MIDDLE MEN: QUALITY OR QUANTITY?

The Edmonton Oilers have a surplus of bodies and some difficult decisions to make about their men in the middle this season, and it’s an issue that will likely be more pressing by the time training camp rolls around in 2012 unless GM Steve Tambellini begins thinning the herd.

I’m not suggesting a team that’s finished 30th in back-to-back seasons has too much proven depth at centre — that’s yet to be seen in terms of who can play and where they fit — but the Oilers certainly do have a glut of players at pivot heading into training camp this weekend.

By my count, the Oilers have a dozen candidates for four, maybe five, roster spots at centre going into camp. Some are long shots. Others will be weeded out based on contracts. And some who don’t make the cut now will play themselves out of the picture by the time camp opens one year from now. Of course, others will play their way in.

Allowing for all that, unless my abacus is on the fritz, it looks as if Tambellini had best make some calls about his middle-men this season because the situation won’t sort itself out.

NAMING NAMES

Just naming the top 11 centres off the top of my head — the official camp list will be out this week — the Oilers have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, Eric Belanger, Gilbert Brule, Anton Lander, Ryan Martindale, Chris VandeVelde, Ryan O’Marra, Tyler Pitlick and Josh Green at centre.

Even if you dismiss Green as minor league roster filler, look at a Pitlick on the wing, and discount O’Marra and VandeVelde as having been passed by younger prospects and ticketed for the Oklahoma City Barons — that’s not necessarily the case, yet — there’s still too many bodies cluttering up the picture.

Where do the rest fit? And for how long? That’s a question that’s being mulled over everywhere, with Lowetide here at Oilersnation one of the leaders in that regard. I’m guessing Tambellini et al are well along when it comes to doing the same.

INSIDE TRACK

HORCOFF: He’s the captain and he’s not going anywhere right now, not with the contract he’s packing. Besides, if Horcoff stays healthy and has a bounce-back season, he’s a valuable guy. You can’t gut the team of all its veteran leadership and toss the car keys to the kids.

GAGNER: Love him or hate him, Gagner’s only 22 as he enters his fifth season. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, while we don’t necessarily have to see the finished product from Gagner this season, he has to stay healthy and indicate if he fits, and where, moving forward.

BELANGER: He fits a need with his ability to win face-offs. At 33, he’s definitely a transitional player, but he brings what the Oilers need right now. He’s got a three-year deal.

NUGENT-HOPKINS: He’ll start the season on the roster and stay for at least nine games. After that, opinions vary. Suffice to say, the 18-year-old from the Red Deer Rebels will get every chance to succeed. Even if he doesn’t stick now, he’s at the centre of the logjam forming for 2012.

PUSHING THE ISSUE

LANDER: Smart money is the Swede will start the season in OKC, but if Sunday’s rookie game in Penticton is any indication, he’s going to have a lot of fans shaking their heads if this is already decided. There’s no need to rush the kid, and half-a-season in the AHL won’t hurt him, but he’s part of that glut in 2012 and will likely be a factor before then.

BRULE: Knowing what we do about the off-ice issues that compounded his injuries last season, I’m not willing to dismiss Brule’s 17 goals and flashes of brilliance in 2009-10 as a one-off that can’t be repeated, if an opportunity remains. Yes, he’s got his work cut out to regain his place in the pecking order, but let’s not forget, Brule is 24.

For me, Lander and Brule are the wildcards who could push the looming decisions for 2012 to the front of Tambellini’s plate sooner rather than later. If Lander shows he’s ready now, how long can you hold him back? If Brule plays like a house on fire in pre-season, then what? What if one of the other kids, like Martindale, does the same?

DECISIONS

One more time, while this is a likely a case of too many players as opposed to too much depth, Tambellini is still going to have to get a handle on who fits where, and when, and sort things out.

Who might falter from the "Inside Track" group? If it’s Gagner, does Tambellini move him? If it’s Horcoff, that’s not even a question. The Oilers will have no choice but to ride out the contract and lean on the "good in the room" party line. Buy-out? Not with the term left.

We’ll have to keep an eye on Lander. Likewise, Brule, who was being hailed as a part of the plan moving forward a year ago before falling off the map. And there’ll be some comers among the rest.

No doubt about it, there’ll be some tough calls to make in the middle at this training camp, but unless I’ve got it all wrong, it’s not going to be any easier a year from now if Tambellini doesn’t make a call on what’s what well before then.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Peterborough

    Curtis Hamilton is not a centre and won’t be a pivot for this team or OKC and hasn’t been in junior or at the WJC or for a long time. He doesn’t play there and never will. Thats just bad journalism.

    Period.

    Step it up a bit, please.

    • paul wodehouse

      “bad journalism” i know how stupid that looks and sounds…but

      a simple mis-take in your feeble cherry picking opinion needs to be called out like that?

      to HIM? you want HIM to step it up?

      OH PLEASE!

      get a broom and sweep yourself into the recycle bin

    • I hadn’t seen your comments — they shout, “I’m-an-internet-chicksh!t,” by the way — directed at another ON writer until Wax Man Riley pointed them out, so I must recant my relatively civil response directed, in part, at you.

      Let’s try this: if your primary intent in commenting at ON is to belittle or ridicule writers here, as opposed to disagreeing with or debating points you have a different take on, then save it or trot it out somewhere it might fly. It won’t happen here. No chance. No way. Do it again and you’re done here.

      By the way, even a modest grasp of spelling and grammar might help you get your point across.

      • Peterborough

        Point taken and I do apologize for being a touch harsh. I’m just used to better from you thats all.

        We all have our days.

        EDIT: thanks for fixing this peice it looks good now. I will hold you up to a high standard you’re writing about the best team on the planet (or it will be in three years) and I would say it to your face as well, fear is not talking to a writer for me 🙂 I work with my hands in the woods.

        Keep up the good work and I’ll try not to be too harsh if I see an error . . . gawd knows we all make enough.

        • Wax Man Riley

          Point taken and I do apologize for being a touch harsh. I would say it to your face as well, fear is not talking to a writer for me 🙂 I work with my hands in the woods. Keep up the good work and I’ll try not to be too harsh if I see an error . . . gawd knows we all make enough

          Props

    • Wax Man Riley

      Wow. In fine form tonight aren’t you Peterborough?

      First calling an article a “rediculous piece of garbage” and the author the most, and I quote, “irrevant writer in the nation family”, and now calling a respected writer out for “bad journalism”.

      What do you add to the Nation can I ask?

  • Chris.

    I liked Gagner better on the wing.

    Edit. (Remember how he played on the right side as a rookie and scored 49 points without being a total liability in his own zone?) *sigh*