In a long, wide-ranging interview with the Edmonton Jouranl’s Jim Matheson, Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish described Nail Yakupov as a third-line player.
This will doubtless be controversial. It shouldn’t be, because that’s exactly where the player should slot in on the organizational depth chart today.
Matheson: “From the outside, it looks like you have good top-six forwards and excellent character guys like Matt Hendricks and Boyd Gordon, who were maybe playing a little higher up in the batting order than they should have been. Could you use some third-line guys with some offensive touch?”
MacTavish: “Yup. That’s fair. Much like Chicago’s got where they have three lines of offensive guys and a fourth line that can play against anybody. That’s what we’d really like to do. We need (Anton) Lander to step up and (Mark) Arcobello, or add a free-agent forward or two who can compete for those jobs. Maybe somebody who could come in and be a good fit with Yak (Nail Yakupov on the third line). We have the first line (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle). If we can draft a guy at centre who can play, then we’d have that guy, Perron and Sam or some form of that.”
The Chicago Model
MacTavish mentions Chicago specifically, which is interesting because the Blackhawks really had the blender running game-to-game in 2013-14.
- The first line was a constant, featuring Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa together, with Patrick Sharp the regular third on that line.
- The middle six was in constant flux. Patrick Kane played 150-plus minutes with eight different forwards, shuffling through the top nine depending on the night and the game situation, and his most regular linemate (Brandon Saad) spent less than one-third of the season with him.
- The fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith featured two good faceoff men (Kruger and Smith) and was used as a defensive zone specialty line, occasionally even when tough opponents were on the ice.
It’s easy to understand why MacTavish picked Chicago. Aside from the Blackhawks being a great team that plays a style suited to the Oilers’ players, there are definite similarities in roster construction. The Oilers have a steady top line (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle), and a pair of players (Matt Hendricks and Boyd Gordon) perhaps suited to playing the role of Kruger & Smith.
What we don’t know is whether MacTavish envisions using Luke Gazdic in the Bollig role (prior to this season, Bollig had zero points in 43 career NHL games and was a perfectly wretched AHL player too). The trouble is that in that case all three players on the line would be left-handed shots, with none of them especially suited to right wing. A better solution might be to employ Mark Arcobello on the right wing of the line, which would add the offensive creativity that Smith brings to Chicago’s fourth line as well as a right-handed faceoff man and a designated right winger (in Kruger and Smith, the Blackhawks have the combination of RH/LH faceoff men), but Edmonton might not feel comfortable with Hendricks being the line’s designated physical player.
We can also include Steve Pinizzotto, Tyler Pitlick, Anton Lander and Jesse Joensuu in this conversation.
The Mushy Middle
In Chicago’s case, the gap between second and third line was pretty difficult to determine at times, except that the Kane/Saad duo were generally on the ice against better players than were Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell. Other than that, both lines were primarily used in offensive situations and expected to score.
On a team with a power-vs.-power line, a defensive zone line, and two auxiliary scoring units, there is absolutely no question as to where Nail Yakupov should slot into the mix. He’s not ready for employment in a power-vs.-power role (and like Kane, that may never be his calling) and he’s certainly not getting wasted on the defensive zone line. That leaves the two other scoring lines, and sticking Yakupov in the one that gets slightly easier minutes is a no-brainer if ever there was one.
Assuming Sam Gagner sticks around – and it sort of sounds like he will – he, David Perron and Yakupov would fill three of those slots, likely with Gagner and Perron holding down the second unit and Yakupov on the third. That leaves three slots open for one or two free agent additions, the player Edmonton lands at the draft, as well as Arcobello and Lander, with the latter two likely the Oilers’ fallback options if all doesn’t go well in free agency or if Aaron Ekblad somehow falls to third overall.
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