With the passing of Labour Day weekend, and a horrendous display by the Eskimos, we can officially start to think about the upcoming hockey season. Rookie camp opens with medicals Friday, a practice in Kelowna on Saturday and a game in Penticton on Sunday.
The Oilers are less than two weeks from the opening of the most anticipated training camp since 1989, the first year AG (After Gretzky). As camp draws closer I expect the Nation to set record numbers with hits and page views.
Let’s face it; all of you will be like kids on Christmas morning; eagerly anticipating what’s inside the training camp present. The most exciting thing about this year’s camp is the plethora of uncertainties:
- How many rookies will make the team? [My answer: 3]
- What number will Taylor Hall wear? (It shouldn’t be that exciting, but this year you are crazy about every aspect of camp) [My answer: 19]
- Will Sheldon Souray be a distraction or will he be focused? [My answer: good for 30 games]
- Can Sam Gagner take the next step? [My answer: 55 points this year]
- Will Wanye finally get on the smooch cam? [My answer: No chance. No girl would go with him]
- Who will play with Ales Hemsky? [My answer: 10 and 91]
- Is Ryan Whitney as good as you thought last year? [My answer: No – he’ll be good not great]
- Can Ladislav Smid stay healthy? [My answer: he’ll play 76 games]
- Will Khabibulin be an asset or a liability? [My answer: Both – he’ll play well for 35 games]
- Will Shaw/Telus/Bell pick up Sportsnet One? [My answer: Yes]
- Where will Andrew Cogliano play? [My answer: Both wing and centre, then on another team]
- Who will be the most productive rookie? [My answer: Hall, but barely]
- Who will have the best Corsi number? (I keed I keed) [My answer: Penner]
- Who will be captain? Do they need a captain? [My answer: They don’t need one to start the season]
- What song will they play in the room after a win? [My answer: "Another one bites the dust" by Queen]
- Will it have a clapping sequence? [My answer: Great clapping sequence]
- Will Steve Smith make an impact behind the bench? [My answer: After the first 25 games, we’ll see it]
- Can Ralph “Freddy” Krueger instill some Euro flair? [My answer: I doubt it]
- Will Omark shock everyone and make the team? [My answer: no chance]
- How many posters will Brownlee ban? [My answer: 3]
- Will J.F Jacques be healthy by Christmas? [My answer: He’ll play in early November]
- Will Renney use Stortini/Fraser? in a shut down role sometimes? [My answer: I can see it for a few games like he did in NY]
- Will Dustin Penner play centre? [My answer: not full time]
PENNER AT CENTRE?
You probably have asked yourself most of the aforementioned questions in the past month, but did you think about Penner in the middle? I hadn’t; until yesterday.
Ryan Rishaug and I were discussing the Oilers on my show, while the Esks were getting crushed in Calgary, and he brought up using Penner in the middle. He did it in a way that made me believe he expects this experiment to happen during camp/preseason.
Before you start pounding on your keyboard, let’s look at the pros and cons of playing Penner in the middle.
REASONS WHY YOU TRY PENNER IN THE MIDDLE
- The Oilers don’t have any size down the middle with Horcoff, Gagner and Cogliano.
- Penner thinks the game very well in his own zone.
- He proved last year that when he applies himself he is an above average skater, so he should be able to handle his defensive responsibilities.
- The Oilers have Hall and Paajarvi who can play LW.
- As his confidence grew last year, his playmaking skills became more evident.
REASONS WHY YOU LEAVE PENNER ON THE WING
- He can beat defenders wide on the rush when he moves his feet.
- He is great along the boards in both zones.
- He just got comfortable being a force on the wing.
- He looked fatigued during the middle 25 games last year, so will he be able to stay fresh playing centre where he has to skate more?
- You risk having him lose his confidence by not succeeding at a new position.
- Is he a long-term fix in the middle?
My initial reaction was it wasn’t a great idea, but I was open to listening to the arguments of why it might be.
- By moving Penner to the middle then Hall and Paajarvi will be your top-two left wingers. Paajarvi has decent size, 6’2”, 200 pounds and so does Hall at 6’1” 190, and while neither is as large as Penner, neither is considered a water bug.
- You could play Penner with Hemsky and Hall and all he’d have to do is circle deep, take the pass and send one of them streaking up the ice.
- I’d rather let Penner learn the position, than see Hall struggle adapting to the NHL game and playing the middle.
- He could handle anyone in front of the net, and he is a better faceoff man than Gagner and Cogliano. And then you can use Horcoff in a shutdown/scoring role on the third line.
All valid arguments, but I’m still not convinced moving Penner to the middle is the best option.
Let’s look at his faceoff numbers compared to Gagner.
In their three years in Edmonton Penner is 49.5% in the draw and Gagner is 44.2%, but if you look closer, Penner really dominates on PP faceoffs, but isn’t very good EV.
- In 2008 Penner was 40% on EV draws, and 68.4% on PP. Finished 55% for season.
- In 2009 Penner was 38% on EV draws, and 54.5% on PP. Finished 47.4% for season.
- In 2010 Penner was 47% on EV draws, and 54.8% on PP. Finished 47.7% for season.
- In 2008 Gagner was 35% on EV draws, and 62.6% on PP. Finished 41.8% for season.
- In 2009 Gagner was 43% on EV draws, and 34.9% on PP. Finished 42% for season.
- In 2010 Gagner was 46.9% on EV draws, and 48.7% on PP. Finished 47.4% for season.
Over their careers Gagner is 43.3% on EV draws while Penner is 44.7%.
Is the difference that significant to take faceoffs away from Gagner who should be a fixture down the middle for the next ten seasons?
If you move Penner to the centre, you are ensuring that Cogliano plays the wing. I know his faceoff numbers are atrocious, but he did improve by 5% last season, and with some added strength I’d be confident that he could improve by another 3-4% this season.
Will Penner be comfortable playing the middle? He was a force for the first 36 games scoring 19 goals and 38 points. In the next 25 he tallied five goals and nine points and then got a two-week Olympic break before tallying eight goals and 16 points in the final 21 games.
He had a solid 57 bookend games with a fatigued 25 in the middle. To me it looked clear that he wasn’t physically ready to play as much as he did early and he tired out. He has trained this off-season so he can handle 19-21 minutes a night for 82 games, but moving him to centre requires even more skating, and I suspect that would hinder him more than help him.
I suspect Tom Renney will try a variety of line combinations, or even just duos, during camp and the preseason with the hope he will find some chemistry, but I’m not certain moving Penner to the middle is the best experiment.
I’d rather see the most productive player last season, start this year in a position he is confident with, rather than learn a new one. It didn’t work with Fernando Pisani, and I don’t see why Penner would be any different.