Last month, with both Shawn Horcoff and Gilbert Brule on the shelf with injuries Tom Renney had some serious holes to fill in his line up; specifically at centre, which seems to be an eternal hole for the Oilers. Eventually the coaches decided it was time to find out if Taylor Hall could fill the role as the team’s number one centre, lining him up between Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky on the top line. The immediate results were encouraging. I’ve never had to try and play a different position but I’m sure I’m not completely off base to assume that it’s a little difficult. As a rookie still learning the game I would have to assume that it would be even more difficult. When Hall played that first game at centre he had just 40 games of NHL experience under his belt and yet he was able to hold his own playing an unfamiliar position. Playing between the two best Oilers available almost certainly helped with the transition but he was contributing to the line, not just hanging on for the ride.
Watching the Oilers during the rebuild is an agonizing mixture of plays that make you cringe and say "What the hell was that?" and moments that make you think "We really might have something here." The newly minted top line had a lot more of the latter and not many of the former. In their second game together, the Penner-Hall-Hemsky trio combined for three goals and five assists in the Oilers 5-2 win over San Jose and Oilers fans slept well that night with wonderful, glorious dreams of what could be filling our heads. But it wasn’t meant to last. All told Hall would only centre the line for four full games and part of a fifth before returning to his familiar role on the wing. The results were mixed with the first three games being good, then one bad, and then finally one incomplete. Knowing what we do now about the Hemsky concussion, it could be argued that his concussion, or some of the symptoms of it, affected his and his line mates play in Anaheim. In other words that game might not be so bad after all.
With Hemsky out with a concussion and Horcoff once again healthy, moving Hall back to the wing made sense in the short term. But with Hemsky back in the line up why not give Hall another go at centre? Horcoff does plenty of things well but the club would be better off if they had another option for the top line. Sam Gagner is always an option for the top line but he has had his time there so why not see what someone else can do. Not to mention that splitting up the Omark-Gagner-Paajarvi line right now would make Tambellini’s decision to resign JF Jacques this past offseason look brilliant by comparison. And so what if Hall struggles to win faceoffs, Andrew Cogliano has been struggling to win faceoffs for three and a half seasons and the coaches keep letting him try. This is a team all but guaranteed to finish in the bottom three; there is no harm in finding out if Hall can play at centre.
For management, every game the Oilers play for the rest of the season should come with the goal of learning something about the players on the roster. What they can do. What they can’t. Players need to play in different situations and fill different roles so that management can assess what is needed as the rebuild continues. It's a simple matter of compiling information to make informed decisions. In his brief audition centering the first line Hall showed that he might just be able to fill that role but four and a bit games isn't enough to actually know one way or another. But with 30 games left on the schedule there is no excuse not to try and learn for sure. Come June this team will likely be choosing between and centre and a defenseman, a player that will hopefully be another key building block in the rebuild. Wouldn't you like to know which one you need more before you choose?