In discussing the Edmonton Oilers, I tend to put on the general manager hat in the off-season since most of the action is taking place at that level. But sometimes it's fun to change up, and so today I thought that it would be fun to talk about how I might run the forwards at the start of the year if I were in Tom Renney's shoes and there were no more roster changes before the start of the season.
It seems clear to me that the organization has two major goals this season: improvement in the standings and player development. There's significant pressure to do both well, which isn't an easy task. But when your general manager says things like, "I expect our team to make the playoffs next year", you know that another last-place finish is likely to cost you your job. After the jump, I'll detail what I think is Tom Renney's best bet to help this team win.
Last season, I was pretty sure that the Oilers didn't have the horses up front, and so my strategy focused mostly on development. Although Tom Renney did many things differently than what I had suggested - he demoted Omark to start the year, and often played two or even three young players on the same line - the general focus on development was the same. But that's not to say he was trying to lose. Even though there wasn't much effort made to match lines, Renney did tend to put his best offensive players in offensive situations (Hemsky had the second-most favorable ZoneStart on the team among forwards), and shift some of the defensive responsibilities onto his fourth liners (unless they were totally inept like Ryan O`Marra and Steve MacIntyre). This is very similar to what he did with the Rangers, so it's probably safe to expect that kind of thing going forward. But with the current roster, I think I'd probably do things a little bit differently. It's pretty obvious that lines are going to change throughout the season, but here's how I would start the season:
Taylor Hall - Shawn Horcoff - Jordan Eberle
This line had a lot of success one year ago, and I'd put them back together to start. I'd be giving this group a healthy dose of offensive zone faceoffs, but I don't think they need to be sheltered from tough competition. If, on the road, the opposing coach wants to run his power guys at this trio, I'd let them try to handle it, both because it would mean his power guys are starting more often than not in the defensive zone, and because it shows faith in both Hall and Eberle while still challenging them to improve.
Ryan Smyth - Sam Gagner - Ales Hemsky
I'd start these guys a little bit more often in the defensive zone to make up for giving that top line some shelter. With two talented veterans on his wings, I think Gagner should be able to handle the added defensive responsibility, and if he can't, well, it's good to know that now. This trio could also be used in a power-v-power role if the top unit is struggling in a sustained fashion.
Lennart Petrell - Eric Belanger - Magnus Paajarvi
I'd probably look to have this group have 65% to 70% of their end-zone draws in the defensive zone, and hope that they survive. They generally won't need to take toughs (one of the two groups above them will have that task), so that might make things a little bit easier. I know that slotting Petrell into the starting lineup probably isn't what most folks have in mind, but the scouting reports suggest that the European veteran has some defensive chops, so he's probably the best fit here. I'll spoil things a bit by saying that it leaves Ryan Jones and Gilbert Brule without a spot, but I think I'd prefer Petrell to either of those two for this role. Using Paajarvi this way will surely make for a rough sophomore year, but the Oilers aren't going to be able to pay everyone, so you may as well see if the young Swede can fill an important role for the club long term that won't break the bank.
Ben Eager - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Linus Omark
These guys would be getting the least even-strength minutes and would definitely be getting maximum protection. Offensive zone starts are a must on the road, and at home you can more carefully monitor the competition too. As a coach, I think having Nugent-Hopkins on the roster makes sense, since he likely gives you the best chance to win, and pairing him with Omark could lead to some very pretty plays. I like having Eager here because he's got a little bit of crazy in his game, can forecheck well (which should complement Omark's boardwork nicely), and will know right off the hop that his job is keeping his stick on the ice. They wouldn't get a lot of time at evens, but Nugent-Hopkins and Omark would each get some extra time on the PP.
Like I said earlier, there are bound to be changes throughout the year for myriad reasons, but this is how I'd start the season. I like the lineup because I think that it gives the team a reasonable chance to win, and challenges every young player to improve his game so that he fits a role on a winning team down the road.