Edmonton - November 15, 2011 - Now that the Oilers have returned home from a tough six game road trip, the time has come for this teams coaching staff to lock themselves in a room and have a lengthy brainstorming session. Edmonton has struggled to create offence all season long but winning games allowed them to not rush into any changes. Well, the winning has certainly stopped as the Oilers return home losers in four of their last five games. I would have to say the time for change is clearly at hand.
While Ryan Smyth is playing some of the best hockey of his career and rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has surprised many who felt he wasn't ready for the NHL, the rest of the Edmonton Oiler forwards have had their struggles throughout the season. Guys like Shawn Horcoff, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall have had some nice moments but have been far to inconsistent. Players like Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Eric Belanger simply haven't been good enough. That doesn't even include Ales Hemsky, who has missed a good chunk of time because of injury, and has looked excellent some nights and down right invisible others. When that many players are attempting to find their games, it seems obvious that change is needed.
I wrote a piece last Wednesday, It May Be Time To Shake Things Up, that focused on this very subject...and that was before they played the Boston Bruins, which kick started the clubs current three game losing skid. While thee line combinations I posted last week haven't changed much, they have been tweaked a little. This is what I would like to see five-on-five and on the power play.
Eberle - Nugent-Hopkins - Smyth
Hemsky - Gagner - Hall
Jones - Horcoff - Paajarvi
Petrell - Belanger - Eager
In my opinion, these three lines create the most balance for this current roster and it should keep the coaching staff from over playing the likes of Horcoff and Smyth. Unless you have not been paying attention, it is very evident that both of those guys do not have the same jump they did a week or two ago. Sure Smyth is still finding ways to get his points but the minutes the two vets are playing, are starting to take a toll. The plan coming into this season was to play Shawn Horcoff in a role he was best suited for and yet he keeps playing twenty plus minutes a night. The captain has been solid this year but why play him into the ground? All three of these lines have a veteran presence on them but still have enough skill to be played in most situations at even strength. If the staff isn't confident enough in playing the three kids in certain situations, then simply break them up. There is no need to limit their minutes. That is what coaching is and playing those kids, especially Hall and Eberle, in a limited role is simply poor coaching.
Sam Gagner and RNH have to be placed in top six roles or they shouldn't be in the lineup. As I have mentioned in previous pieces, Gagner needs top six minutes and coming into the season he was this teams number one centre...so why is he suddenly a third line player? The guy gets injured and he drops three spots in the pecking order. Instead of taking him back with open arms and working him into his spot as a top six guy, the team decided to wait until they were struggling before making the move. Problem being, is that the player is now struggling more then the club. The simple solution would've been to move Horcoff and Belanger both down a slot but that would have taken some courage.
It makes perfect sense to use Horcoff in a third line role but he needs to be separated from Smyth. Tom Renney has this urge to play the hell out of them, in every situation and it has to stop. By splitting them up, it gives the coaching staff no reason to not play all three lines and ride the top two lines when necessary and not always default to the Horcoff line. With the third line wingers being Jones and Paajarvi, it should make things a whole lot easier on Paajarvi and playing with Jones and Horcoff will ensure the youngster gets his minutes. Magnus needs ice time to find his game but he needs to take his game up a couple of notches. As good as Ryan Smyth has been this year, his arrival has cut severely into Paajarvi's time and also taken five-on-five time away from Hall and Eberle. This is not a shot at Smyth but he is what he is and he has never been a twenty minute a night guy...so why all of the sudden has he become one at the age of thirty five? The focus must remain on developing their young players and not on letting a city rekindle it's love affair with a former fan favourite. Smyth was the perfect guy to bring into this situation but he has to be used in a manner that works best with the development of their core players.
Not going to spend a ton of time talking about the fourth line because after Gagner returned from injury, it should have looked like this. While Ben Eager may have ideas in his head that he is more then a fourth line guy, he is sadly mistaken and if he's not careful, he may find himself in the press box once Darcy Hordichuk returns. Belanger and Petrell have both been great on the penalty kill and are solid fourth line players.
PP (Five Man Units)
RNH - Hall - Smyth - Eberle - Potter
Gagner - Hemsky - Paajarvi - Barker - Gilbert
Much like the five-on-five combinations, is there any reason that Horcoff is on the power play? How about Belanger? This is a team that went from not caring if they won or lost a faceoff for the last four years, to suddenly needing their faceoff specialists out in every situation. Who kidding who here. Winning the draw is great and all but lets not be ridiculous. To make matters worse, Smyth has been one of the best power play guys in the league for years and he's on the second unit???? Would not a power play alignment of the three kids with Smyth not be the route to go? The gritty winger is great in front of the net and an absolute handful to deal with below the goal line, sounds like a nice fit to me. Look at the good power plays around the league, they don't "spread out" the talent over the two units. They go with the top players on the number one unit because the idea is to score with that five man unit.
As for the second unit, having Gagner with Hemsky as a second option is solid and adding Paajarvi into the mix should help him with his confidence while allowing him to get some time with more talented players then he plays with at even strength. At the end of the day, it's just as much about development as it is about winning with this team and giving veteran bottom six guys sugar time on the man advantage, goes against that line of thinking.
The changes proposed in this column are nothing way out of left field and in fact, are pretty similar to what the club is currently employing. The one major difference being the opportunity given to the young players to develop their games, while taking on bigger roles. If the staff would loosen the chains, just a little, I think they would be rewarded with something special and in very short order. If Steve Tambellini could find a way to shore up Edmonton's back end, this team can compete for a playoff spot this season. No guarantee that they will get but they must definitely have the horses to be in the mix.