Two days ago, I suggested that the Oilers might be considering a lineup that includes Eric Belanger among the top nine forwards. This is based mostly on what we've heard from Steve Tambellini and Ralph Krueger this summer, the fact that Belanger being pushed down to the fourth line coincided with the return of Tom Renney from a concussion, and the fact that it's at least somewhat reasonable to think of Belanger as a candidate to bounce back based on his previous performance.
If that's the direction, it certainly isn't a slam dunk to work out well. Even though Belanger was done in by some awful percentages (a shooting percentage of just 3.4% despite spending a lot of time on the power play, and an on-ice shooting percentage of just 5.9% during five-on-five play), he also really struggled by the scoring chances metric and players of his age generally don't recover all that well from a down year. That doesn't mean it won't work, just that there's some risk.
But even if we set that risk aside, there's one more problem. What are they going to do with the three other centers? It's of course possible that one will be traded to bring in some help for the defense (the Gagner option), or that there will be a provision that enables teams to buy themselves out of contracts when the new CBA hits (the Horcoff option), which would solve the problem. But if neither happens, how might Belanger fit in to the top nine? I'll offer my solution after the jump.
With the forward group that the Oilers have, I think the top nine could look something like this at even strength to start the year assuming a healthy roster:
Hall - Gagner - Eberle
Smyth - Belanger - Hemsky
Horcoff - Nugent-Hopkins - Yakupov
The Belanger group would be used on the road to match against the top lines of opposing teams, and would be used at home to take the lion's share of the defensive zone starts. Smyth and Hemsky are stronger offensively in that role than most checking lines, so Belanger would have excellent offensive support. I wouldn't expect them to break even, but if they can come close, the team could be very successful.
The Gagner group wouldn't be used in the toughest situations, but they wouldn't be given any shelter either. At this point, I think that should be a level of responsibility that they can handle. On the road, I wouldn't be scared having this group out against the other team's best players some of the time so long as they're not always having to start in the defensive zone. If they really struggle, you'd need to change things up, but it would be good to see how far they've come.
The Nugent-Hopkins group would need some shelter, but with two lines above them in the tough minutes pecking order, they should be able to get it. Horcoff would provide the two young players with support in the defensive zone and serve as mentor. He could also take some faceoffs for Nugent-Hopkins in the defensive zone or in other key situations. In the offensive zone, this line would mostly be a chance to see what kind of chemistry there is between Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.
I think that this is actually a pretty good solution for the Oilers this season if the goal is to win games, but it does have some problems. The first is special teams. You've got PP players on every line, which could make games with a lot of special teams a bit of a headache. Still, if this gives you the best chance five-on-five, I think it's worth it.
There's also the problem of what we've got left for the fourth line:
Petrell - Lander - Jones
Eager - VandeVelde - Hordichuk
Hartikainen - House - Paajarvi
I've italicized the players that are projected to start in the minors. I think it makes good sense to have Hartikainen and Paajarvi start there and to move straight into the NHL to fill in for any injuries that happen in the top nine. I think that's a solid developmental strategy for those two players even if both are probably better than the four others who will be competing for spots on the fourth line.
The major hole is at center. If this is the plan, the Oilers desperately need one more centerman. The primary purpose would be to push Lander (or VandeVelde if you've got him ahead of Lander) into the AHL to start the year, which is a good developmental decision and important in case of injury. If the club brought in a good enough player it would serve other purposes too, namely insurance in case of trade (Gagner) or underperformance (Belanger).
One player that would have been excellent to target if this was the plan to start free agency is Jay McClement who signed a two-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs for $1.5M per season. With McClement off the market, I'd be thrilled to see the Oilers give a similar deal to Dominic Moore. Of course, with just a couple of contract spots left, such a move might impact the team's ability to add in other areas that need it. A good long look at those areas will thus be necessary before a decision can be made on whether or not it makes sense to add (via free agency) up front.