart MOST teams second defence pairing, and forward competition. Not many teams have depth in their defence like that nor at forward. Kings, Sharks, Detroit, Pens and Van are some teams that come to mind that might make it tough for our second line. But that is assuming our first line isn't getting it done.

My other feeling is that Hall and Yak were just so good together last year. I know Ebs had a broken finger and Nuge a busted shoulder so maybe they turn it around, But Hall and Yak could be lethal together. It would also mean Gagner wouldn't have to work so hard at his two way play. Thus, if Perron can find some chemistry with Nuge and Ebs on the top line facing the toughs, then this scenario might work out even better. The only problem is away games will match their top defence likely against whatever line Hall is on, and I'm not sure Gagner and Yak would be up tot hat challenge just yet.

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#32 Walter Sobchak
August 23 2013, 11:36AM
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I think alternate #-3 gives apposing coach's the most difficult decision when to put the top pairing out against te Oilers.

Just thinking as an old coach, I would want my two fastest defensmen out against Hall & Yakupov not nessesserly my best, I'm thinking I would need to try and close the gap and keep up with the duo, keep them to the outside the best they can.

I would want my two best defensmen against Gagner, Perron and Eberle as this to me would be the most complete line the Oilers can put out, with experience, two way ability and excellent transition game, this line could rip it out there.

Just my thoughts.

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#33 rickithebear
August 23 2013, 02:10PM
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JW: I like to use the web site:

http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com

To look at who plays best with whom. looking at the last three years. the players still on the team.

The best combinations (Gf-GA)/60min #1 Hall-XXX-Yak +5.54 #2 XXX-Gagner-Eager +4.34 #3 XXX-RNH-Eager +2.72 #4 Smyth-XXX-Eberle +2.53 #5 Smyth-Gagner-XXX +2.32 #6 Smyth-XXX-Yak +1.73 #7 Eager-XXX-Jones +1.44 #8 Jones-XXX-Yak +1.42 #9 Smyth-RNH-XXX +1.30 #10 Smyth-Lander-XXX +1.05 #11 XXX-RNH-Eberle +0.63 #12 Hall-RNH-XXX +0.47 #13 XXX-RNH-Hemsky +0.29 #14 Hall-XXX-Eberle +0.25 #15 XXX-GagnerJjones +0.17

Interesting results and to see Eager and Smyth up at the top!

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#34 God
August 23 2013, 10:02AM
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@Czar

Though the Oil have true top line forwards, I'd venture to say we don't yet have a 1st line centre in Nuge, that I can still see then easily shut down by a Weber, Keith, Seabrook, Hamhuis, Doughty. Breaking up the top end talent (Hall & Ebs in my opinion) would make the Oil more competitive against teams with elite Dmen that don't have a tonne of depth.

I'd say juggle the lines to heart's content. Nuge-Ebs-Hall will always get top PP time together. They'll be better off being comfortable with multiple linemates.

Multiple partners is the key to success, right?

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#35 YoungOil
August 23 2013, 11:24AM
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Toni Rajala has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of being bought out. - Stauffer via Twitter.

Letting a PPG player go for nothing...

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#36 vetinari
August 23 2013, 11:56AM
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YoungOil wrote:

Toni Rajala has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of being bought out. - Stauffer via Twitter.

Letting a PPG player go for nothing...

Saw that too... something must be up... either the player doesn't think he'll ever get a crack with the Oilers and wants out, or wants to return to Europe to be closer to home, or needs to go "bye bye" for other reasons (maybe a complainer? maybe crossed a line somewhere in the unwritten hockey code?)... it's too bad we can't get something in return for him but I'm sure some explanation will shake out in the next few days as to the reasons why...

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#37 David S
August 23 2013, 12:00PM
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There is a very real possibility that Gagner/Yakupov could be every bit as good as Hall/Eberle. Sometimes pairs can be more potent than individual players.

Sam is a phenomenal set-up man with players he trusts (i.e. NOT Hemsky last year). From the limited time we've seen Yak and Gagner work together (towards the end of the seaon especially), we may very well have another dynamic duo in the mix, in which case Hall/Ebs and Gags/Yak would work as a wicked 1-2 punch.

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#38 FastOil
August 23 2013, 02:55PM
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Another thing to consider is that with the parity in the NHL, even if you run a super-line, defences will become increasingly better at defending them. And in a playoff series, possibly shut them down.

Better to put your best together on occasion and create havoc.

Also depth is key in the playoffs, ask the Pens.

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#39 God
August 23 2013, 04:27PM
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Czar wrote:

I think a surgically repaired Nuge will prove that he's a #1 center. In fact,I wouldn't be surprised if he's a selke nominee in 3 years, the kid is wicked good at both ends of the ice.

I want to see some consistency with the lines so they develope some chemistry. That's not to say you don't double shift the hot hand on any given night or change things up on occasion when things aren't going well.

Multiple partners is the key to success if your a man whore,right?

Multiple partners would've worked if we were serious about keeping Gretzky here. Somehow I think Janet wouldn't have stuck around if that had been the case.

As for Nuge, I agree that the sky is the limit with Selke nominations and I'd venture to say that he could be an assist leader as well. Currently, however, I'd say that according to pre-surgery viewing, he's been a 2C playing 1C minutes.

