11/14/2011 4:00:00 PM
For starter's, I want to make it clear that I'm impressed with where the Oilers are through 17 games. I know that they've lost 3 in a row and 4 of their last 5, but let's not look at this from a one game or 3 game perspective. We've got 17 games, so let's look at the overall picture here.
The Oilers are 9-6-2. Tied for 4th in the Conference. If you want the glass half empty look, yes, they are also tied for 10th in the Conference. But...do you know where they were last year on November 14? Last. In the NHL. 4-9-3, 11 points, and already 7 points out of a playoff spot.
Last season they got their 9th win on December 2nd. This year, it was November 8.
By this point last season, the team had been beat by 5 goals...not given up 5...BEAT BY 5 goals...4 different times.
And, as far as the current losing streak is concerned, their 3 losses were to the best team in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings and the defending Stanley Cup Champions. They just finished their most difficult part of the season's schedule.
That all being said, there's obviously room for improvement here. The goaltending is coming back down to earth a little bit and ditto for the defense, especially in the continued absence of Ryan Whitney and Cam Barker. They can't control those things. What they can control is the makeup of their forward lines and, right now, I don't think they're using the ideal combinations.
I think they need to give more opportunity to 2 players: Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner. So, first, here's what I propose:
Hall - Nugent-Hopkins - Eberle
Paajarvi - Gagner - Hemsky
Smyth - Horcoff - Jones
Eager - Belanger - Petrell
The youth on this team needs to be served...or at least given the appropriate opportunity to break out. The top line has absolutely been given that opportunity. Paajarvi and Gagner have not. Let's start with Paajarvi, who has played less than 9 minutes in back-to-back games after being a healthy scratch for 2. Has 1 assist in 15 games. Here's a look at who his linemates have been.
Game 1 - Horcoff and Omark
Game 2 - Horcoff and Jones
Game 3-6 - Belanger and Omark
Game 7-13 - Belanger and Gagner (wing)
Game 14-15 - Scratch
Game 16 - Lander and Petrell
Game 17 - Gagner and Jones
That adds up to 0 games with any of the top 4 scorers on the team and 2 games with the 5th scorer, Horcoff. I'm definitely willing to put some of this on Magnus Paajarvi, but as a top 10 draft choice and a player regarded as part of the emerging future of this team, I'm not sure he's been given correlating opportunity. Oh, and he's also not on either powerplay unit.
For Sam Gagner, only last night in Chicago was he finally put back in his natural position at center. He played the first 10 games of his season on the wing, and not exactly with the most talented offensive linemates, either. Even if you want to debate Gagner's merits as a 2nd line centerman, I think we can agree that he certainly needs to be given a reasonable chance to succeed there, even if you're one of those that hopes it's as a showcase for a possible trade.
The line combinations I suggest keep the kids together and reunite the successful trio of Smyth-Horcoff-Jones as a shutdown line with secondary scoring prowess. The 2nd line places Paajarvi and Gagner in a much more prominent offensive role and keeps Hemsky with two skilled linemates, while still allowing him to be "the man" in that trio. The bottom line becomes a strict energy/checking line and Belanger will still get his minutes playing on the penalty kill and, for now, the power play.