I agree there’s a problem, but I’m not crazy about the solution

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.

  • Hippy

    Who is Pierre Lebrun? Is he someone who we should really be listening to?

    Yes, he is. He's had a TV gig with both The Score and Sportsnet, and he's been a print guy since forever. These days, he's jumped ship to ESPN, and as far as being in the know about things on a league-wide basis, outside of Bob McKenzie he doesn't have a ton of competition.

    I believe this speculation has more to do with having too much talent on Left wing, not a lack of it at centre. It is definitely not something I am overly worried about.

    We have one veteran guy who barely hit 50 points last year, a sophomore player who just hit 40 points, a 6'4" behemoth who oculdn't hit 50 points playing with Horc & Hemsky, and a guy who hasn't played since the 2006 Finals.

    Trust me, it isn't the overflow of talent at LW that signalled this move.

    Compared to some of the signings that took place this summer I really don’t consider Penner too highly priced for his skill and size and upside.

    I don't have a big problem with Penner's pay cheque; my issue is that if Kevin Lowe feels that investing 1) 4.25 M/yr for 5 years 2) 3 draft picks and 3) a ton of bad blood between him and Burke in a player, it seems to me that player ought to be a key cog going forward. Not, say, a guy that you drop to the third line because there isn't room for him in the top 6.

  • Hippy

    Who is Pierre Lebrun? Is he someone who we should really be listening to? I ask only out of ignorance since the line combinations he's suggesting just look like someone having fun with the numbers game.

    Could MacT just be trying to make sure that there is a burr in the saddles of Brodziak and Pouliot? what about Shremp? The way MacT juggles lines around I can see him playing with this combination some night just to shake things up… why not?

    I believe this speculation has more to do with having too much talent on Left wing, not a lack of it at centre. It is definitely not something I am overly worried about.

    Compared to some of the signings that took place this summer I really don't consider Penner too highly priced for his skill and size and upside. I believe he will put in 20-25 goals this year, and guys who do that get paid what Penner is getting paid.

    Everyone keeps saying the Oilers have to get bigger and then condemning Penner in the same breath; I don't get it. If Penners feet (remember I said IF) are moving he's a notable threat and I am pretty sure he is wearing out defenders who are trying to clear him out of the crease, which can only be good for the next shift on the ice. I can only see him getting better and he did improve his skating as the year went on last year, it just wasn't as notable as the dominance of the kid line.

  • Hippy

    I doubt that these lines last long- Penner will be on the second line, and Cogliano on the 3rd or 4th soon enough, I imagine.

    I think the biggest thing here is what it says about
    a) the other players on the roster
    b) Kevin Lowe's decision making, circa Summer 2006

  • Hippy

    I wonder if MacT putting Penner in between has less to do with Penner, and more to do with not wanting to have your captain on the 4th line.

    I think everyone is fairly certain that at some point Cogs will get moved into that 3rd line center role at which point Penner can go back to the wing and Moreau becomes a baby sitter/pentalty killer.

    It just feels to me like an effort to keep Moreau on the 3rd line as opposed to the 4th.