A couple of days ago, I wrote about what I felt was the most glaring hole in the Oilers’ lineup—the third line centre position. I suggested Bryan Smolinski as a possible solution, although a trade for a similar veteran player could fill the hole as effectively.
Craig MacTavish, however, seems to have discovered a different plug. A big-bodied plug with a nice face-off presence, questionable defensive zone awareness, and less than stellar skating. That’s right, according to Pierre Lebrun of ESPN (hat-tip to OilFaninCowtown on HFBoards), Craig MacTavish is strongly considering Dustin Penner as his third-line centre. The lines that Lebrun was told about are as follows:
Erik Cole – Shawn Horcoff – Ales Hemsky
Robert Nilsson – Andrew Cogliano – Sam Gagner
Ethan Moreau – Dustin Penner – Fernando Pisani
Does this remind anyone of a similar move MacTavish made a few years back? Moving a goal-scoring left-winger into the pivot position to fill an obvious hole? Browse down the comments in that HFBoards thread, and you’ll see that commenter Misfit had the same thought I did. In 2003–04, the blinding lack of a first-line centre led MacTavish into moving Ryan Smyth into that slot on the Oilers’ first line (the role was eventually filled by Petr Nedved, who helped lead the Oilers on a remarkable late-season run that ended with a 9th place finish). Smyth had his worst season in four years, and the Oilers struggled until the hole was filled.
Now, obviously, the stakes here are much lower. Equally obvious is the fact that MacTavish will change his lines repeatedly this season, and that his mid-September lines are likely to look vastly different from even his early-November lines. That said, the fact that this hole hasn’t been filled is somewhat inexplicable—players are available, and they won’t cost much. Is the log-jam of forwards really this formidable? Will this team be better off minus a third-line centre, and with one of Ryan Potulny or Rob Schremp on the 4th line instead of in the minors? I think not.
I somehow doubt this is the role that Kevin Lowe envisioned for Penner when he acquired him at great cost from the Anaheim Ducks and it really raises the question of what Kevin Lowe was thinking, spending assets, money and good will on a player who one year later would be in a support role and not a key part of the team. It makes the offer sheet seem even more desperate and ill-planned than it looked last season, and that’s something that I didn’t even think was possible.
The effects of this long-term are probably mixed. Penner looked OK playing tough competition with good line-mates, and between Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani he may continue to refine his game as a two-way player. The real question is why he’s doing it at centre, rather than on the wing—between Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff and Andrew Cogliano, it’s difficult to ever see Penner playing centre in a top-six role for the Oilers. It’s clearly a stop-gap move by the coach, and it isn’t one he should need to be making.
It also seems to indicate a lack of confidence that either Marc Pouliot or Kyle Brodziak is prepared to do that particular job this season, and I’d imagine that the fourth line features Stortini on right wing, Brodziak at centre and Pouliot subbing in as needed. The position up for grabs would appear to be 4th line LW. The other possibility is that one of Pouliot/Brodziak is on the way out.
The final thought I have on these lines is that there is little doubt now that MacTavish is going to run the Horcoff line in a power-vs-power role, a decision that makes a world of sense, given the makeup of this roster.
—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.