Looking at the Oilers roster heading into the 2011-2012 season there seems to be one spot open down the middle...though a certain 1st overall draft pick may have something to say about that.
Sam Gagner - This is a big season for Gagner and it will be a make it or break it year for him as an Oiler. While Gagner has seemed to remain stagnant in his offensive output since his rookie campaign, this should be the first season that he'll be given opportunity as the teams number one man in the middle right out of camp.
Tough to say who he ends up with as wingers but what I'd like to see is Gagner have the chance to play with Ales Hemsky (if he's still an Oiler) & Taylor Hall. By giving Gagner the opportunity to play with the teams two best wingers it does two things. It will create better depth on the top three lines but more importantly, it puts the pressure on Sam to produce. As mentioned previously, it's time for Gagner to sink or swim and giving him the best opportunity possible to be successful seems like the most logical thing to do.
The funny thing with Gagner, is the majority of us seem to forget Sam will be 22 yrs old when the season begins and because of that reason alone, he needs to be given opportunity and not moved to another organization.
2011-2012 Prediction: 18 G - 40 A - 58 Pts
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Edmonton's 1st overall pick this summer will make things very interesting in the Oilers camp. Three of the four centre spots will go to Gagner, Shawn Horcoff & Eric Belanger but that fourth spot is wide open and I fully expect young Nugent-Hopkins to earn that spot in camp.
I know many people feel an extra year in junior would help him but I honestly think the kid is good enough to make the team. The big advantage he has coming to the Oilers now opposed to two years ago...this team is loaded with skill upfront. This will allow him to be sheltered a bit but still make an impact on the club by playing with other talented players.
If he makes the club, it has to be in a top 6 role and that's why I see him in the middle on a line with Ryan Smyth & Jordan Eberle. Smyth will help shelter him in the face-off dot while being able to provide a net presence in the offensive zone. Eberle, flat out gives him a trigger guy that Nugent-Hopkins should relish playing with. I'm sure early on in the season he'll get bumped down the lineup in tight games but he should be seeing a ton of power play time from the first drop of the puck.
2011-2012 Prediction: 13 G - 40 A - 53 Pts
Shawn Horcoff - While Horcoff is not a number one centre nor a legit $5 million player, he is the Oilers best all around forward. Shawn has had a couple of years he'd like to forget but with a little less pressure on him this season, in all situations, I'm looking for a strong year out of the Oilers captain.
He will see time on all three of the top lines at some point this season but the best spot for him...is between the Oilers young Swedes, Magnus Paajarvi & Linus Omark. Horcoff was very important in making linemates Eberle & Hall very comfortable last season and I look for him to do the same with Paajarvi & Omark. The Oilers leader will hold both players accountable shift in shift out and in all zones on the ice.
With the addition of Eric Belager this season, Horcoff will no longer be solely responsible for taking all important face-offs, nor have to kill all penalties for the club. Also, the addition of Nugent-Hopkins and the maturity of the other young skilled forwards should spell the end of Horcoff being used as a regular on the PP.
2011-2012 Prediction: 15 G - 25 A - 40 Pts
Eric Belanger - The addition of Belanger will be a welcome site to the Oilers penalty kill and his ability to win a draw, 55.3%, will put him on the ice in all sorts of situations. Belanger has always had the ability to put some points up on the board and can easily fill in a top six role on a short term basis, because of injury.
With Nugent-Hopkins making the club out of camp, I see Belanger starting the season on the fourth line with Ryan Jones & Ben Eager. With the Oilers depth upfront, that line should see a fair bit of 5 on 5 ice time so Belanger will be busy. I feel that he and Jones will be a good fit for each other and with the energy and speed Eager brings to the table, they'll be a well balanced energy line.
Along with Shawn Horcoff, he will likely be asked to head up one of the Oilers penalty killing units. His likely partner, again being Ryan Jones.
2011-2012 Prediction: 12 G - 18 A - 30 Pts
Gilbert Brule - The chances of Gilbert Brule making this team as a regular depends solely on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins...and because of that I do not see Brule having much impact in the coming season.
With his hefty $1.85 million ticket there will not be many takers but Brule still has the type of game that would interest more then a few clubs around the league.
His big issue is his health, injury and/or illness, but Brule could still become a productive bottom six player. He has a great shot, speed and he hits, sometimes to a fault, anything that moves.
The coaching staff have demonstrated they do not feel he's responsible enough when it comes to playing within the teams system. Some games he looks like a world beater out on the ice...while on other occasions he seems totally lost. That makes it impossible for the staff to trust him not only on a game by game basis but even shift to shift.
At 24 yrs of age, Brule still has time to find his game...though he'll likely have to try and find it for another organization.
2011-2012 Prediction: 3 G - 3 A - 6 Pts