Finding Something That Works

The Oilers haven't been getting much help from their bottom two lines so far this season. Ryan Jones has nine goals, and Sam Gagner has three, but both players did the bulk of their scoring when they were getting minutes on one of the team's top two lines. And so it is with great interest that I've observed the line of Ben Eager, Eric Belanger, and Ryan Jones. They've only been together for two games, but to me, the early returns look very good indeed.

From a stylistic point of view, I like Tom Renney's new third line because it represents a substantial change in offensive game plan from what you see on the first two lines. All three players are what you'd call "north-south" guys who either get the puck deep or get the puck to the net and then crash in either instance. Jones and Eager both have enough speed and physicality to play that game successfully, and Belanger, for all his offensive struggles, seems rejuvenated by the simple game plan, which doesn't require accurate touch passing - something he hasn't been very good at - in order to have success.

And even though we're dealing with a tiny two-game sample, the early numbers look pretty good. The group scored a goal against the Avalanche, and has done well in their two games in terms of possession. Through two games, Belanger has a Fenwick percentage of 59% (+19 -13), Eager 55% (+18 -15), and Jones 49% (+18 -19), all numbers that best what they've done on the season as a whole (47%, 43%, and 48% respectively). Way too early to form conclusions, obviously, but it would be nice to let it ride out for a couple of games to see if there's some sustain.

If they show some success, that's very valuable information heading into next season. All three players are under contract already with each guy earning between $1M and $2M. Under normal circumstances that's not what you'd want to spend on a fourth line, but with players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall all still on discounted entry-level contracts, the Oilers can probably afford to spend a little bit more at the bottom of their lineup. If the Oilers add some pieces on the back end and down the middle, having a fourth line that can hold its own should help them compete with the best teams in the league.

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