|Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall & Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lined up on the Oilers' top unit Monday. The trio put up exceptional numbers with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons this season before the lockout ended (Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club).
On the first day of training camp the fans showed up for free parking, free pop, free popcorn and a free look at the Edmonton Oilers lines.
Even though they were sitting down they didn't have to be because they wouldn't have been shocked by what they saw. Let's start with the number one line. One day maybe Nail Yakupov
will join Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
and Taylor Hall
as a trio and we can really call them 'The Number One' line. For now let's say two out of the three ain't bad. Not when the non #1 pick is Jordan Eberle
This trio makes all the sense in the world. Using the old adage, 'if ain't broke don't fix it' head coach Ralph Kreuger decided to do exactly that. This is a three some that could be together for another 10 years. They proved last year to be Edmonton's best, most dynamic unit. It has the pure passer in RNH, the pure scorer in Taylor Hall and the pure player in Jordan Eberle. The three worked well together in the AHL. Eberle was the league's top point getter, Hall was sixth and the Nuge was averaging a point per game before being called to serve his country at the World Junior Hockey Championships. They might not only be the Oilers top line but one of the top lines in the league.
For a second unit it was Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov. Hemsky and Gagner have been linemates before and then it was easy to Nail down the final member of the trio. They could challenge the OKC kids for the best line on the team. Hemsky, for years, has been missing that one time shooter who can put some of his sweet passes in the back of the opposition's net. I doubt Yakupov yelled 'pick me, pick me.' He didn't need to. That was his spot. Even if Yakupov is more accustomed to the right wing, he did play on the left side in the KHL. It shouldn't be an issue making that transition in the NHL. While his beard makes him look older then he is Sam Gagner is still a kid who has the hockey experience of an adult. Plus how can you ever sell short the offensive upside of someone who shares a record with Paul Coffey and Wayne Gretzky for points in a game by an Oiler at 8.
You can win a game with only six effective forwards but that doesn't make for much of a season if you don't have six other forwards who know their role. It seems almost mean to call Ryan Smyth a 'role' player considering he's closing in on 400 goals, but with Hall and Yakupov ahead of him on the left side expectations for him are different. Play less and contribute in more ways. Same could go for Shawn Horcoff. With the other team's defenceman tied up trying to slow down the Oilers top two lines it should give the pair a boost of belief. They have been pushed down the lineup but not out the door. For now Teemu Hartikainen looks like the third wheel on that unit. He couldn't learn how to play the game any better from someone like Smyth. He's a younger, not quite as gritty and fearless version of #94. Charles Barkley didn't want to be a role model but Smyth and even Horcoff could be good players and people for Hartikainen to watch.
The fourth line had Eric Belanger in between Lennart Petrell and Ben Eager. Big, fast, abrasive would describe Eager. Drop the abrasive and add defensive-minded for Petrell. As for Belanger, who struggled in his first season with Edmonton, he is a strong faceoff man and a wily vet looking to make a comeback. The help they provide won't be measured in points but in preventing other teams from scoring. If they are no fun to play against then they have done their job. Waiting in the wings and on the wing will be Darcy Hordichuk.
Let's not forget Ryan Jones, who most likely would be alongside Smyth and Horcoff, if he wasn't recovering from an eye injury.
Ralph Kreuger joked that he had eight months to come up with the lines for his first practice. The new head coach probably only needed eight minutes. The Oilers have the fire power and the man power to be a great offensive team. Their first chance to show it comes Sunday in the season opener against Vancouver.
Author: Gene Prinicipe