Playing Centre & The Top Nine

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:

  1. Penner – O’Sullivan – Hemsky
  2. Cogliano – Gagner – Nilsson
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. O’Sullivan/Cogliano – Horcoff – Hemsky
  2. Cogliano/O’Sullivan – Gagner – Penner
  3. 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.

  • Hippy

    Josh wrote:

    Pouliot should not even be in the NHL, lucky for him he may be able to scratch out a living playing in Europe. He wont make the team this year, Brule and Schremp are coming into camp hungry for a spot and will have no problem out competing Marc. the only reason he played for us was because of the retard Mac T.

    Sorry, Woogie, there's a new hyperbole champ in town — calling MacTavish a retard is even more mindless than calling Pouliot a waste of skin — and his name is Josh.

  • Hippy

    Pouliot should not even be in the NHL, lucky for him he may be able to scratch out a living playing in Europe. He wont make the team this year, Brule and Schremp are coming into camp hungry for a spot and will have no problem out competing Marc. the only reason he played for us was because of the retard Mac T.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    I seriously hope we get rid of the waste of skin Pouliot

    I'm with Willis. You might think the "waste of skin" line is witty (it's not), but it's hyperbole. While he's destined to be a bottom-six forward, Pouliot doesn't exactly qualify as Jesse Niinimaki or Alexei Mihknov.

  • Hippy

    mike smith wrote:

    If you include Gibert Brule, and Robbie Shremp, the Oilers have 10 first round picks on their starting roster….Show me ANY other team in the NHL….past or present that can actually boast that as a stat.

    Well, the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins had seven first-round draft picks.

    Dick Tarnstrom led the team in scoring with 52 points.

  • Hippy

    I think this is a pretty decent blog….One thing I would like to comment on, is that nobody seems to be giving any credibitlity to the Oilers as a team that could make the playoffs….In my opinion, this is almost a DREAM TEAM…If you include Gibert Brule, and Robbie Shremp, the Oilers have 10 first round picks on their starting roster….Show me ANY other team in the NHL….past or present that can actually boast that as a stat. Now, I agree that a lot of these guys are unproven and, somewhat inconsistent, but I do believe this to be a radical year where Pat Quinn and Tom Renney can and will bring out the best in every player on this roster. Are they Stanley Cup Champions?….seriously doubt it….will they be competitive enough to make it to the playoffs?….I think it's quite likely. This team has an almost unlimited ceiling of potential and I, for one, am pretty excited to see what happens this season. I am content with the roster's depth and am pretty happy the way things turned out so far this off-season. I hope Tambi sticks to his comments about going in to training camp with this roster.

  • Hippy

    I gotta say when you put them up like that.. I really like this team.

    You know how fast our front 9 are? you put Brule on the 4th line and we are the fastest team in the league…. you could blow us over with a pin wheel but we're freaky fast.

  • Hippy

    Chris wrote:

    A guy like Malhotra would help… but does anyone belive that Malhotra is the one key ingrediant to launch the Oilers into cup contention?

    By all accounts, Malhotra would be a nice addition to this team. However, cup contention? Personally, I'm happy if the Oilers get into the playoffs this year. Anything more is icing, especially if it means knocking out the Calgary Cro-mags.

  • Hippy

    The fact that Lowe didn't offer Reasoner a contract; AND Tambellini traded Brodziak; AND Betts/Malhotra have not been signed; indicates to me that Oilers management believes they have sufficient organizational depth at center… A troubling thought.

    I see an insufficient level of size, experience, and high end skill down the middle. A guy like Malhotra would help… but does anyone belive that Malhotra is the one key ingrediant to launch the Oilers into cup contention?

  • Hippy

    Woogie wrote:

    Honestly, I seriously hope we get rid of the waste of skin Pouliot and put in Brule.
    Nilsson has no choice but to step it up because if he does not I would not be at all surprise if Schremp or Potulny gets a shot and if they play well will replace him for good.
    I’m so thankful I am not on the coaching staff because we have 1 1st liner and about 7 2nd line forwards.

    Schemp would fit well on as a winger with Gagner, they have practiced a lot together and would know where each other is. As for Nillson, put him on waivers, no onw will take him, send him down and lose his cap hit.

  • Hippy

    Honestly, I seriously hope we get rid of the waste of skin Pouliot and put in Brule.

    Nilsson has no choice but to step it up because if he does not I would not be at all surprise if Schremp or Potulny gets a shot and if they play well will replace him for good.

    I'm so thankful I am not on the coaching staff because we have 1 1st liner and about 7 2nd line forwards.

  • Hippy

    Just a thought..
    Looking at that second set of top 9 forwards, nilsson isn't there. That would mean that his 2MM is gone, via AHL or trade, if the oilers run with that lineup. To me, it seems as if this would allow the oilers to sign a decent 3C such as Malholtra. I like it.

  • Hippy

    I definitely like the looks of the final set of lines you threw out there. It will be interesting to see who fits where, and how long it's going to take for Quenny and company to figure it all out.