Sometimes NHL teams make lineup decisions for reasons other than a pure assessment of each individual’s merit, and on Friday Dallas Eakins admitted that Mark Arcobello – who is favoured to win a spot in the team’s top-nine out of training camp – likely deserved a better shot than he was given a year ago.
Asked about the increase in Arcobello’s weight (he’s now listed at 5’8”, 172 pounds, as opposed to 165 pounds last season), Edmonton’s head coach volunteered some of his thinking on the player:
Arco has the skillset to [make plays]. Arco played very well for us last year. When you go through a season, sometimes guys who are playing well, you’re trying to get others to play well at the same point. He was probably unjustly taken out of the lineup. I have a real comfort level with him. He certainly went down to the American Hockey League and played very, very well. I’m not really ever worried about how much Arco weighs; it’s about how fast you are, how powerful you are. He’s shown that he can do it here. We’ll see where it goes through camp for him.
Eakins didn’t reference Arcobello on Thursday when he talked about the Oilers only having two bona fide NHL centremen, but his comments on Friday have to be encouraging for the player. The coach acknowledged that the pivot played well last year, suggested that on merit he deserved better than the usage he got and referenced his incredible success in the AHL after his demotion.
“I have a real comfort level with him” and “He’s shown that he can do it here” strongly suggest that Arcobello is a player that Eakins is comfortable using in 2014-15.
Some might argue that Eakins is making a virtue out of necessity, that there is no point in talking down a guy who he has little choice but to use, and further that if he really believed in the player he would not have demoted him last season. There might be some truth in that, but it’s important to recognize the way things have changed over the course of a year.
The most crucial change involves the team rather than the individual. In 2012-13, the Oilers had an established, veteran depth chart at centre: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner were top-six guys, Boyd Gordon centered the checking line and the only spot open was a job in the middle of the “energy” line. Arcobello got a shot as a fill-in in the top-six and showed really well, but he wasn’t going to displace a veteran on the basis of a half-season’s work and he simply isn’t a fit for an energy line. Could Eakins have bailed on Gagner? Sure, but given the player’s history and circumstances (he was coming off injury) his decision to stick with the veteran was understandable.
The big year-to-year change was the removal of the energy line; the Oilers still have some energy line guys on the roster (Luke Gazdic, Kevin Westgarth on a tryout) but they no longer have a designated unit to kill five or six minutes a game running around hitting things. Gordon’s in the same job he was a year ago (he had the second-toughest zone start in the entire NHL in 2013-14 and regular linemate Matt Hendricks was in the top-10) but we’re now calling that the “fourth” line and a new unit (we’re calling it the “third” but it’s best not to get hung up on that) has opened up which will be expected to outscore the opposition. It’s basically the same lineup slot that Arcobello could have won last year, except that he was ineligible because the primary requirement was hitting things rather than outscoring. The loss of a veteran (Gagner) doesn’t hurt his chances, but that isn’t the lineup spot he’s penciled in for; he’s set for the same basic role he had last year but on a line geared to his strengths.
Even as the lineup has been reconfigured into a more Arcobello-friendly pattern, the player himself has shown a lot. Last year he was coming off what was basically a point-per-game season in a lockout-toughened AHL; this year he’s coming off a run where he ran up 28 points in just 15 games. Last year he had one game of NHL experience; this year he has half a season in the rearview mirror in which he scored at a 50-point pace when used on a scoring line.
Given the changes to the team structure and the player’s track record in 2013-14, it’s easy to understand why the same coach who demoted Arcobello to the minors is saying encouraging things about him now.