2008-09-22

MacOmelette



And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game
-- Buffy Sainte-Marie "The Circle Game"



Any team featuring Craig MacTavish never had any worries about its third-line centre. Until now.

The early word from training camp is that Coach MacT has looked at his roster and found an intergalactic void where the third-line centre used to be. No Jarret Stoll, no Marty Reasoner, no veteran centre to replace either of them, and a bunch of kids with known weaknesses extending down (and up) the depth chart. A prototypical 3C throughout his own accomplished career, MacT seemingly puts more value in the “veteran” part of the equation than worrying about having an actual “centre” play the position. He has indicated he might employ his most reliable veteran, Fernando Pisani, in the role.

Now unlike the Ryan Smyth Experiment of a few years ago (a.k.a. the Ryan Smyth Disaster), I don’t doubt for a second that Fernando will respond favourably to the challenge, and become an instantly-competent and eventually-excellent performer in a shutdown C role. He’s an intelligent, well-rounded, and versatile player, the kind of guy who would be first in line to play defence if the bench got too short in a given game situation. So he has to learn faceoffs? I’d put money on his achieving at least 50% in his first season playing the Circle Game. He just needs to put his mind, his terrific work ethic, and MacT’s coaching skills into gear and he is on his way already.

My concern comes from the trickledown effect, as the line-up logic cascades from there:

***
Q. Who replaces Pisani as our primo defensive winger?

A. Ethan Moreau. Ethan’s an experienced 3LW who hasn’t made it through the last two Octobers. Surely he won’t be so unlucky a third time.

Q. Wait a minute, that solves the problem on LW, but Fernando is moving over from the starboard side. How do we plug that hole?

A. Just because he hasn’t played a down at RW in his entire career is no reason why Dustin Penner can’t make the switch. A winger’s a winger, no? (Unless he’s a centre.)

Q. But … but … wouldn’t it make more sense for our two savviest vets to protect some of the kids in the line-up rather than each other? A stint with Fernando was a key stage of the season for kids like Gagner, Nilsson, and Brodziak last year.

A. Well, we need to get our best checkers out there on the 3 line, and give them all the tough minutes they can soak up.

Q. But wouldn’t Moreau be a perfect fit in GlenX’s old spot with Brodziak and Stortini? He’s a natural portsider who plays the same sort of grinding game that the big youngsters displayed effectively down the stretch. Might even be an upgrade on GlenX, who was terrific in his brief run wearing the oil drop. Wouldn’t it make sense to give Moreau reduced but high tempo ice time 5v5, and continue to rely on him on the 1PK unit?

A: We can’t afford that luxury.

Q. So who do we wind up putting on the left wing with those two kids?

A. Another kid, one who doesn’t normally play the wing. If it’s Pouliot or Brule, one whose previous experience on the flank has been on their natural, right side.

Q. Brodziak and Stortini played well last year, but are they strong enough to carry a third youngster who’s learning his way in a new (out-of-) position?

A. Meh. We’ll adjust on the fly, shorten the bench, play the three-line game.

Q. Will this help in the development of Poo/Broo/Potty/Sugartits? Especially if two or more of them shuttle in and out of the line-up?

A. It didn’t hurt Horcoff’s development did it? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
***

What would kill us is another lost October. It would seem that MacT sees the Pisani Sandwich as the best insurance policy against that happening again.

Here is one variation of the Pisani-centred line-up:

1. Cole – Horcoff – Hemsky
2. Nilsson – Cogliano – Gagner
3. Moreau – Pisani – Penner
4. Pouliot? – Brodziak – Stortini

Looked at another way:

1. RW – C – RW
2. LW – C – C
3. LW – RW – LW
4. C – C – RW

… meaning no fewer than 5 guys playing something other than their preferred position. Replace Pouliot on 4LW with Brule, Schremp, Potulny, doesn’t matter … they’re all centres. At least, they were.

Time on the wing is part of the apprenticeship for many NHL centres – as I recall MacT himself played a fair bit of LW in Boston – but for a guy like Marc Pouliot it hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success. Last season Pouliot had an early-season run at 4RW, which was an unmitigated disaster, 9 GP, 0-0-0, -7. After a four-month stint in Springfield, he was both recalled and inserted at his natural position of centre, where he responded with a fine stretch run, 15 GP, 1-6-7, +6.

