When the Oilers revealed that Sam Gagner suffered a high ankle sprain, after going hard into the end boards against the Calgary Flames last Saturday, they pegged his time out of the lineup as "week to week". When you consider that most players that suffer this type of injury seem to need at least a few weeks to recover before they could even consider getting back on the ice, one would think it would be unlikely to see Gagner on the ice before November 1st. The injury will obviously make the decision of which fourteen forwards they decide to break camp with a lot more challenging.
Heading into the pre-season, I had the Oilers line combinations looking like this:
- Hall - Gagner - Hemsky
- Smyth - Nugent-Hopkins - Eberle
- Paajarvi - Horcoff - Omark
- Eager - Belanger - Jones
The biggest omission from the lineup will be the loss of Gagner but with the Oilers new found depth down the middle, they should be able to make due...for the short term. With the performance of the three kids against the Coyotes, the thought of allowing them to open the season as a line, is an intriguing one. This would force them to go with a top line of Smyth - Horcoff - Hemsky and the kids as line number two. While the youngsters would be allowed to play against softer competition it would burden the Horcoff line with all the tough minutes and make things very tough on them. While it could be an option to consider, it should in no way be "Plan A" for the club. At certain points, I could see them throwing the kids together but to do it on a regular basis would be a big mistake. The vision must still be firmly on development and putting them in a situation where they have no veteran presence, would not be the best scenario for their overall games to continue improving. I am all for that line combination come 2012-2013 but not yet. Here is what I am hoping to see as the clubs top two lines, come October 9th:
- Hall - Horcoff - Hemsky
- Smyth - Nugent-Hopkins - Eberle
Shawn Horcoff has a comfort level with both Hall and Hemsky so having him slide in for Gagner makes the most sense. The biggest drawback of having the Hall - Gagner - Hemsky line, was going to be their play in the defensive zone...adding Horcoff will make that much less of an issue. The trio will definitely lose something upfront with the captain in the middle but until Gagner returns, it is the way to go. This will allow the second line to start off the season, as I had hoped. Both lines will have a shooter, a playmaker and a veteran leader and will give Edmonton the greatest opportunity for success, while still concentrating on the development side of the game.
Next we have the bottom six, where the lingering effects of a concussion leaves newly acquired Ben Eager as doubtful to start the campaign. As it turns out, what was a tough break for Eager ended up becoming a great opportunity for Lennart Petrell to make an impression on the coaching staff. The injury to Gagner will move Horcoff out of a bottom six role and give new comer Eric Belanger, an even bigger role to start off his first season in Oilers silks.What I am expecting to see on opening night is:
- Paajarvi - Belanger - Omark
- Petrell - Brule - Jones
Moving Belanger up to play in between the two second year Swedes, seems like a no brainer. The line isn't losing much, if anything at all, by slotting the veteran in place of Horcoff. Either player can fill the role of being that calming/positive influence for Paajarvi and Omark. Would an all Swedish line with Anton Lander in the middle be great to see? Sure would but again, it is not what would be best for the player and his future long term.
In my mind, Teemu Hartikainen deserves to make this team out of camp but with the numbers being what they are on the wing, he will have to start in Oklahoma City. In Petrell, the Oilers gain a skill they are in desperate need of, penalty killing ability, while adding another big bodied player into the mix. He has demonstrated the skill set to possibly be one of Edmonton's best penalty killers while being more then willing to through his weight around. Also, the 27 year old Finn will be far better suited to sit the odd game out, if need be, then a player like his fellow countryman. The young Finnish forward must continue to show growth in his game and playing a ton in the AHL makes a lot more sense then seeing limited ice time in the provincial capital.
That leaves the fourth line centre spot that is now available courtesy of Sam Gagner's ankle. I really would love to see Anton Lander start the season here in that spot but I think the organization owes it to themselves to see if Gilbert Brule can find his game and once again become an asset that they could get something in return for. At this point, that return would be nil but if he finds his way, there would be teams interested in the 24 year old Edmonton boy. Playing with a couple of energy guys like Petrel and Jones, he should be able to simplify his game. It's a low risk move for the club. If he doesn't produce, he is done and then they bring up Lander until Gagner returns. The young Swede is more then capable of filling in on a short term basis but at some point this year, he should go down to the AHL. Even if he goes down for a short stint, either to start the season or after Gagner returns, it would be a huge benefit for him long term. Also, the possibility of having Lander and Hartikainen playing together with the Barons on a full time basis, is most appealing.
Tom Renney and his staff will have some very tough decisions to make before October 9th rolls around and that statement on its own, tells me that the Edmonton Oilers are headed in the right direction.