And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game
-- Buffy Sainte-Marie "The Circle Game"
Any team featuring Craig MacTavish never had any worries about its third-line centre. Until now.
The early word from training camp is that Coach MacT has looked at his roster and found an intergalactic void where the third-line centre used to be. No Jarret Stoll, no Marty Reasoner, no veteran centre to replace either of them, and a bunch of kids with known weaknesses extending down (and up) the depth chart. A prototypical 3C throughout his own accomplished career, MacT seemingly puts more value in the "veteran" part of the equation than worrying about having an actual "centre" play the position. He has indicated he might employ his most reliable veteran, Fernando Pisani, in the role.
Now unlike the Ryan Smyth Experiment of a few years ago (a.k.a. the Ryan Smyth Disaster), I don’t doubt for a second that Fernando will respond favourably to the challenge, and become an instantly-competent and eventually-excellent performer in a shutdown C role. He’s an intelligent, well-rounded, and versatile player, the kind of guy who would be first in line to play defence if the bench got too short in a given game situation. So he has to learn faceoffs? I’d put money on his achieving at least 50% in his first season playing the Circle Game. He just needs to put his mind, his terrific work ethic, and MacT’s coaching skills into gear and he is on his way already.
My concern comes from the trickledown effect, as the line-up logic cascades from there:
Q. Who replaces Pisani as our primo defensive winger?
A. Ethan Moreau. Ethan’s an experienced 3LW who hasn’t made it through the last two Octobers. Surely he won’t be so unlucky a third time.
Q. Wait a minute, that solves the problem on LW, but Fernando is moving over from the starboard side. How do we plug that hole?
A. Just because he hasn’t played a down at RW in his entire career is no reason why Dustin Penner can’t make the switch. A winger’s a winger, no? (Unless he’s a centre.)
Q. But … but … wouldn’t it make more sense for our two savviest vets to protect some of the kids in the line-up rather than each other? A stint with Fernando was a key stage of the season for kids like Gagner, Nilsson, and Brodziak last year.
A. Well, we need to get our best checkers out there on the 3 line, and give them all the tough minutes they can soak up.
Q. But wouldn’t Moreau be a perfect fit in GlenX’s old spot with Brodziak and Stortini? He’s a natural portsider who plays the same sort of grinding game that the big youngsters displayed effectively down the stretch. Might even be an upgrade on GlenX, who was terrific in his brief run wearing the oil drop. Wouldn’t it make sense to give Moreau reduced but high tempo ice time 5v5, and continue to rely on him on the 1PK unit?
A: We can’t afford that luxury.
Q. So who do we wind up putting on the left wing with those two kids?
A. Another kid, one who doesn’t normally play the wing. If it’s Pouliot or Brule, one whose previous experience on the flank has been on their natural, right side.
Q. Brodziak and Stortini played well last year, but are they strong enough to carry a third youngster who’s learning his way in a new (out-of-) position?
A. Meh. We’ll adjust on the fly, shorten the bench, play the three-line game.
Q. Will this help in the development of Poo/Broo/Potty/Sugartits? Especially if two or more of them shuttle in and out of the line-up?
A. It didn’t hurt Horcoff’s development did it? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What would kill us is another lost October. It would seem that MacT sees the Pisani Sandwich as the best insurance policy against that happening again.
Here is one variation of the Pisani-centred line-up:
1. Cole – Horcoff – Hemsky
2. Nilsson – Cogliano – Gagner
3. Moreau – Pisani – Penner
4. Pouliot? – Brodziak – Stortini
Looked at another way:
1. RW – C – RW
2. LW – C – C
3. LW – RW – LW
4. C – C – RW
… meaning no fewer than 5 guys playing something other than their preferred position. Replace Pouliot on 4LW with Brule, Schremp, Potulny, doesn’t matter … they’re all centres. At least, they were.
Time on the wing is part of the apprenticeship for many NHL centres – as I recall MacT himself played a fair bit of LW in Boston – but for a guy like Marc Pouliot it hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success. Last season Pouliot had an early-season run at 4RW, which was an unmitigated disaster, 9 GP, 0-0-0, -7. After a four-month stint in Springfield, he was both recalled and inserted at his natural position of centre, where he responded with a fine stretch run, 15 GP, 1-6-7, +6.
To realize its potential with the current cast of characters, the team really needs one of those young centres to step up and seize the 3C role. Ideally that would be Pouliot who has proven to be competent defensively, at least when playing his natural position. Surround him with Pisani and Penner on the "P3 Line" (doesn’t get much more Albertan than that), or Pisani and Cole. If Pouliot struggles, give Brule a shot in the same spot, but let him play his natural position. Or move Brodziak up and give Brule or Schremp or Potulny or one of the other young centres a shot playing Centre on the fourth line.
Of course it’s all well and good to sit on the sideline and ponder "wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually put a round peg in a round hole?" Fact is MacT can’t afford to have the club bleed out in October again while some youngster is in over his head against the tough comp. He’s got to start playing to win (or at least, for the tie :), right from Game 1. Until then, though, he can experiment all he likes with Pisani at centre, but at the same time those young guys will get some ice in the preseason as well, both down the middle and on the flank. Hell, maybe some of those young guys can learn a thing or two simply by watching how the consummate professional Pisani responds to the challenge of learning their position, even as he challenges them for ice time.
I’m guessing MacT’s first choice would be to keep it a preseason experiment to broaden his options later in the season, while motivating the Pouliots of the team to not take anything for granted. But wouldn’t it be great if one of them just seizes the reins and doesn’t let go? It’s the biggest "If" of the new season.