To realize its potential with the current cast of characters, the team really needs one of those young centres to step up and seize the 3C role. Ideally that would be Pouliot who has proven to be competent defensively, at least when playing his natural position. Surround him with Pisani and Penner on the “P3 Line” (doesn’t get much more Albertan than that), or Pisani and Cole. If Pouliot struggles, give Brule a shot in the same spot, but let him play his natural position. Or move Brodziak up and give Brule or Schremp or Potulny or one of the other young centres a shot playing Centre on the fourth line.

Of course it’s all well and good to sit on the sideline and ponder “wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually put a round peg in a round hole?” Fact is MacT can’t afford to have the club bleed out in October again while some youngster is in over his head against the tough comp. He’s got to start playing to win (or at least, for the tie :), right from Game 1. Until then, though, he can experiment all he likes with Pisani at centre, but at the same time those young guys will get some ice in the preseason as well, both down the middle and on the flank. Hell, maybe some of those young guys can learn a thing or two simply by watching how the consummate professional Pisani responds to the challenge of learning their position, even as he challenges them for ice time.

I’m guessing MacT’s first choice would be to keep it a preseason experiment to broaden his options later in the season, while motivating the Pouliots of the team to not take anything for granted. But wouldn’t it be great if one of them just seizes the reins and doesn’t let go? It’s the biggest “If” of the new season.

14 comments:

Sean said...

Has Fernando played C in AHL or college? If not, I doubt he can be nearly as effective at C as he is on RW. Then the result is your half plugging one hole and creating a new one (3RW).

If they decide Brodziak and Pouliot aren't enough then trade someone for Rob Neidermayer. There are a couple questions I thought of that dont really have concrete answers.

Q: If Brodziak is a year away, do we really care?

A: I dunno. Realistically the Oilers are a year away too.

Q: As a result, if Brodziak is a year away, how much is he going to cost us this year?

A: The difference in 2 points could be huge (division title vs 8th place).

My thoughts are that I think (at this point in time) that Brodziak can make the jump and that MacT is as you say "broadening his options later in the season". There should definitely be some good backup plans in place

Badger said...

Do the out of town experts know something us locals don't? They
think Cogliano is going to be the
Number 1 centre and that Potulny is
hot stuff. Th Kid Line is sacrosanct
with the fans but I wonder if keeping
them together creates too much
square holing into round pegs
elsewhere. Does Nilsson-Gagner-Penner
sound doable?

Badger

doritogrande said...

"He’s an intelligent, well-rounded, and versatile player, the kind of guy who would be first in line to play defence if the bench got too short in a given game situation."

Pisani isn't this man. The person you're looking for is none other than the assistant captain of the Edmontoby Petersoilers.

LW(PEN)-C(HOR)-RW(HEM)
LW(NIL)-C(COG)-C(GAG)
LW(MOR)-RW(PIS)-RW(COL)
C(BRO)-C(POU)-RW(STO)

Reason I'm putting Pouliot on the 4C spot is because he did such a piss-poor job at wing last year. One would only think that Brodziak would suck much less at the assignment. I've only 3 spots out of place and think the displacement looks much better. The 3-line can most certainly handle the toughest opposition, leaving the 1-line to make hay with the 2nd toughs (the Bouchards, Wolskis, Cammalleris and Keslers of the NW).

Bruce said...

The Kid Line is sacrosanct
with the fans but I wonder if keeping them together creates too much square holing into round pegs
elsewhere. Does Nilsson-Gagner-Penner sound doable?


Welcome, Badger! The Kid Line seems pretty sacrosanct to this fan, at least at this time. They were developing some awesome chemistry late last season, with Gagner and Nilsson sending seeing-eye goal mouth passes to an ever-sprinting Cogliano. As I commented (somewhere) at the end of last season, I would give them at least 20 games to see if they continue to click and can be at least OK enough defensively to hold their own against, and hopefully to outscore, soft opposition. If they can, we got enough pieces on the Horcoff and Pisani lines to play the tougher opposing lines.

