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Tencer's Blog: Depth Chart

Friday, 30.09.2011 / 12:24 PM / Blogs
By Dan Tencer
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Tencer\'s Blog: Depth Chart
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC)
I'll admit it. I'm as guilty as anyone at being sucked in by the hype machine surrounding Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of the young, skilled talent at this Oilers training camp. I don't think I have to apologize for it, because how can you not be sucked in? RNH has 6 points in 4 games, Taylor Hall has had no trouble getting his snipe on and Jordan Eberle looks as slick with the puck as ever. Throw in the Tre Kronor line of Paajarvi, Omark and Lander and it's bordering on an Olympic sized pool of skill depth.

But, with all the focus on the top lines and top skill on the team, it's easy to lose some of the other key stories of training camp. Winning games in the NHL requires that skill that we speak of, but it also requires players lower down in the lineup to effectively execute their defined roles. Face off guy. Tough guy. Penalty killer. Shut down defenceman. Shot blocker. It's true that a hockey team won't win without excellent performances from their top stars, but I think it can be equally said of the role players on the team. So, with that in mind, I've put together a line combination of guys who might have flown under the radar a bit so far, that we should be paying more attention to:

Darcy Hordichuk - Eric Belanger - Ryan Keller

Andy Sutton - Taylor Fedun

Nikolai Khabibulin

Nikolai Khabibulin (photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC)
Let's go backwards here, from the goal line out. With all of the news surrounding Nikolai Khabibulin over the last year, with all of the disappointment of his first two years as an Oiler, you might think I'm crazy for putting him in a category of "under the radar". The reason he's there is that, honestly, I don't think I gave him much of a chance to perform the way that he has so far in training camp and the pre-season. After the way last year went, my pencil was spending all of its time trying to write in starts for Devan Dubnyk. I figured Khabibulin might be able to come back and play OK, but he's posted two outstanding starts for the club so far. A bounceback season isn't made of a couple solid pre-season outings, but consider my eyes opened. Before camp, I wasn't ready to accept even the possibility that Nikolai Khabibulin could come in and be a big positive for the club this year. I am now.

On the back end, we've got a veteran NHL'er and a raw rookie to examine. Andy Sutton's training camp got started a few days late after his wife gave birth to their first daughter, but he's gotten a couple of pre-season games under his belt, and I like what I see. Sutton is an imposing presence on the ice and he gets around his own zone quicker than I had anticipated. His strengths are very obviously body contact and shot blocking, but I think his game is rounded enough to consider him a big upgrade on the 5/6/7 situation for the Oilers last year. Kurtis Foster struggled to define a role for himself, and found himself a healthy scratch a few different times. Jason Strudwick, the best teammate on the planet, had a limited ability to play more than a certain number of minutes or games. Andy Sutton looks to be a player who can put in some nice minutes on a very regular basis, and that's a major upgrade at the depth defense position.

On the other side of the pairing we have Princeton University graduate Taylor Fedun, who might fairly be able to boast the highest IQ on the team. More importantly to his NHL journey, though, is is Hockey IQ and he's demonstrated well in that area, too. An Edmonton native and former AJHL player, Fedun has showcased quick and correct decision making abilities in combination with a skill set that includes excellent puck movement. We've seen him utilized 5-on-5 as well as both special teams, and I'm not sure I can recall more than one glaring mistake in any of the pre-season games he has played. He has been, for me, one of the most pleasant surprises of camp in terms of a guy who wasn't really on my radar coming in. When undrafted signings happen, most of the time it's easy for them to fall through the NHL cracks and toil away in the ECHL or AHL. With Fedun, I think they've found a young man that will play very well in the AHL and has a very real chance of turning that into an NHL shot down the road.

Eric Belanger (photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC)
Up front, Eric Belanger was the biggest catch for the Oilers on July 1st. Belanger is here first and foremost for his face off skills, but his offensive ability has also been obvious so far. The centerman has had 13 or more goals and 35 or more points every season since the lockout, and should be a nice fit with the skilled wingers he'll inevitably have, assuming he centers the third line. He is off to a quick start in the dot, going 71% and 58% in his last couple games and it's pretty easy to see in practices and game situations alike that he has an excellent wrist shot and passes the puck very well. Again, with the depth on wing, the ability to hang with skill players is a must if you're going to play inside the Oilers top nine, and he can. In terms of the work in the dot, here's hoping he can work with the younger players to improve that stat across the board. In the mean time, taking some of the workload off of Shawn Horcoff (on the penalty kill as well) should free the captain up to focus a little bit more on point production with one of the top two lines.

Darcy Hordichuk was another July 1st grab by the Oilers in free agency, here for his hands, but not in the conventional sense. He's going to fight ten to fifteen times a year, on average, and will take on the heaviest of heavyweights, despite giving up size and reach (think back to the bout with Matt Kassian on the opening night of pre-season). What's more impressive to me, and more important for the team, is Hordichuk's ability to instigate physical confrontations. I'm not talking about fights here, I'm talking about throwing bodychecks. Last year, the Oilers toughness was almost completely reactive. They generally had an adequate response when someone initiated conflict with one of their players, but it almost never went the other way. With a player like Hordichuk (and others like Eager, Sutton and Peckham) in the lineup, I think we can expect the pot to be stirred a little bit by the club this year instead of reacting when it happens to them.

Last, but certainly not least, is veteran AHL forward Ryan Keller. It's worth noting that with 32 players left in camp, Keller hasn't been designated for assignment to Oklahoma City yet. With minimal NHL experience (6 games with Ottawa a couple of seasons ago) the conventional wisodm had Keller's signing pegged as a move to replace the goals on the farm that were vacated when the team opted not to resign Alex Giroux. However, Tom Renney has obviously liked what he's seen from this player, and is trying to get to know him as well as possible so that if he doesn't crack the opening night roster, he's got a handle on what exactly Keller brings as a call up. From what I've seen, Keller is a big upgrade on Giroux. Maybe not as natural a scorer, though he does do that well, Keller skates better and can play both special teams. He was a clutch playoff performer for the Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators last year, posting 25 points in the playoffs and scoring the Cup clinching goal. He doesn't have tremendous size, but does seem to think the game very well, and I think he'll be a face that we could very easily see get some NHL action for the Oilers sooner or later as a reserve winger.


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