So what's wrong with Cogliano? In my opinion, it's mostly the situation. He can't win a faceoff but has played center his entire career. He's small on a team committed to getting bigger. He hasn't proven that he's got the defensive chops to take on a lot of responsibility in the defensive zone or against good players. He belongs on the wing, but with Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall all in the fold, things are already looking crowded. Especially if he needs some sheltering. Add in Gilbert Brule, Sam Gagner, and Shawn Horcoff and there's only one top nine spot left. With so much youth in the lineup, the Oilers need that player to be capable all over the ice. Derek recently talked about what Steve Tambellini has left to do this summer, and one of his suggestions was for the Oilers to sign a tough minutes forward. If that happens, someone else gets pushed out. If Linus Omark makes the team, it's the same thing. If it's both, two players need to be moved to make room. Maybe that's Eberle going to Oklahoma, Hall going to Windsor or Paajarvi going to Timra, but maybe it's Andrew Cogliano going to the fourth line or the press-box. Judging from Steve Tambellini's desire to rid himself of the guy, I suspect he sees Cogliano as one of the odd men out.
He sure beat that projection! Despite a rough start to the year (Cogliano was a scoring chance sink-hole in his first twenty games, and had just four points to go along with a -11 plus/minus rating), Cogliano established himself in the top nine forwards. By the end of the year he was, as Bruce mentioned, the team's top-line center. Yep, still a center. Derek and I have been pounding on the Cogliano-to-wing drum for a while now, but Tom Renney evidently disagrees. Andrew Cogliano, for better or worse, is being used as a two-way center.
One of the big complaints about Cogliano's game at center is his ability to take faceoffs. It's been a weakness since he got into the league, and yet somehow, he took more draws than anyone else on the club. I wouldn't have bet on that. Is he at least improving?
So... I think that's modest improvement. He was able to consolidate most of last year's gains, and his 2010-11 season was closer to the rest of the centers on the club than it's ever been (with so many rookies on the wings, I think that's an important comparison). Of course, just south of 42% at evens is still awful, particularly for a guy taking the most draws on the club (although winning faceoffs might not even be all that important in the big picture of overall goal differential).
So what about the other skills necessary to play the position? Well, to me, this is one area that David Staples' individual scoring chance project is particularly useful. Because we only have the one season of data, it's difficult to know whether or not Cogliano is improving, but this season, David has Cogliano with the second-best scoring chance differential among centers on the team, ahead of both Sam Gagner and Colin Fraser, two of his competitors for a job up the middle next season.
My own subjective analysis is pretty favorable too. Cogliano's speed would be a weapon on the wing for sure, but it's also an important asset at center, and one that I think Cogliano is making good use of. He does an excellent job of coming back deep into the zone to provide an easy outlet for his defensemen, and he does a good job of attacking the net to find rebounds while still being confident that he can get back on defense. Cogliano has also added some physicality to his game, and while I'd never describe him as a punishing hitter, it's a good sign that he's willing to engage, especially when one considers the areas that need improvement.
The problem areas, to my eye, are when the game is more static, like coverage in front of the net, battles along the boards, and positioning on the penalty kill. His biggest asset here is the confidence of the coach. Near the end of the season, when Cogliano had been thrust into the role of top-line center because of injuries, this is what Renney had to say:
Andrew's had a good year. Andrew's been very consistent for us this year, he's identified with what he needs to be as a player, and that's a two-way guy. We have to continue to work with him on the face-off circle, as we do with everybody, but he's really been able to contribute, 200 by 85, as a complete player more so than I think he has in the past.
In the dozen games he played after those comments, Cogliano scored six points (all assists) and had a -2 rating, which is a pretty good result on a team as bad and injury-riddled as the Oilers were. I'd still prefer to see him moved to the wing, but it sounds to me like Tom Renney will give him another year up the middle, and I'm hopeful that we'll see improvement in those more static aspects of the game.
Projection: Another year as one of the Oilers' top three centers that will include more defensive than offensive zone starts, a negative shot differential, a faceoff percentage between 41% and 45%, a role on the PK, and about 30 points at even strength.