If things don't work out, I don't mind the idea of sliding Gagner into the middle between Nilsson and Cole, who could theoretically replace Cogliano's speed and finish while bringing much-needed size, experience and defensive prowess into the mix. That would free up Cogliano into truly being The Next Todd Marchant while sliding Pisani back into his natural wing position.

Reason I'm putting Pouliot on the 4C spot is because he did such a piss-poor job at wing last year. One would only think that Brodziak would suck much less at the assignment.

DG: Yeah, I agree with you entirely. The only guy whose name is written in Pen at the centre position is Horcoff. All the young guys have to be prepared to play wherever Coach tells them. So yes of course, Brodziak's name should be included along with Cogliano's as guys who could be called upon to play the wing. Gagner is already assumed to have made the switch, although he will likely switch back at some point as suggested above.

Brodz too played some wing early last year on the checking line, albeit RW not LW. He struggled at times, but with Pisani and Moreau both out MacT's options were limited and Brodziak certainly grew from the experience. From everything I've seen to date, Pouliot must play centre to help this team.

I've only 3 spots out of place and think the displacement looks much better.

Yeah, the Penner for Cole switch seems like a natural. 27-10-83 were an excellent line in December-January, and from what I've seen of him Erik Cole would do alright on a "checking" line. Always nice to have some bite on the counter attack, and Cole's speed is probably of more value here than Penner's offensive zone presence. Whereas the latter is invaluable on a line where Hemsky is going to do the heavy lifting carrying the puck.

So here's my idealized line-up:

Penner - Horcoff - Hemsky
Nilsson - Cogliano - Gagner
Cole - Pouliot - Pisani
Moreau - Brodziak - Stortini


... which leaves much of last year's chemistry in place while "revisioning" the third line. If Poo can't rise to the challenge playing between Cole and Pisani, well what else do we need to know about him?

Jonathan said...

I like your lineup Bruce, and tend to agree with it, but this is what I think MacTavish is going to start with:

Cole - Horcoff - Hemsky
Cogliano - Gagner - Nilsson
Moreau - Pisani - Penner
Schremp - Pouliot - Brodziak
Stortini

I really believe Gagner gets the start up the middle this season; his development is still (as Vic reminds us) the first priority on this team.

Bruce said...

My thoughts are that I think (at this point in time) that Brodziak can make the jump and that MacT is as you say "broadening his options later in the season". There should definitely be some good backup plans in place

Sean: MacT may well be working on an end-game strategy as opposed to a full-time line. Let's say he wound up icing my idealized (starting) line-up immediately above, it's easy to envision the team shortening the bench to protect a one-goal lead in the third. If the Pisani experiment is successful, that might allow MacT to bring up Moreau to form his optimum checking line while gonging some of his less-experienced options. Also, if Pisani shows aptitude in the faceoff circle (8 of 17 in his first game last night, not bad) that is a specific skill that might be useful at any time, especially if he's flanking a RH shoooting centre like Poo, Broo or Brodz.

One thing we know for sure is Fernando could play the entire pre-season on the Moon and it would take him about half a shift to regain his bearings on the wing. As such, it's kind of a no-lose experiment.

Bruce said...

I really believe Gagner gets the start up the middle this season; his development is still (as Vic reminds us) the first priority on this team.

Jonathan: While I don't disagree with you (or even Vic!) re: the priority, I think the timing of the move is yet to be determined. The first priority in my eyes is to unleash Gagner in the offensive zone, and if the way to do that is by continuing to ease up his defensive responsibilities, so be it. As soon as he does move into the centre to stay -- as I am certain he will -- he merely displaces another young centre (Cogs in your example). In the current alignment Sam is part of the solution of the overpopulation problem.

Your suggested rotation of the Kid Line, with all three switching position, is (almost *) a novel idea. I have no doubt they're capable of it, in fact they already pretty much do that sort of thing all over the offensive zone. That fluidity should remain no matter where Gagner actually lines up.

