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Hopkins-less, the Team's Best Right Wing & Other Pre-season Thoughts

Hopkins healing - Lander and Jones playing toughs - Smyth out of position again - battered and bruised, yet still sublime talent has been slotted for 3rd line duty

Dale MacMillan

Over the course of the last week, I've had a couple of conversations about the Oilers' roster makeup and the coming season. The discussions have ranged from grumbling about the obvious shortcomings (centre depth, top 4 defense and left wing depth) to the chances of guys like Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Toni Rajala making the team. One other topic has come up a number of times, that being the Oilers bounty at right wing and how they might best utilize Ales Hemsky, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Mike Brown. I'm kidding about the latter.

The standard thinking is that Eberle is lashed to Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins like tidally locked astral bodies, Yakupov will run on the starboard side for David Perron and Sam Gagner, and Ales Hemsky will be forced to climb the zonestart and qualcomp mountain with Boyd Gordon and Ryan Jones. The line combinations were already set in stone the moment the Magnus Paajarvi for David Perron trade was announced:

Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle

David Perron - Sam Gagner - Nail Yakupov

Ryan Jones - Boyd Gordon - Ales Hemsky

Ryan Smyth - Anton Lander - Jesse Joensuu

Aside from the fact that Ryan Jones is not capable of playing tough minutes hockey and neither Anton Lander nor Jesse Joensuu have been able to stick in the NHL, and the above lineup makes Ryan Jones and Anton Lander the second penalty killing pair, there's a much bigger problem. The impediment to this standard thinking is the state of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' surgically-repaired right shoulder (Why in god's name didn't the Oilers shut him down in February?) and his expected late November return to the lineup.

If Hopkins is out, it's expected, mostly because folks like Bob Stauffer have said so, that all of the centres will move up one spot in the lineup and Ryan Smyth will move back to centre (because that experiment was incredibly successful last season) until Hopkins' return. This creates even more problems up front:

Taylor Hall - Sam Gagner - Jordan Eberle

David Perron - Boyd Gordon - Nail Yakupov

Ryan Jones - Anton Lander - Ales Hemsky

Mike Brown - Ryan Smyth - Jesse Joensuu

Smyth is out of position again, Mike Brown is in the lineup, Anton Lander is on a tough minutes line with Ryan Jones, and Boyd Gordon is in the middle of what's supposed to be a powerhouse offensive unit. Stauffer has also talked about the need to stay patient until Hopkins returns as if seven-and-a-half years isn't enough patience. The above lineup seems more like a plan to drive Ales Hemsky insane and for him to run out the door and start running for the coast like Forrest Gump.

Of the 13 forwards on the Oilers' roster, 2 of them have demonstrated the ability to drive play on their own: Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky.

The last sentence is the important one. Of the 13 forwards on the Oilers' roster, 2 of them have demonstrated the ability to drive play on their own: Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky. Perron has a nice body of work, but nothing that demonstrates that he's capable of tilting the ice by himself. Gordon's history suggests a man quite capable of chasing off the hordes, but lacks demonstrated ability in waging an offensive. We've discussed the passenger status of Eberle and Hopkins at length, while Sam Gagner was trending well until last season's bloop-sized hiccup. I expect Nail Yakupov to take an enormous leap forward this season into the Perron category, especially now that he's away from Ralph Krueger's bench management lunacy. Jones is not a capable NHL player, Brown should be in the CHL, and Lander and Joensuu are battling shortcomings to try and stay in the league.

With the previous paragraph as a backdrop to the pre-season Oilers, if there is only one right wing on the roster capable of driving play on his own, isn't he, by default, the best right wing on the club? Rather than worrying about fitting a square peg in a round hole with Hemsky in a defensive zone, tough minutes role, shouldn't the Oilers focus on getting Hemsky into a power line for a power vs. power matchup that Jordan Eberle isn't capable of playing without Taylor Hall?

The projected lineup and ensuing discussion points highlight the need for the Oilers to talk to the Coyotes about Viktor Tikhonov, previously discussed here, to shore up the bottom of the roster. Perhaps there is merit to the Linus Omark rumors. Would Omark and a pick, or Omark and one of the Oilers cornucopia of second-tier defensive prospects be enough?

One final thought: the team is suffering from a terrible lack of depth on the left side and down the middle. Where would this team be if they'd passed on Andrew Ference in favor of Tom Gilbert, passed on David Perron and kept Magnus Paajarvi, signed Mikhail Grabovski and added Viktor Tikhonov?

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