The Oilers don't have a lot of available jobs up for grabs at training camp this season, but there are a couple of places on the roster where there will be a battle worth paying attention to this year. One of those will be for the job of fourth line centre being fought between Mark Arcobello, Anton Lander, and Will Acton.
Now that we know that one piece of the life without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plan is to play Taylor Hall at centre, we can focus entirely on the fourth line spot and stop hypothesizing about line combinations were one of this group is occupying a spot on the third line. For my sanity this is a good thing. Preferably Craig MacTavish would have added some depth at this position, but at least with Hall at centre there is a chance the Oilers will be able to weather the storm until Nugent-Hopkins is ready to return to the lineup.
It seems likely to me that the Oilers, when deciding which player gets the fourth line centre job, will be looking for someone who is good defensively, wins face-offs, and can kill penalties. I think the penalty killing role will be particularly important because the team has traded, bought out, or chosen not to re-sign three of their four most regular penalty killing forwards from last season.
In Arcobello you have the Barons leading scorer from last season, and a player who developed some chemistry with Hall and Jordan Eberle in Oklahoma City during the lockout. Had the Oilers opted not to move Hall to the middle there is a chance that the team would have given Arcobello the job of centring the top line. I'm not convinced that would have worked out very well, but it certainly was an option. A fourth line role seems like a bit of a long shot though. Arcobello has some offensive upside, but I don't think he's got the defensive aspects of his game refined to a point where he is capable of playing the role the Oilers will be looking for. And that's what makes me think it's very unlikely that he'll be the last man standing when camp wraps up.
Of course Arcobello could have a great training camp and Lander and Acton could stumble. But even if that did happen I'm not sure it would be enough for him to get the job. It's mistakenly thought by some that training camp is about finding the 23 players that most deserve to make the team, and that a strong training camp will get a player a job. It's not, and it doesn't. Roster decisions made during training camp are based on a number of factors, and deserving isn't one of them. We're also talking about a sample size of a half dozen games at most, making decision based on that amount of evidence is going to end badly for you more often than not. If the team's management and/or the coach have a preference for a player it's likely that that particular player will come out on top regardless of how they actually play. I suspect this to be the case at camp this season.
I'm not sure management and the coach are looking at the same player though.
Bob Stauffer is pretty well connected and he was tweeting months ago that he expects Lander to be the guy who gets the fourth line centre job. Lander spent a big chunk of the 2011/12 season and part of the 2013 season in Edmonton playing with the Oilers, and still hasn't yet proven he can keep his head above water at the NHL level. But that doesn't mean the Oilers won't give him another chance. The Oilers took Lander with the 40th selection in the 2009 draft. There is almost certainly a desire within the organization to see Lander succeed.
But the Oilers new coach, Dallas Eakins, seemingly made it a priority to bring Acton to town, getting him signed to a two-year deal this summer. When a coach changes organizations and a player is brought along I don't think it's much of a leap to conclude that the player in question is someone that the coach is a fan of. I've never seen Acton play a shift, but based what I've read and heard the coach say about him, he sounds like the kind of player who does the kinds of things I think the Oilers will be looking for from their fourth line centre. This is Eakins first time as an NHL head coach and he's going into the season without his number one centre. It's hardly inconceivable to think that he might want the security of having at least one player on his opening night roster that he's familiar with.
So how will this all play out? Because the Oilers have so many defencemen at camp this season (most with a one-way deal as well) it seems very likely that the team will start the season with 13 forwards, and I think there is probably only room for one of these three on the roster. In another year I think both Acton and Lander would have stuck with the team going into October, but this season that's unlikely to be an option. I wouldn't have said this a month ago, but I think that one player will be Will Acton. If he struggles I think there will be a change made pretty quickly, but to start the season at least, I think the coach's desires will win out over those of the organization. It should be interesting to watch though.