* The Oilers once had a line that actually did this. In the mid-80s this checking line:
Krushelnyski-McClelland-Lindstrom
... became this checking line:
Lindstrom-Krushelnyski-McClelland.
McClelland hurt his thumb or something, so Sather shifted him off the dot out to his natural right wing, rotated the new centre in from the other wing, and flipped the true winger. They didn't miss a beat: versatility is a wonderful thing.

Stylistically, however, the Kid Line much more resembles another threesome of that same era, namely the short-lived but sublime trio of Mark Messier, Glenn Andersson, and Kent Nilsson. In their case, Messier and Anderson both started their career on the LW, but it was the guy who made his name as a centre who wound up playing on the port side on that 1987 Stanley Cup champion. Yeah, him, Row-bert's dad.

Thing was, in the offensive zone it didn't really matter who played what position, any of them could be anywhere at any time, cycling the puck on a string with crisp, mostly short passes. MacT won his first Cup on that squad, btw, and had a real good look at how the elite passing game could discombobulate defences.

Now I'm not yet claiming the kids are as good as those three superstars who made up what is probably the best "second" line I have ever seen. For one thing, there's nobody there yet with the all-ice presence of Messier. I'm talking about the offensive zone and the way the Kids move the puck and hit the holes, not what they do with their sticks the rest of the time! But their passing skills are away up there at that elite level in my view; they're certainly a sight for these sore eyes.

These guys play Oiler Hockey.

CrazyCoach said...

Hey Bruce,

Followed you here from LT's blog. Really like what you say and the stories from years past. I remember Pouzar and all he did outside of the stats sheet.

Anyway, I think you'll find that many of these kids will have an easier time adjusting to a switch from LW to RW or from W to C. The way we teach and coach these kids these days is a lot different than when I played. Gone are the days when wingers simply skated up and down the boards like they were on a rail.

Most systems today are taught with the forwards labeled as F1 F2 or F3 in all three zones. For example, when on an offensive rush, F1 will be the person carrying the puck, F2 is the second F into the O-zone, and F3 the last one to cross the blueline. F1 drives wide, F2 goes hard to the net and F3 takes the high slot. Voila, attack triangle.

When backchecking F1 takes the opposing teams third player into the Defensive zone (Or provides pressure to the puck carrier when defenders outnumber the opposition). Generally, F1 will have to play centre in their own zone, even if they are a winger.

I hope I haven't confused everyone or sound like I'm rambling on here, but the WHA Winnipeg Jets made this style popular. Glen Sather perfected it when the Oilers came to the NHL, and it is commonly known as Oilers Hockey today. Sort of a hybrid of Swedish and Soviet influences.

Bruce said...

CrazyCoach: Thanks for the X and O input. Seems logical, indeed it's easy to visualize the forwards on the backcheck doing exactly what you describe. When there is zone pressure, however, they tend to assume their assigned positions, and there's no doubt the centre has broader responsibilities than do the wingers. He's the swing man who most often plays down low.

I was going to mention the Jets above but I had already wandered far enough from the present when discussing Messier-Anderson-Nilsson. You're right of course, Sather played and coached against the Jets in the last years of the WHA, and had his eyes opened by the spectacular line of Ulf (No Relation) Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, and Bobby Hull, who dominated in the offensive zone by abandoning the traditional "lanes" in the offensive zone and swirling into the holes.

Another common thread is that among Bobby Hull's teammates in his last full season in 1977-78 was one Kent Nilsson, who scored 107 points in winning the Lou Kaplan Trophy as WHA Rookie of the Year. (Wayne Gretzky won it the next year.)

Given his association with the legendary Bobby Hull, I wonder if it's just a coincidence that Kenta's son is named Robert?

CrazyCoach said...

Bruce,

Yeah that is often the toughest thing teaching forwards when to switch and how to play all positions. I know it burns me when I see a parent send their 5 year old out on the ice, with every intention of them playing a set position from that moment onward. That's why you should always let the wee ones in wiener hockey play every position. It helps them develop into guys like Fernando and MacT.

Love this blog!

Bruce said...

That's why you should always let the wee ones in wiener hockey play every position.

Including goal. A range of experiences across the spectrum broadens the perspective of any developing player. As a forward it can be an advantage to know what sorts of things cause a defender problems, and vice versa. And remember that time you played net and you kept getting fooled by quick shots into your feet?