While Horcs was injured last year and Nuge was playing against top competition, he looked particularly ineffective. It all goes without saying that this is reasonable to expect out of a 20 year old. I'd just say that he's not a 1C until he's a 1C, it's just honestly a question of when he gets there. I hope it's this year, and if MacT is ballsy, he'll extend the contract another 7-8 years at $6mil BEFORE this happens.

Too bold? That's pretty bold...

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#40 Leafsblow
August 23 2013, 10:58AM
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@ Jonathan Willis. I have a theory but lack of free time has not allowed me to confirm. Maybe you could help. I believe Hall and the Nuge do not compliment eachother. Hall's numbers seemed to skyrocket when he is not with the Nuge (rookie season when Nuge was shut down,AHL when Nuge was shut down then went to WJ's and last year when Nuge was shut down bc of his shoulder). If I am right, I would choose Alternative 1 or 2. Hopefully you can help (could be a great article.)

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#41 Hammers
August 23 2013, 10:17AM
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Totally agree with your assesment and the line Hall is on becomes the first line .Also with RNH coming back from surgery becomes all the more reason to put more pressure on Gags . Last leave Ebs with RNH so adding Perron makes sense .

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#42 **
August 23 2013, 11:00AM
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God wrote:

Though the Oil have true top line forwards, I'd venture to say we don't yet have a 1st line centre in Nuge, that I can still see then easily shut down by a Weber, Keith, Seabrook, Hamhuis, Doughty. Breaking up the top end talent (Hall & Ebs in my opinion) would make the Oil more competitive against teams with elite Dmen that don't have a tonne of depth.

I'd say juggle the lines to heart's content. Nuge-Ebs-Hall will always get top PP time together. They'll be better off being comfortable with multiple linemates.

Multiple partners is the key to success, right?

I see what you did there

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#43 j
August 23 2013, 11:19AM
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The difference in comparing to other teams is the quality at centre ice. Our top two centremen are still a) young (RNH) or b) incomplete in terms of skill sets (Gagner). So the desire to split up the top line of Nuge, Hall and Ebs is really limited by the holes in Gagner's game (and I am a Gagner supporter). It is worth a try but I'd rather have one line go supernova (ala Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan)and try and make the second work with the other skillsets available.

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#44 blood4oil
August 23 2013, 11:36AM
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Considering how many question marks surround the majority of our bottom 6, we need to squeeze as much scoring out of our top 6 as we can. This means to start the year at least, we have put Hall-Nuge-Eberle together so as to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible.

If scoring dries up (which it usually does), then that's when I would split them up. This is just my own opinion, of course.

You also have to consider chemistry. We all know that Hall-Nuge-Eberle have chemistry together, the same cannot necessarily be said if you move Hall to the 2nd line or Perron to the 1st line.

To start the season, personally I wouldn't mess with the chemistry we already have - it would also have the added bonus of giving David Perron the ability to get used to his normal linemates. Nuge and Gagner are 2 different levels of the same player type, so putting Perron with either guy will have consequences in terms of timing, and mess with Hall's if you put him there.

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#45 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
August 23 2013, 05:10PM
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I like conventional AND alternatives 1, 2, and 3.

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#46 MessyEH!
August 23 2013, 05:15PM
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I like line Alt 1. I would be shifting Hall to the 3rd line on occasion with Hemsky and Gordan. That would make an opposing coach worry. Hemsky with someone to give and receive passes.

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#47 mrBacon
August 23 2013, 07:44PM
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Any combination of those top 6 players playing in their preferred position is going to be able to score it seems. It could change on a nightly basis to really make matching up against the top 2 lines difficult.

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#48 They're $hittie
August 23 2013, 11:16AM
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Yakman wrote:

The most likely outcome is line juggling all season long. That said, has there ever been a line of three #1 overall picks in NHL history?

the closest I can think of was, Heatley (2), Marleau (2) and Thornton (1)

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#49 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
August 23 2013, 05:15PM
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Also....one of the keys to success is using your elite players to make other players around them better......which doesn't happen if you play one superline......plus you can always reunite the super line and double shift them if you need a boost late in a game..

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#50 Czar
August 23 2013, 05:32PM
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God wrote:

Multiple partners would've worked if we were serious about keeping Gretzky here. Somehow I think Janet wouldn't have stuck around if that had been the case.

As for Nuge, I agree that the sky is the limit with Selke nominations and I'd venture to say that he could be an assist leader as well. Currently, however, I'd say that according to pre-surgery viewing, he's been a 2C playing 1C minutes.

While Horcs was injured last year and Nuge was playing against top competition, he looked particularly ineffective. It all goes without saying that this is reasonable to expect out of a 20 year old. I'd just say that he's not a 1C until he's a 1C, it's just honestly a question of when he gets there. I hope it's this year, and if MacT is ballsy, he'll extend the contract another 7-8 years at $6mil BEFORE this happens.

Too bold? That's pretty bold...

If the rumors are true Mess was the multiple partners guy but that didn't keep him around long enough either. Maybe a more open minded Janet could have kept the whole gang together.

I'm hoping the shoulder was the reason for the lack of production and we see the Nuge of 2011-12.I think he still made strides in other areas of his game now if he could just win a faceoff. I have to agree with you that it would be nice to get him signed for 6-7 years at a good rate while we can.

Not too bold as far as I'm concerned. Cheers!

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