By now you might be wondering, "Why won't these idiots at the Copper & Blue just shut up about the lack of depth at centre? Can't they just be happy that Tambellini is gone, and that MacT has made some moves that have improved the team? Rome wasn't in built in a day you know." We've written a number of stories about the depth, or lack of depth, at centre, and we've spent some additional time discussing it with other fans on Twitter.
Given all of the time and effort spent discussing this one component of the Oilers lineup I can see how someone might conclude that we're obsessed with the centres on the Oilers depth chart. In fact, I got an email from a reader yesterday, asking something very similar to the question above. And I thought the best way to answer the question was with another post.
Before we go too far into all of this there are a couple of things that need to be said: a) I don't hate every move the Oilers make, and b) I don't hate the Oilers. These both seem like simple concepts, but I find myself explaining one or both of those facts on a fairly regular basis. When I'm critical of Oilers management it is usually because I either don't agree with the valuation of the player, or I think the process that led to the move was wrong, or both.
Some examples of each so we're all on the same page. Bad valuation - trading for Mike Brown to add grit/sandpaper/jam to the Oilers lineup. Bad process - signing Jordan Eberle to a long term big money deal last summer when a year remained on his entry level contract. Both - signing an ageing, often injured Nikolai Khabibulin for too much money and too many years.
I don't expect management to be perfect though, and this is why I'm not critical of moves like the three year deal given to Eric Belanger, or the decision to resign Ryan Smyth. In hindsight both weren't great ideas, but given the information available at the time I do think they were good moves that, for whatever reason, just didn't work out.
Now to get back to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers lack of depth at centre which I see very much as an issue with the process. You know the problem, if Nugent-Hopkins isn't ready to start the season the Oilers will be forced to move Taylor Hall to centre (which is sounding more and more like what is going to happen) or go with Sam Gagner, Boyd Gordon, and Anton Lander as their top three centres and with one of Mark Arcobello, Will Acton, or Andrew Miller (they have a combined one game of NHL experience) on the fourth line. Neither of these options is particularly great, and I think regardless of the combination you choose the result will be a lot of nights where the Oilers are overmatched.
In trying to figure out what the Oilers options are in this case you have to consider the salary cap and the likelihood that Nugent-Hopkins misses games at the start of the season. The salary cap is the easier of the two to answer, so I'll start there. The Oilers are reasonably close to the salary cap, but the do still have some wiggle room. Capgeek shows the Oilers with 24 players on the roster right now. If you assume the team carries eight defencemen to start the season, and Brown goes to the AHL to create a roster spot, the Oilers will have between $2.8 and $3.6M in cap space available to sign a centre. The low end represents sending down Corey Potter, the high end Anton Belov.
Looking at the numbers the cap really shouldn't be an issue when it comes to adding some depth at the centre position. I understand the desire to retain some cap space for future moves, but if Nugent-Hopkins isn't ready to start the season that future might be irrelevant. A team can't make the playoffs in October, but they can miss them. And the Oilers current roster minus Nugent-Hopkins would stand a great chance of doing just that.
Now the million dollar question: Will Nugent-Hopkins miss some, or even any time, at the start of the season? Right now we don't know. But a year ago when Hall had the same surgery he was supposed to be back for training camp but didn't actually end up playing hockey games until November 2. If Nugent-Hopkins returns on a similar timeline then he will miss the first 14 games of the season; nine of which will be played on the road where getting favourable match ups will be even tougher. With the depth chart as it stands right now, if Nugent-Hopkins were to miss a month of the regular season there is a good change that the Oilers would find themselves in a very deep hole.
Granted, the lockout played a factor in Hall's slow return to the lineup, adding a week or two to his recovery timeline since there was no rush to send him to Oklahoma City. But not rushing him back, or even flirting with the idea, is hardly a bad thing. This season, when it comes to Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers won't have that same luxury. They can say they won't rush him back into the lineup, but if the losses start to pile up the pressure to get him back in the lineup - from the team, media, fans, and Nugent-Hopkins himself - before the season is lost will be tremendous. And it'll make doing the right thing tough.
Think back for a second to how the Oilers talked about Ryan Whitney and his ankle last summer. "No worries. It'll be fine, he just needed a little more time to get back into game shape." We all know how that played out. Of course Nugent-Hopkins and Whitney are very different situations, Nugent-Hopkins is coming back from and injury where as Whitney was trying to regain his past form, but the lack of planning for an undesirable, and unfortunately possible, outcome is exactly the same.
Adding depth at the forward position won't replace Nugent-Hopkins, but it is something the team can afford and will give them a safety net in case he isn't ready to start the season. Not having that depth could sink their playoff hopes before they've even left the starting gate. Hoping for the best and planning for the worst is never a bad idea. But this is a mistake that hasn't been made yet, there is still time address the problem before it actually becomes a problem. And that's why I won't let this go just yet.