How will Dallas Eakins run his lines?

Now that Craig MacTavish has announced his happiness with the Oilers’ third and fourth lines, and his comfort level with the current centre depth chart, it appears that Edmonton is likely done overhauling their roster.

Now the question is what Dallas Eakins will do with it.

The Forwards

Given the Oilers’ depth on defence, it seems likely that the team will carry 13 forwards and eight defencemen; the depth chart above is my best guess as to what the team looks like out of the gate given its current makeup. There are alternatives – Ryan Smyth at third-line left wing, swapping Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to balance the forward lines a little bit, etc. – but this is my guess.

Whichever line Taylor Hall is on is getting the power-vs.-power assignment. This trio drove results a year ago in a difficult role and given their age there’s every reason to expect they’re only going to get better at it. The Oilers have some problems but the first line is ready to go head-to-head with the best in the league. In that role, they’re likely to get roughly equal amounts of time in the offensive and defensive zones.

The second line, as currently constructed, depends a great deal on Nail Yakupov. David Perron and Sam Gagner are fine players, but if Yakupov can take a Hall- or Eberle-like jump in year two of his NHL career then all of a sudden the potential of this team dramatically improves. This should be seen as a primarily offensive line; likely they’ll face either the opposition’s second or third line and start more shifts in the opposition end of the rink.

Ales Hemsky’s presence on line three is going to irritate the ‘checking lines should be made up entirely of 6’3” Canadians’ crowd, but he’s actually a reasonably good fit there because a) he has experience against good players and b) he’s a whiz at moving the puck out of the defensive end, which is going to be a big deal for this line. Boyd Gordon centres the line both literally and figuratively and given his skill-set this should be a primarily defensive line, one that starts in the Oilers’ end of the rink most often and generally faces the opposition’s second and third lines.

Line four is also a reasonable bet to outperform opposition fourth lines. Anton Lander’s primarily a defensive force, and given the Oilers’ makeup and general level of ability it isn’t a bad bet that this line sees mostly defensive minutes. Ryan Smyth doesn’t always get the credit he deserves these days as a two-way winger; on the fourth line I think he’s an extremely reasonable bet. Jesse Joensuu, like Nail Yakupov, is a wild card; if he’s mostly here because he’s big this line should be okay but if his point-per-game performance in Finland is something other than a mirage this is a group that theoretically should put the boots to most fourth lines in the league.

The Defence

Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry reprise their role of the last two half-seasons, and hope for results more in line with the latter half of 2011-12 than with the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. They’ll likely be the Oilers’ shutdown pair of choice, playing against the best opponents at either end of the rink.

Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz are penciled in as the second pairing here; Ference could swap spots with Smid or Schultz could drop to the third pairing in favour of virtually any of the defencemen below him. As currently constructed, the presence of Schultz makes this pairing a natural fit for the Gagner line – a duo that will mostly see top-nine forwards on the other team but that should get offensive minutes.

Denis Grebeshkov and Nick Schultz are my current third-pairing choice, predicated on Grebeshkov being a similar player to the one that we last saw in Oilers’ silks (something that may or may not turn out to be the case). In the best case scenario, this is a wicked all-round third pairing, with Schultz providing a safe defensive partner perfectly capable against the lower half of the opposition lineup and Grebeshkov offering a little chaos but also ability to generate offence and drive the puck in the right direction.

There’s lots of room for fluctuation on the blue line, as was hinted above, and much is going to depend on Anton Belov’s ability to immediately translate his game to the NHL level. A 6’4” puck-moving defenceman could dramatically alter the picture if he can play a capable two-way game. Corey Potter and Oscar Klefbom also both stand some chance of making the team, though I expect we’ll see young veteran Philip Larsen snag the final spot.

Final Assessment

I don’t mind the forward group. The second line in particular could use a little more heft, and I’m much less comfortable with the depth at centre than Craig MacTavish seems to be, but this is a group that should be able to compete with most NHL teams and for the first time in a while has some potential for a plus performance from its third and fourth lines.

On defence, there’s potential but it’s a group that’s thin at the top end. Two of the 10 players seriously vying for a spot on the roster need to form a capable top pairing; if that happens, this is a team that could do some serious damage but if it doesn’t there are going to be some long nights this season.

Recently around the Nation Network

The Canucks had their "Summer Summit" on Tuesday, and there’s lots of interesting stuff to come out of it. Seriously read the review – there is a ton of stuff. What struck me, because it’s Oilers-related, was Mike Gillis denying he could have landed more than the ninth overall pick for Cory Schneider:

Well, according to those guys at TSN we were trying to get less (*scoffs*). Throughout this entire process we explored every opportunity we could explore. What was written, mostly outside of Vancouver, was about 95% untrue. Completely untrue. Our objective was to move into the Top 10 picks, and that was the best we could do given the circumstances. We were trying to design a trade to pick that player (Horvat) – whether it was earlier, or later – but we didn’t think he would slide past the 9th pick. We were actually worried that he wouldn’t slip past the 5th pick, so we were pleased to get him.

