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Oilers Face Decisions at Centre

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.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Anton Lander, both hoping to make the big club sooner rather than later.

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.

Filed in: Edmonton Oilers, Anton Lander, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, | Oil Patch | Permalink


Hank1974's avatar

I’m not sure why the Oilers haven’t considered moving Hall there.
He played centre his whole life until he played for the Spits.
And the handful of games he played as a pivot for the Oil last season, he looked very good and put up nearly 1.5 points-per-game during that stint.

If anything, I’d move Gagner to the LW and move Hall to the middle. Hall is more responsible defensively and this allows Gagner to concentrate more on offense and less on D and face-offs.

Posted by Hank1974 on 09/19/11 at 10:10 AM ET

Lisa Brown's avatar

The Oilers did play Hall at centre for a few games last season out of necessity and from where I watch, he did alright.

Unfortunately we don’t know what is said behind closed doors, or why the experiment is not continuing. I’d move Gagner to the wing as well.

Posted by Lisa Brown on 09/19/11 at 11:40 AM ET

shanetx's avatar

I’m not sure why you’re worried about a Swede being able to communicate with his potential teammates in OKC.  Almost all Swedes are bilingual any more.  Their school system requires them to learn both languages their entire career.

Posted by shanetx from Floydada, Texas on 09/20/11 at 01:15 PM ET

Lisa Brown's avatar

Learning French in Alberta and being immersed in it in France is different; the same goes for Sweden and English I would think. There are all sorts of common phrases that we take for granted, or that mean something different than a literal translation. How often do we hear of misunderstandings or miscommunications between people whose first language is English?

It’s not as though I’m losing sleep over the issue, but it’s something that interests me. I imagine it would be difficult on so many levels for a young man of 19 to pack up and move across the world, even someone with Lander’s experience and pedigree.

Posted by Lisa Brown on 09/20/11 at 01:40 PM ET

shanetx's avatar

Valid points.  I guess maybe some reference might help my perspective.  My wife was born and raised in Sweden, moved to the states 6 years ago.  When she was 18 she lived in LA for a year as a nanny.  She frequently has phrases she doesn’t know how to translate and cultural sayings are far, far from universal but her grasp on English was never weak enough she struggled to communicate pretty basic things- and let’s be honest, he doesn’t need to be able to have meaningful conversations about Nietzsche to get along fine.

Over the last four years or so one of her cousins has moved to NY, at 18, and three sisters have visited and all have been very fluent English speakers at ages from 13-upward.  Swedes are well educated and they adapt well. smile

Posted by shanetx from Floydada, Texas on 09/20/11 at 02:32 PM ET

Lisa Brown's avatar

Oh I think very highly of Swedes, no worries there! I’ve had short conversations with Magnus Paajarvi and even Anton Lander, they both came across as shy and careful with their words but always thoughtful. That is where I base my opinions for now.

I’m always in awe of people who can do what your wife and her cousins have done. I moved young as well, but I stayed in Canada. Really, I didn’t get very far at all.

It’s true that Lander and any other European player coming across doesn’t need to have meaningful conversations, but I’m sure he would like to at some point. I have similar interest in the assimilation of the Finns and Slovaks, all European players coming over.

Posted by Lisa Brown on 09/20/11 at 02:48 PM ET

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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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