The centre-ice position was not a strength for the Oilers last season. Despite being blessed with an abundance of natural centres, the vast majority of them were either young, inept in the faceoff circle, or both. In a recent interview with Dan Tencer, Oilers G.M. Steve Tambellini talked about what his team’s options were for the coming season.
The full interview is linked above, but here are the most relevant excerpts:
Tambellini: We’ve got a lot of people that can play centre, with Horcoff and Gagner and Cogliano and you mentioned Brule, and Patrick O’Sullivan, who headed up the top line as a centreman for Team USA at the World Championships with Dustin Brown reminded us how well he plays centre.
Tencer: When you look at the centre position – and you mentioned Patrick O’Sullivan – Marc Pouliot’s another guy who’s played a lot out of position, he’s a natural centre going back to his days in Rimouski when he was playing on Sidney Crosby’s line. Do you think about maybe moving Cogliano to the wing given his numbers in the faceoff dot last year, and moving O’Sullivan or Pouliot back to a natural position at centre? Is that an option?
Tambellini: Yeah, I think it’s an option. I think at times it will be a situation maybe that changes depending on performance like any other year… Pouliot gives you that little extra size and the right-handed draw also, so I know that he’s going to get a look there also. O’Sullivan, he’s a heady guy who can make the nifty pass and he can shoot. Like I said, he reminded us when he was playing on the top Team USA line that he plays very well there.
There isn’t any reading between the lines required to get the idea that Patrick O’Sullivan is going to get a shot up the middle, and despite a lukewarm debut with the Oilers the idea that he might be a fit with Ales Hemsky remains a strong one. To quote Lowetide’s “Reasonable Expectations” post:
Today’s post is brought to you by the number 259. That’s the number of shots Patrick O’Sullivan posted this past season in the National Hockey League. That’s 74 more shots than Ales Hemsky managed (Hemsky’s total led team forwards); the last time the Oilers had a forward with more shots it was 1998-99 and Billy Guerin was scoring 30 goals on 261 shots.
That shooter’s mentality remains O’Sullivan’s greatest strength to the team; it’s a unique gift among Oilers forwards. So far, it hasn’t translated into a ton of NHL goals (O’Sullivan’s had totals of 22 and 16 goals over full NHL seasons) but it has at every other level: the four-time 30+ goal scorer in the OHL (with a miserable Mississauga team) scored 47 goals as an AHL rookie in 2005-06.
What would the Oilers’ top-nine look like if we assume O’Sullivan as Hemsky’s centre and Andrew Cogliano as a LW?
The players in the mix seem fairly clear-cut:
- RW: Hemsky, Pisani, Nilsson/Gagner
- C: Horcoff, O’Sullivan, Gagner/Pouliot
- LW: Penner, Cogliano, Moreau
Frankly, I think the most likely top-nine if O’Sullivan slots into the top-line spot is as follows:
- Penner – O’Sullivan – Hemsky
- Cogliano – Gagner – Nilsson
- Moreau – Horcoff – Pisani
There are a bunch of possible variations; Horcoff flanked by Cogliano/Gagner, Cogliano and Penner switching spots, etc. Still, that should be close, since I imagine the organization would like to keep Gagner up the middle as well, since that’s where his NHL future lies.
There are a couple of other points worth noting about moving O’Sullivan to centre:
- O’Sullivan’s best NHL season (2007-08) came while he was playing centre. It may be coincidental, but his point totals went down when he moved to the wing.
- O’Sullivan is, at best, a very vanilla faceoff option. Excluding last year, where he got very few draws (and many of them were probably of the more-difficult-to-win replacement variety) he’s averaged 44.6% over 588 faceoffs. That’s better than Cogliano, but not worth getting excited about.
I do believe we’ll see Andrew Cogliano move to the port side regardless. He’s been miserable on faceoffs, and the lessened defensive responsibilities have t be regarded as a good thing at this stage in his career. If that happens, and O’Sullivan also stays on left wing, I imagine we’ll see Penner move to RW. He played it a bit under MacTavish as part of the former coach’s ill-fated third line (Moreau – Pisani – Penner) and that would allow him to slot into the second-line wing spot with Sam Gagner – something that seems like a natural fit. That would give the Oilers’ the following top-nine:
- O’Sullivan/Cogliano – Horcoff – Hemsky
- Cogliano/O’Sullivan – Gagner – Penner
- Moreau – Pouliot – Pisani
I think that’s a reasonable group of forwards, although of course I’d prefer a more established option than Marc Pouliot for the third line and it also means the team will be banking on scoring by committee and steps forward from Cogliano/Gagner. Unfortunately, both seem inevitable, but fortunately both could work out for the team. It’s a gamble.