Tomorrow the Oilers play host to Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coytoes. The Coyotes are currently 7th in the West, with 36 points, five ahead of the 13th place Oilers. A combination of shrewd management (Don Maloney has been a revelation since coming over from the Rangers) and improving coaching (Wayne Gretzky is now in his fourth season with the team) has the Coyotes trending up on the ice for the first time in years.
Unfortunately, the improving on-ice product has been overshadowed by poor attendance and the questionable financial situation of its owner. Take this Globe & Mail story, which is full of doom and gloom -– the only item missing was a suggestion that Jim Balsillie would be happy to move the team to Hamilton.
In any case, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at exactly what the Oilers will be facing on the ice tomorrow night, and how Wayne Gretzky has deployed his lines the past few games. Here are the line combinations from last night against Phoenix, along with the role they played (lines are organized by even-strength ice-time):
Shane Doan – Steven Reinprecht – Peter Mueller: Played against everybody up front, with the exception of Rick Nash’s line. Ken Hitchcock was content to allow Doan to play against his second and fourth lines, although he matched his top defense pairing (Hejda/Commodore) against them all night.
Viktor Tikhonov – Olli Jokinen – Daniel Carcillo: This line played very similar minutes to Doan’s line – lots of time against everybody but Rick Nash. Hitchcock again got Heda and Commodore out against them a lot, but aside from that there wasn’t a hard match-up.
Todd Fedoruk – Martin Hanzal – Mikkel Boedker: I was a little shocked to see an 18-year old rookie (Boedker) and a sophomore player (Hanzal) out against Rick Nash’s line, but that’s what happened. 88% of the time Rick Nash was on the ice, this line was too.
Joakim Lindstrom – Kyle Turris – Enver Lisin: No firm matches here, Gretzky seemed content to play them against anyone.
Kurt Sauer – Zybnek Michalek: This pairing saw the top line of Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger and Fredrik Modin/Jakub Voracek. Seventy-five per cent of their even-strength ice-time came against Rick Nash, and Kurt Sauer played this same role with Colorado last season – shutting down top offensive talents. Did I mention that Sauer signed a four-year, $1.75M/season contract this off-season?
Ed Jovanovski – Derek Morris: Jovanovski and Morris saw the second tier of the Blue Jacket’s offense – Jiri Novotny, Kritian Huselius and Fredrik Modin/Jakub Voracek, with about half their ice-time coming against that line. They also saw some time in offensive situations against the Blue Jacket’s third line, which featured Mike Peca, Mike York, and a rotating winger (mostly Jared Boll).
Keith Yandle – Ken Klee : Played a fairly typical third-pairing game; scraps of ice-time against scraps of the roster.
Now that we’ve looked at Phoenix’s last game, let’s also take a look at their last road game, against Dallas:
Shane Doan – Olli Jokinen – Peter Mueller: Saw a ton of Brad Richard’s line – this line clearly takes the heavy checkers when it’s together. They also saw a lot of the Stars’ two defense pairings. As an aside, they got outplayed badly; Shane Doan was on the ice for both goals against, both of them scored by Richards’ linemate Loui Eriksson.
Todd Fedoruk – Martin Hanzal – Mikkel Boedker: Played fully half of the game against Mike Ribeiro’s line. Just as in the game against Columbus, this line was deployed in a largely checking role, and it still seems a curious choice.
Tikhonov – Reinprecht – Carcillo: Played against everybody. Clearly this line was Gretzky’s second choice in both the offensive and defensive departments.
Lindstrom – Turris – Porter: In a rather odd alignment, Kyle Turris’ line saw Mike Modano all night. In fairness, Modano was lugging around Toby Petersen and Mark Parrish, so it wasn’t a great line. That’s about as sheltered as it gets against Dallas – you can hide form Ribeiro and Richards, but then you have to play Mike Modano.
Kurt Sauer – Zybnek Michalek: Again used for the top defensive assignments, Sauer and Michalek split time against Ribeiro and Richards.
Ed Jovanovski – Ken Klee: Second choice for defensive assignments. Used largely in an offensive role in support of the Doan-Jokinen line.
Keith Yandle – Derek Morris: Yandle played strictly sheltered minutes, although Derek Morris spent some time in place of Ken Klee on the second pairing.
I would imagine that Wayne Gretzky uses lines similar to the road game against Dallas tomorrow night -– which will mean Martin Hanzal’s line in a checking role and Shane Doan and Olli Jokinen on the same line. I imagine that MacTavish will have the Horcoff – Penner – Hemsky line together again, as he used the min the third period against Anaheim, and if that’s the case he’ll likely try to play power-vs.-power while Gretzky tries to get Hanzal out against the Oilers top line. If, on the other hand, MacTavish puts Hemsky and Horcoff on seperate lines, things are greatly simplified – Doan and Jokinen would play against Horcoff, while Hemsky would draw Hanzal.
It’s also worth noting that the Oilers should be dominant in the faceoff circle – the Coyotes’ best face-off man is Martin Hanzal, and he’s only won 47.4 per cent of his draws this season. Reinprecht is a shade worse at 46.0 per cent, while Olli Jokinen is downright bad, with a 39.2 face-off percentage.
I’m as critical of The Hockey News as anyone, but they have some great online content right now. The staff writers are fairly vanilla (although Ken Campbell occasionally has some good stuff), but a pair of “Insiders” have been well worth reading. Mark Seidel is the chief scout for North American Central scouting, and his blog is a must-read for anyone interested in the 2009 Draft. The other blog I wanted to point out is Sean Pronger’s – he had a terrific entry just under a week ago about being a frequent healthy scratch. For example, aside from the whole not playing thing, there’s some additional downside to being a healthy scratch:
The pre-game skate is where you get the ‘tap’ from the coach at the end of practice. Who me? Really? I thought I was practicing on the sixth line to throw off the other team. For the select few who won’t be playing, the morning skate turns into an early-afternoon bag skate. Let me make sure I’m hearing this right. I don’t get to play and I have to skate until I nearly puke? Beautiful, where do I sign up?
It’s good writing, and Sean Pronger can’t help it that he has a brother named Chris.
It’s probably also worth noting that Jussi Jokinen went unclaimed after being put on waivers by the Lightning.