by Lisa Brown on 09/19/11 at 09:00 AM ET
The Edmonton Oilers are faced with new challenges this year, as well as returning old ones. The old challenges include goaltending and defence while the new challenges include who will play centre when it looks like the Oilers are well stocked.
The Oilers have returning centremen Gilbert Brule, Sam Gagner and Shawn Horcoff, newly acquired Éric Bélanger and two prospects in particular trying to make the cut; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Anton Lander. In this case, competition for spots is a welcome change.
After rumours of trade, Gilbert Brule has something to prove to the fans, the Oilers, and himself.
While Gagner hasn’t been rumoured to be traded, many fans lately have called for a trade for this former London Knight. Gagner struggles on the faceoff, is a defensive liability at times, and doesn’t show the offensive upside that many would like to see. At the same time, there are still many Gagner supporters out there who wonder just how many points Gagner would have to put up in order to satisfy the unhappy.
Shawn Horcoff will not be traded, no matter how much some fans would like to see this happen. His contract is as good as a lead weight, but Horcoff is also the Oilers’ captain and when healthy has taken the lion’s share of the team’s faceoffs. Quite simply, it was because there was no one else for so long.
With the loss of Jarrett Stoll and Marty Reasoner, the Oilers have had gaping holes down the middle. This season, those holes are starting to close up.
It is a given that Gagner, Horcoff and Bélanger will be on the roster. The same goes for Gilbert Brule despite the fact that his situation is slightly different. Despite the fact that I have listed 4 centres, there is room for one more if Gagner spends some time on the wing, if lines get shuffled, and even taking into account injuries that are surely to come.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the most likely to make the team, no matter how good Anton Lander plays through training camp. Nugent-Hopkins was the first overall pick at the 2011 NHL entry draft and so there are always questions as to just how much more Nugent-Hopkins will gain from another year in junior.
Throughout the summer, most concern has been focused on whether or not Nugent-Hopkins will physically be able to play the game at the NHL level. For the players, that doesn’t seem to factor in. Radio banter said that players were not sure what to expect with all of the focus on the physical readiness of Nugent-Hopkins. After seeing and playing with Nugent-Hopkins before training camp and the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, many players feel that Nugent-Hopkins should be fine. Of course this is “word on the street” talk, but Nugent-Hopkins was still selected first overall and for good reason.
Anton Lander is ready to play in North America and likely even ready for the NHL after playing and captaining in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) but the Oilers don’t want to rush this Swede to the ice and there are a number of options and possibilities for the roster before putting Lander in, in a regular position. It will be of far more use to Lander to play full games in Oklahoma City versus short periods of time on the ice and possibly long periods of time in the pressbox.
The major drawback to having Lander in OKC, however, is putting the Swede on his own. Lander will have an easier time communicating with his friend Magnus Paajarvi, the two will only be separated by an hour time difference, and are no longer separated by an ocean. However, Lander will still be on his own in terms of food, entertainment and communicating with the other members of the team, media and coaching staff. Linus Omark made it, Lander will be able to as well, especially since Lander is known for his leadership and coaching abilities. You don’t have those qualities if you don’t hold some independence.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would like to see Lander in the NHL as soon as possible, I still hold out hope that he will see his first NHL game before Christmas, but taking the time to develop Lander in the North American style of hockey will be a good decision. Finally the Oilers are in a position where they will not be playing forwards out of necessity, but because they have made the cut.*
The Oilers also have other prospect centremen in the system; Milan Kytnar and Chris VandeVelde who will also be competing for any call-ups. Despite the hope for both of these players, they will likely find themselves waiting on a call longer than Lander.
The Oilers back end leaves a lot of room for questions and concerns this season as it stands. Especially given that Ryan Whitney is not ready to play, that Tambellini has said he wants to give his up and coming prospects a chance, but front runner Colten Teubert is currently suffering from concussion symptoms.
*This claim holds true so long as the Oilers remain relatively healthy.
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Lisa McRitchie is a fairly new writer, online at least, but makes up for inexperience with passion for the game of hockey and memories of Mrs. Leskiw’s English AP class; who knew they would pay off one day.
Oil Patch focuses on the Edmonton Oilers, the Edmonton Oil Kings, The Oklahoma City Barons and Team Canada Hockey with game coverage, news updates, speculation and interviews.
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