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Managing the Forwards

With Steve Tambellini telling the world that the Edmonton Oilers aren't looking to add any forwards to the club I thought it might be a good idea to look at the forward group and talk some about how I might run the bench if I were in Tom Renney's shoes.  With Tambellini declaring that the team already has a few extra forwards, it's clear that one of the goals this year is going to be player development.  It's also something Tom Renney mentioned as an important goal for the club.  The question then becomes, how can the team best develop their young (cross your fingers) stars.

When Pat Quinn was removed as head coach of the Oilers, I and many others were relieved, figuring that one of the main reasons the team was so bad a year ago was Quinn's poor bench management.  It may come as a surprise, then, that if I were running the bench for the forwards, I wouldn't be matching lines.  Now, this assumes that I don't have the option to send any of Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, or Taylor Hall when the season starts.  With those three plus young players like Andrew Cogliano, Gilbert Brule, and Sam Gagner, there just isn't going to be enough room to shelter everyone from the other team's big guns.  As such, I wouldn't even try.

But that isn't to say the rookies should be thrown to the wolves either.  For me, the roster would be broken into two parts with ten guys in the first part, and three guys in the bottom.  The first ten guys would be used to create three lines, and would each be composed of a "veteran," a "tweener," and a "rookie."   The actual lines don't matter much - in fact, I'd probably experiment quite a bit to see which combinations worked best - but I'd be dogmatic about using the V-T-R formula.  Here's an example:

Penner (V) - Brule (T) - Eberle (R)
Hall (R) - Gagner (T) - Hemsky (V)
Cogliano (T) - Horcoff (V) - Paajarvi (R)

With this set-up, each line has a "mentor" that they can talk with on the bench, and each veteran knows he's responsible as a leader.  Further, none of the "tweeners" (Brule, Cogliano, and Gagner) are being asked to carry a line, which I think is very important.  In my opinion, one of the things that made Cogliano's last season so difficult was the fact that he was the best player on his line.  To me, that's a bad development strategy, and it's something I hope is rectified this season.  And as for the rookies, they know that they can just play, which is a real blessing.  There's no need to be worried about racing to the bench if you see Henrik Sedin or Jarome Iginla.  Each group will get a taste of those tremendous players, and each group will also get the dregs at times.  One of the big advantages to this system is that it allows the coaches to evaluate how each one is handling a wide variety of competition, which will be valuable information to have going into the next several seasons when the Oilers are (hopefully) more ready to compete. 

You may recall that I mentioned ten guys in this top group.  The tenth player (not listed above) is Linus Omark.  Yep, another rookie.  Look, the NHL is very tough league.  For a lot of players, the first year can be a challenge, especially physically.  As such, I think it would be smart to rotate the rookies into the lineup on an even schedule, at least for the first twelve games.  Each rookie would then be on a pattern of playing three games, and then resting one out in the press-box.  That gives each young player extra time to recuperate, lessening the risk of injury, and also gives each guy a chance to learn by watching every fourth game from the sky with a coach.  Because it's on a schedule, each guy knows he's not being benched for underperformance.  He knows that it's an organizational decision to bring him along slowly, and to help him learn.  The organization would then also be able to evaluate all four of the rookies in game situations, which is particularly important in the case of Omark.  He's a talented player, and it would be a shame to see him immediately buried before getting his shot.  After those twelve games, maybe the team sends some of them away, but if not, I'd have no problem using that rotation for the rest of the year, or at least until injuries hit in a significant way.

And that brings us to the fourth line.  My fourth line would be Jones-Fraser-Stortini day in and day out, and they'd be getting fed DZ draws almost exclusively through the first two periods of the game.  It's not an elegant role, but it does serve to protect each of those top three lines a little bit, giving them a chance for more offense.  In the third period, you could substitute a player who's having an off-night with someone who's playing well on the fourth line, or use one of those players as a substitute for a rookie for a DZ draw, and then have him skate to the bench with the puck going up ice.  These three would have a difficult job, and it would be really nice to have at least one established veteran on that line (say, oh I don't know, Fernando Pisani), but then again, it's not likely that any of these players will become big offensive weapons.  As such, it gives the team a nice opportunity to evaluate their ability to get the puck moving the right way.  It may not be sexy, but it's a clear role, which is something players often thrive on.

And what about the other guys?  Hopefully they're in OKC, at least until someone gets hurt.  If Tambellini refused to send them down, they'd be in the pressbox night in and night out until Tambellini forced me to play them (if he wouldn't send them down), or one of the other players needed to be taken out due to injury, illness, performance, whatever.  Although, really, your performance would need to be pretty bad to get taken out for J-F Jacques.