The Edmonton Oilers' new practice lines

Jonathan Willis
March 16 2013 01:16PM

The Edmonton Oilers shuffled their lines in practice today, including Eric Belanger - a player close to returning but not quite there yet.

By the look of things, Teemu Hartikainen will be on the outside looking in, which probably means he can expect a brief AHL stint when the Oilers eventually bring Belanger off the injured reserve list.

Lines are courtesy of the Oilers' official Twitter feed:

  • Taylor Hall - Shawn Horcoff - Ryan Jones
  • Ryan Smyth - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
  • Magnus Paajarvi - Sam Gagner - Nail Yakupov
  • Mike Brown - Eric Belanger - Lennart Petrell
  • Teemu Hartikainen

Ales Hemsky is absent from the skate.

In practice, this likely means that the very successful top unit of Hall, Horcoff and Hemsky remains intact, which I think is a good thing. The unit is doing a good job of playing a power-vs.-power role and it's really the best spot on the roster for Horcoff - he complements Hemsky and Hall well and talented wingers keeps his line from becoming the place where offence goes to die.

I like Smyth on the second line. We've heard a lot about Smyth's decline this year, and while his foot-speed isn't where it could be he's still a player. Michael Parkatti did some solid work with adjusted Corsi (plus/minus of shots, missed shots and blocked shots, weighted for quality of opposition and which zone a player starts in) a few days ago - looking at Smyth's numbers he's been solid and this isn't accounting for the fact that he's spent big chunks of the season playing centre where he's been far less effective than he is on the wing. Ideally, he's not on an NHL team's second line but given what the Oilers have to work with he's a pretty decent option and one I find hard to criticize.

That third line has killed it of late, and was actually the second line against Detroit, matching up primarily against Datsyuk in the Oilers' last game. Magnus Paajarvi and Nail Yakupov are both excellent young players but the Oilers have had trouble finding a fit for them - they're clicking now so keeping them together makes sense to me.

The last line is where things get interesting. Eric Belanger is probably the least popular player on the team with the fanbase, but having him at centre on that fourth line is an upgrade on Smyth. Does Hartikainen deserve to be in the lineup over Mike Brown or Lennart Petrell? Arguably, but he also doesn't need to clear waivers to go to the minors and he hasn't played so well that a trip to Oklahoma is out of the question. With the trade deadline coming up, it seems probable the Oilers will be moving some bodies out, in which case it would be a temporary 'get some playing time' situation. I would also suggest that if the fourth line gets used primarily as a defensive zone unit - which, given personnel, they should - the coaches will feel more comfortable with Brown, Petrell or Jones than they would with Hartikainen.

For now, though, it's a matter of waiting for Belanger to get up to 100%, and there's always the possibility that something else happens before he's ready to return to action. In the meantime, the best guess would seem to be that Smyth goes back to the fourth line and Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins get another look with Ryan Jones.

Recently around the Nation Network

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.