And if you buy all that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Email me at, or read some of my other pieces:

  • We have no legitimate physical deterrent on this team…..which means it’s open season on our skill once again.

    Mac T will be singing a different tune when someone big takes a run at our top two lines and no one is there to hold them to account………oh I forgot, that’s Sammy’s role.

    Hemsky playing on the third line with two defensive forwards should see him score at least 15 to 20 points for the season………that should fetch a seventh round draft choice. Hemsky needs to be traded once and for all, playing him on a third line is like making Linus Omark a fighter.

    • LinkfromHyrule

      We will in a year or so when nurse matures. Until then, taking a run generally results in a penalty. Our PP is gonna be scary good, it won’t take long for other teams to figure out that putting us on the powerplay is a very bad idea

    • LinkfromHyrule

      So who is the physical deterrent for VAN? DET? CHI? Should I go on? Each team has one maybe two guys who fill that role. So does Edmonton.

      Oiler fans should watch a little movie based on real life (probably not based on a real life event) called Rocky. He wasn’t the biggest but he had heart and determination.

      • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

        Really that’s your solution, because a few teams do not have size with physicality we should’nt either?

        Using your logic, how about Boston, San Jose, Ducks, LA, ……..should I go on? When you have a small second line centre ( Gagner) defending all his teammates, and no one else to answer the call, you will ultimately pay the price.

        We need a enforcer to protect the youth of our team…….
        .this gives them the peace of mind to do their job properly.

    • The “deterrent” you speak of will come in the form of a Yak “top cheddah” one-timer off a Gagner seeing eye pass on the followup PP.

      Teams will figure it out pretty fast.

      We’ll beat them on the scoreboard, where it matters the most.

      • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

        Excellent….and when the opposition pounds RNH into the boards breaks his collarbone and he’s lost for the season, we’ll get a 5 minute power play and maybe we can score two goals……YYYAAYYY !

        • GVBlackhawk

          An ‘enforcer’ does nothing to prevent opposition players from hitting your star players. It is up to the player to protect himself. For example, when the opponent takes a run at RNH, Nuge should cross-check that player in the mouth or neck as hard as he can. Hopefully knock out a few teeth, break a jaw or nose, and put the opponent down. It might be worth a few games suspension, but that is a small price to pay to get some space (and respect).

          • Romulus' Apotheosis

            Never forget this is the same fan base that ran Coffey out of town.

            Oiler fans are poorly suited to the historic brand of hockey on offer in Edmonton.

        • Rocket

          exactly! hemsky, hall, rnh, ebbs your next. I think we almost need to waste a roster spot on a nuclear deterrent.I wish Eager could be that guy because he skates so well.

  • Mark-LW

    “he’s actually a reasonably good fit there because a) he has experience against good players and b) he’s a whiz at moving the puck out of the defensive end, which is going to be a big deal for this line”

    These are my thoughts on the possibility of Hemsky on the third line also. The only thing I worry about is him taking even more heat from the public/MSM for a drop in production due to tough assignments and ~36% zone starts .

  • Spydyr

    The line-up does look better than last year but who does not like kool-aid on a hot summers day?

    I’m hoping Eakins plays his top players the most. That means penalty killing and power play time for the kids.

  • Czar

    No matter how Eakins manages the bench it will be an improvement over Krueger. Ralph didn’t seem to ride the hot hand or match lines effectively. Ferrence for Whitney is an improvement before we even hit the ice and I don’t think MacT signed Belov to be our 7th d-man. As most have speculated,Schultz the elder will be traded.

    • YFC Prez

      I have confidence in our D going into this season….haven’t been able to say that in a long time. Center depth scares the bejesus out of me though, especially with the Nuge Injury factor.

      Yak’s gonna tear it up though…that much is certain.

      • Czar

        I have to agree, though we lack a true #1 our defence by committee will be a vast improvement over last year. Just getting Hall and Yak on the ice more will be another step in the right direction as well. Look forward to seeing the new #10 light it up! Cheers dude!

  • Lets go oilers just hoping for some playoff hockey this season .. getting sick of losing!!! anyways i like the changes and am patiently waiting for the season to start. can only play so much golf and read the nation. cheers Go oilers

  • Czar

    An improvement over last year, though my concern is that a lot hinges on “if (blank) performs well, if (blank) has a bounceback season, if (blank) can return to form.”

    That being said, I expect a big season from Yak, I think our 2nd line will be able to create offense, and I think there will be at least one pleasant surprise coming on the blueline.

    MacT has been solid if unspectacular thus far, I like how he’s improved the team without giving up much so far. I imagine when the stars align for him to pull off a blockbuster he’ll do just that, though I’d wager we won’t see that till next offseason.

    No idea how I think this team will finish this year, especially with Hemsky’s future being an unknown. I remain cautiously optimistic.