In late April, Craig MacTavish held a press conference and laid out the plan for spring and summer. Role players, blueliners and powerforwards were on the agenda and there was a sense that things would get done under the new regime. The word ‘bold’ was mentioned a time or two. Did MacT do what he said he’d do?
Perhaps the most sensational quote the April day from the new GM was on the subject of role players:
When MacT made those comments, I’m certain some of the players we would describe as ‘role players’ from the 2012-13 club (Ryan Jones, Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Jarred Smithson, Lennart Petrell, Eric Belanger, Mike Brown, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander) knew they wouldn’t be coming back for another tour with the club.
Among the question marks, Edmonton has retained Ryan Smyth, Mike Brown and Anton Lander, and re-signed Ryan Jones, with the others being sent away (the Oilers retain the rights to Hartikainen, we’ll see if he’s welcomed back down the line).
More interesting for me is what the new regime did to strengthen the role playing group for 2012-13:
- Signed ‘perfect fit’ centerman Boyd Gordon to anchor the 3rd line, to fill the Horcoff role
- Signed big forward Jesse Joensuu, who reads like a more experienced Hartikainen
- Signed Ryan Jones to fill the Ryan Jones role
- Signed Andrew Miller to give the team options for 4line C
- Signed Ryan Hamilton for the physical, enforcer role
- Signed Will Acton as a safety net center, the new VandeVelde
- Retained Ales Hemsky, who may play a secondary role on the team
- Retained Ben Eager, who may play the physical, enforcer role
What do we take from this? There are two ways to change a roster
- sweeping changes in player style and role. This might mean adding a 4th line with three guys over 6.05, 230, as an extreme example.
- To keep the same roles, but turn over the players who fill those specific roles.
In this case, the feel of this coming season’s 3 and 4 lines looks very similar in style , but there are going to be new faces.
It’s my belief that the Oilers will have a roster of 13F, 8D and 2G (normally it’s 14, 7, 2) and as we get ready for training camp my picks for the positions look like this:
- #7 Ales Hemsky: Ready to step into a feature role, very likely to be in one opening night if Nuge is unready for the start of the season. However, with everyone healthy, he’s a secondary player.
- #8 Boyd Gordon: A key member of the group, zone start hell awaits him.
- #9 Ryan Smyth: For me, he’s the likely candidate for 3line checking role and PK work.
- #10 Ryan Jones: Should Smyth falter, or more offense be required, Jones is ready to step in on that 3line. If Hemsky is playing top 6F, Jones is extremely likely to be on the third line.
- #11 Jesse Joensuu: Big forward is going to have a terrific chance to push both Smyth and Jones. I’m not certain he’s a better actual player than Teemu Hartikainen, but he has the contract for 2013-14.
- #12 Anton Lander: I remain somewhat surprised at Lander’s lack of competition–either I’m badly misreading the Acton role on this team or MacT sees a lot of himself in Lander. The smart bet (imo) is improving depth at center and forcing Lander to the minors where he’d be a solid first callup option.
- #13 Mike Brown: I think he played his role well, certainly well enough to make the club and definitely well enough to play most nights.
This would put Ryan Hamilton, Will Acton, Ben Eager, Andrew Miller and others on the outside looking in.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
I think the Oilers are going to ride their top two lines far more this coming season–Taylor Hall ranked 67th overall among NHL forwards in TOI per game while finishing 9th in scoring–but those 3 and 4 line minutes are going to be important. Keeping the puck out of the net will be job one, and for men like Boyd Gordon, Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky that means defensive zone starts and getting the puck out of the zone.
For Hemsky, that represents a major change in role.