For the past four practices, including two at this week's team retreat in Jasper, the Oilers have skated with the same forward line combinations. Without saying it directly, head coach Tom Renney has given every indication that these will be the trios that open the season for the club on Sunday versus Pittsburgh.
The lines are a clear effort to balance scoring and defensive responsibility throughout the twelve attackers. Individually, here's a look at what the lines are and a few of my thoughts on why they've been assembled this way and what they can be expected to provide:
Clearly the most lethal offensive line of the group, this line features both the 2010 and 2011 first overall draft picks from the NHL Entry Draft. The only other team in the league that could roll out two first overall picks on the same forward line would be the Tampa Bay Lightning (Lecavalier & Stamkos).
It is, of course, the rookie season for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, while Taylor Hall heads into his sophomore campaign after racking up 22-20-42 in 67 games last season. Ales Hemsky, meanwhile, has played just 69 games combined in the previous two seasons, posting just shy of a point-per-game pace (64 points) in those outings.
In speaking with Taylor Hall about this line while we were in Jasper, he told me that playing with Nugent-Hopkins and Hemsky will force him to change his game a little bit. Instead of being a puck carrier on the entry to the offensive zone, Hall will leave that duty to his linemates and, instead, work on finding open space in front of the net and wait for the puck to arrive.
If he would have stayed healthy for the final seventeen games last season, I think he would have hit the 30 goal mark in his rookie campaign. Only a small handful of players in the league score upwards of 35 goals in a year, but that number is well within reach for Hall this season.
It will be interesting to see what kind of chemistry emerges between Nugent-Hopkins and Hemsky, who is known for being perhaps a bit stubborn in terms of needing the play to go through him.
On paper, centering the team's top line is a pretty exposed position for Nugent-Hopkins to start his NHL career, but matching him with two wingers capable of carrying a lot of the play is actually a nice way to insulate him a bit, I think. If the right chemistry develops with Nugent-Hopkins and Hemsky being able to trade the puck in sync, I'd expect Hemsky to adopt the role of shooter a little bit more often.
With a stat line of 18-25-43 last season, Jordan Eberle was the leading scorer for the injury ravaged Oilers in his rookie season (those numbers would have been higher, but Eberle missed 13 games with an ankle injury).
Very clearly the sniper on this line, Eberle will be counted on to have a high shot count in the hopes of either notching a goal himself or creating a rebound for the rambunctious Ryan Smyth to take care of. Smyth had an impressive 31 goals in 53 games the last time he wore an Oilers jersey in the 06-07 season and has scored 22 goals or more in each of his last 3 years.
At 35 years old, Smyth is still one of the best in the league along the boards and in front of the net, and definitely isn't here as a swan song.
Eric Belanger was signed on July 1, primarily for his abilities in the face off dot and on the penalty kill, but he's a reliable source for a certain amount of offense. The numbers each season for Belanger over the course of his career have been astonishingly consistent.
When healthy, every season he's had in the last ten years has ended with him posting between 13-17 goals and 33-40 points. He certainly has an underrated shot and ability to trade the puck with skill players and, combined with his defensive responsibilities, is in a position to impress with his numbers when put with a couple scoring linemates like Smyth and Eberle.
Though this line is listed as second from the top on my depth chart, it should be clear that the following line with Horcoff at center will be in line for identical minutes and opportunity.
This is a big season for Shawn Horcoff, who missed nearly half of last year due to injury, as he attempts to improve his point totals. Out of the lockout, Horcoff had four consecutive season of 50 or more points, including 50 points in 53 games in 2007-08.
The team's most well rounded player, Horcoff is also the team's biggest contract, and thus has the pressure of producing ink on the game sheet. With the addition of the aforementioned Belanger, it's likely that Horcoff will be spelled off from his defensive responsibilities relative to how much he's been counted on in past years.
Speaking of defensive play, head coach Tom Renney has high praise for how far Magnus Paajarvi came last season in that realm. Coming into camp as the most fit of the returning players, Paajarvi has definitely put the necessary work in to improve on his 15-19-34 rookie year.
Fellow Swede Linus Omark is an interesting contrast with the other two players on this line, as a bit of a wild card in the defensive zone. There's no arguing, though, the ability of Omark in the offensive zone, and last year his inherent chemistry with Paajarvi was on display on a number of occasions. Omark protects the puck extremely well and is fantastic at creating offense out of a seemingly broken play by threading a pass that seems impossible.
With 27 points in 51 games last year, 22 of those being assists, Omark will be hoping for Paajarvi and Horcoff to find open space around the goalmouth.
The departure of Gilbert Brule was, in large part, forced by the impressive play of Anton Lander. A 2nd round draft choice in 2009, Lander is a veteran of 4 years in the Swedish Elite League and has come over to North America to start his NHL career this season.
He's easy to compare to Shawn Horcoff in terms of his work ethic, leadership and defensive attributes. Very strong in a shut down role, Lander also showcased a better than expected offensive knack in the Young Stars Tournament and the pre-season. Absolutely a future piece of the Oilers puzzle, Lander will get a chance to start the season with the big club, though he'll have to perform right out of the gate to avoid a demotion to the AHL once Sam Gagner returns to full health.
Lennart Petrell is another new face after signing as a free agent this summer following 8 seasons in the Finnish Elite League with Helsinki. The 27-year-old was regarded as one of the top penalty killers in Europe and he will hopefully be an important addition to a special teams unit that has struggled mightily for the Oilers in recent years. At 6'3 and 210 lbs, Petrell can also play a heavy, grinding style.
Finally, it seems unlikely that Ryan Jones will match his goal total of 18 from last season, if only because his average minutes per game is likely to be reduced, at least in the absence of major injuries.
Success for Jones will likely be measured by his ability to be physical on opposing defensemen and contributing to the penalty kill, though the "junkyard dog" style of Jones and Petrell could have positive offensive results.