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Life Without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

What's a coach to do...

Candace Riley

At the conclusion of Craig MacTavish's most recent interview posted on the Oilers' website, he indicated that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may not return to the lineup until the start of November. That timeline would see Nugent-Hopkins miss the first fourteen games of the season, nine of which will be played on the road where Dallas Eakins will find it much more difficult to match lines.

I think we mostly agree that the Oilers have two bonafide centers. So if you're Dallas Eakins, what do you do? There's been some talk of moving Taylor Hall to center in the interim, and I can see why this idea is attractive, but I don't like it. We know that Taylor Hall has only rarely played center over the last six seasons, and we know that other players who have tried to make the transition from wing to center in the recent Oiler past (e.g. Ryan Smyth, Fernando Pisani) haven't found it easy. Those growing pains would be worthwhile if this shift was permanent, but we know that a shift to center would likely last only until Nugent-Hopkins returned with Hall himself saying exactly that:

I don't think this is really going to be a permanent thing by any means. We have Sam who's a great centerman and we have Nuge who's going to be here for a long time scoring lots of points. So I don't see myself being a centerman for very long. It's whenever Nuge and the training staff feel that he's ready to play, I'll make that move back.

Hall also made some hilariously blun (but no doubt unintentional) commentary on what he thought of the way management addressed the centerman issue over the summer:

[I didn't start thinking about playing center until] about mid-summer. When Nuge had surgery, I probably should have put that it in the back of my mind, that we might have a centerman issue. I didn't really realize until after free agency that we're missing a guy there when Nuge is out.

I, for one, don't blame Hall one bit for thinking that they'd actually address the problem. We know that Taylor Hall is extremely effective gaining the offensive zone and playing with the puck in the offensive zone, both things that can be more difficult to maximize playing a position with more defensive responsibilities. Makes sense that they'd do what they could to keep him on the wing!

So, given that we know all of these things, it seems to me that another solution would be preferable. The coach can only work with the players on the roster, so options are limited, and my alternate suggestion isn't perfect either, but it provides continuity for Hall, and I think, gives the Oilers the kind of lineup that can play reasonably well on the road.

David Perron - Boyd Gordon - Ales Hemsky (14-16 of ~ 48 EV minutes)

I think it makes sense to use these three players to match up against the opposing team's top line whenever possible. All three players are accustomed to playing difficult minutes, and even though it might be frustrating to watch Gordon flub an incredible Hemsky pass or two, it seems to me that this line has enough pop to be considered more than a traditional checking unit.

Taylor Hall - Mark Arcobello - Jordan Eberle (14-16 of ~ 48 EV minutes)

I'll admit that putting Arcobello here is basically praying for deliverance because the situation is hopeless, but I think using him in this way gives the Oilers a better chance for favorable match-ups of their own. Arcobello would sit for Gagner late in games if the Oilers are ahead, so Arcobello's minutes would be reduced relative to the other two. I think there's hope here because these three played very well together at the AHL level, and the combination of Hall and Eberle has generally been effective at driving play since they arrived together in the NHL. If it's failing spectacularly in the pre-season, a change would need to be made, but this is where I'd start.

Linus Omark - Sam Gagner - Nail Yakupov (10-14 of ~ 48 EV minutes)

I'd be trying to get this group as many offensive zone starts as possible to provide them some shelter, and of course, because this group can take advantage. Even on the road, you can pick one line to avoid from the opposition, so they can probably hold their own against the competition they're likely to see. I think Gagner's presence on the line will help a lot in that regard. I know that some folks aren't fond of his defensive play, but it's something that I think has improved quite a lot. These guys will also get some time on the power play, and Gagner's minutes will be greater than the other two since he'll probably take Arcobello's spot at the end of games if the club is ahead.

Ryan Smyth - Anton Lander - Ryan Jones (6-10 of ~ 48 EV minutes)

No offensive zone starts for this group, which will mean they can't provide much offense, but I think that's fine given the other forward lines. I think you need to count on all three guys to kill penalties, and would I'd use Smyth and Lander to help protect a lead late in games (with Yakupov replacing Jones) until you can cut down to two lines. If the Oilers are behind, it's PK duty and nothing else for these three.

So that's my "brilliant" suggestion. It's clearly a long way from perfect, but most of the suggestions I've seen with Hall at center have the bottom six looking like a wasteland of uselessness, and I think it's very important to have three reasonably solid lines, especially on the road.