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Chemistry v. Blender

A rare shift in the offensive zone.
A rare shift in the offensive zone.

One of the things we've noticed over the first four games of the season is Tom Renney's tendency to roll his top three lines over the boards for most of the game. He hasn't been interested in matching lines or providing one group with more shelter than another with respect to offensive zone starts (although it's worked out that the trio of Sam Gagner, Dustin Penner, and Ales Hemsky have taken a much higher percentage of their starts in the defensive zone simply because the other three lines have demonstrated a strong tendency to lose territory). Renney has also kept his lines together from start to finish. One of the things some fans disliked about Craig MacTavish was his security blanketender. When things weren't going well, he'd change something. When things were going well, but the team wasn't scoring, he'd change something. When things were going well, he'd change something. The complaint was that this generally prevented the team from developing chemistry. Is it time for Tom Renney to bring out the blender?

The following chart shows the amount of EV ice time each forward has received so far this season, as well as each forward's most common linemates (the information is available because of Vic Ferrari's wonderful "time on ice" tools):


These lines have been extremely consistent! In the top nine (which as we see here is a more helpful designation than top six), each player has had the same two linemates for at least 75% of his ice time. The problem is that the early results have been, generally speaking, pretty poor. Here's a look at some of the possession metrics for each player (thanks to Vic, Dennis, and Gabe):


It's early in the year, so these numbers don't mean all that much at the individual level, but I think they do help us to understand what's not working at the team level. The top line has been doing very well indeed, driving the puck into the offensive zone and creating chances, but the other lines show results that are either mixed or very poor. The problem is that there aren't many options for getting better. Tom Renney could wait it out and hope his current lines develop better chemistry and get better results; he could break up the top line and go to the "V-T-R format" I suggested before the season began; he could move one of the guys on the fourth line up the lineup; or he can have Steve Tambellini go out and get him some better players.

The only option that will really work is getting better players, but barring that, I still think my original suggestion of having a veteran (Horcoff, Hemsky, Penner), a tweener (Cogliano, Brule, Gagner), and a rookie (Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi) on each of the top three lines is the way to go. Right now both the third and fourth lines are getting buried so a minor tweak like replacing Cogliano with Jones doesn't seem likely to work, and I don't think inaction will help much either. Moving one of Hemsky or Penner down the lineup will no doubt make the top line weaker, but if this season is all about development, I think the Oilers need to do a better job of making sure that three of the guys they're focusing on (Paajarvi, Cogliano, and Brule) aren't going to get their asses handed to them each and every game. With a few days off before their next game, I think that now is the time to make the change.