One aspect of broad-spectrum experiences which may be getting cut dangerously short in these days of specialization, is participation in other sports. Remember when "dryland training" for the hockey jocks in your acquaintance, meant lacrosse, soccer, basketball, or baseball while the ice was out? You don't suppose a little summer lacrosse hurt the visionary skills of Wayne Gretzky or Adam Oates, do you?

Love this blog!

Thanks for your words of encouragement, CrazyCoach and all you others over the past week. The best feedback I can hope for is excellent dialogue in the comments section which really advances the discussion, as has happened here. That is the whole purpose of this newborn blog. So far, so great.

CrazyCoach said...

Hey Bruce,

Specialization in sport is killing kids sports and driving kids out of sports. I get irate when I hear of kids playing hockey year round. Go out and play soccer or lacrosse or even swim for goodness sake. Do anything but play hockey.

IN one of my classes I heard of a fellow in the US who actually ranks 8 year old basketball players in a national ranking. Absolutely sickening.

spOILer said...

Hi Bruce,

Long time reader, first time caller here.

;o)

Great posts so far. Thanks for stirring up the memories. If we don't use them, we lose them.

Some pretty smart replies up above, but I hope it's okay if I chime in.

The assumptions for lines seems to be:

1. Horc and Hemmer on the first. Natch.

2. The kid line stays together.

Given these assumptions, we know that either Cole or Penner must play on the third line. We also know if a kid moves up to the third, Moreau must move down.

Is MacT moving Pisani over just to save Moreau his spot? If a kid takes the 3C job, and MacT refuses to move Moreau down, then we now have a spare 2nd liner (and a Schremp), cause either Cole or Penner will be moving up.

I have a feeling we've seen the last of Pisani on the wing, unless he really bites at centre.

I would prefer this:

PENN HORC HEMS
NILS COGL GAGN
PISA POUL COLE
MORE BROD STOR

I think if you're going to have Cole on the third line, he gets to play RW. He doesn't seem locked in at LW yet to my eye, and Pisani would have an easier time with the switch defensively than Cole.

Now the obvious weakness with this line-up is the inexperience all the way through the centre position after Horcoff. Be okay if there was two, but three is too tough to hide.

And it's not going to be all that much better next year when they're all a year older.

A fit at 3C would be cheap on the cap, and cheap on assets in a trade.

I think they're really hoping Pisani pans out. You hit it on the head Bruce, MacT would prefer to have a 2nd vet centre. I too would rather have Penner switched for Cole (he looks better on the right side), line-wise and on the PP.

(Gagner in for Horc and Hemmer on both PP squads would be my other man-up changes).

And Jonathan's last line is very interesting, nicely balanced. I don't think Stortini sits though.

Bruce said...

I would prefer this:

PENN HORC HEMS
NILS COGL GAGN
PISA POUL COLE
MORE BROD STOR


spOILer: you mean like this?

So here's my idealized line-up:

Penner - Horcoff - Hemsky
Nilsson - Cogliano - Gagner
Cole - Pouliot - Pisani
Moreau - Brodziak - Stortini


Obviously I like your line-up a lot. :D

And Jonathan's last line is very interesting, nicely balanced. I don't think Stortini sits though.


Agreed. The line-up as a whole is less balanced without Zack, who brings an element of toughness that only partially solves the team's deficit in this department. With Moreau back but Torres and Glencross gone we have mostly tread water in the grit dept. up front. Greene for Visnovsky isn't exactly a face wash either, although realistically it's Greene for Souray and Pitkanen for Vish2, an overall upgrade in talent more than toughness. So the idea of Sugartits over Storts just doesn't work for me at all. Frankly, I see nowhere for Rob Schremp on the bottom two lines.

Just for fun for all those Schremp fan(s) out there, how about this:

Schremp - Horcoff - Hemsky
Nilsson - Cogliano - Gagner
Penner - Pisani - Cole
Moreau - Brodziak - Stortini


I'd be tempted to give Robbie an X game with those guys, just for fun. He's in deep enough, give him a chance to do what he does best, which is defintely in the offensive zone. Knock 'em dead, son.