The Myth of Third Line Center

This wee little picture is Robert Lang in a Washington Capital jersey. I have always liked the guy, mainly since when I was a kid my favorite eastern conference team was the Caps: they had cool uniforms and I could get decent tickets when they came to Edmonton(since no one else wanted to go). This lasted until my Dad found out and made me watch old Guy Lafleur games: which I thank him for in retrospect. But still, I have always had a little place in my heart for them, so I have ended up liking Lang.

I have found myself in a lot of blog-o-sphere debates about the ideas of lines; whether the ideas that I grew up with (1st line, 2nd line, checking line, and mucking line) is still an appropriate way of understanding hockey anymore. Since the lockout, we have seen more Power vs. Power (1st line vs. 1st line) replacing the traditional 1st line vs. Checking line. As well as an emphasis on pairs of forwards and a shuffling of the third player: for example the never ending round-about with Horcoff and Hemsky. This has made me question the value of the traditional definition of a third line center.

Editor's Note: For the record, I am a strong believer in the checking line center, still, regardless of it is common practice in the NHL. I like having a defensive stalwart in the middle; to take draws on the PK, help shelter younger developing players, and reduce the amount of work given to the first line center playing Power vs. Power. This even goes to the point in the summer of 2005, I was arguing with my little brother who was a better pick up Pronger or Peca, and I went with Peca: have loved him since he played in Buffalo, plus trading York is better the trading Brewer.

Well if we are going to give up (or at least modify) our definition of the '3rd Line Center', what do we need to make that definition. First we need at least four centers on a team, and most likely another player that can play center but is on the wing- to have an actual NHLer take over one of the center's duties in case of injury. Yesterday, over at Lowetide, I claimed that a team (either playing a traditional line structure or a post-lockout line structure) still needs a defensive center. In the post-lockout line up, a team needs on two-way center that can play Power vs. Power; another center that is offensively minded to play on the 2nd line or against the weaker competition, this player would likely be younger and developing but not necessarily; a defensive center to work on the PK, shelter the '2nd line' center, and provide defense at even strength (lets call this the '3rd line' center); a center that could play offense or defense in a pinch, but not as their calling card, or a 'fourth line' center; and, lastly, a player that could play center but is on the wing.

What the Oilers have: Horcoff- the Power vs. Power center, and I am not going to argue with anyone about this. Gagner- a offensive minded center that should develop into a two-way player, based on his age and his increasing responsibilities. Cogliano- an offensive minded center, who is still developing but is not the best defensive player right now and can't win a faceoff to save his mother's life. Pouliot- a former first round pick (so skilled as a two way player), but has not historically proven to be a defensive reliability. Brule- an engima, could fit as a mucking center, but has/had some offensive ability, with some experience as an NHL 'fourth line' center. Lets put them into the categories I set up in the preceeding paragraph (I am not limiting a player to one category, but where they could play based on history and my opinion):
Power vs Power / 1st Line: Horcoff
Offense against weak opposition / 2nd line: Gagner. Cogliano
Defensive Stalward / 3rd Line : Horcoff
Stop gap on Offensive or Defense / 4th Line: Brule, Pouliot
Possible, or Back-up, Center / Winger: Cogliano, Brule
Thoughts, Explanations and Observations: We have a lot of young(er) offensive minded centers, that will provide depth to the offensive side of the game; as I could see either Pouliot or Brule stepping up to play a little more offensive role if injury forced them too. We have good depth on the back-up Center position, since Cogliano's and Brule's skill sets should allow them to be effective on the wing (I did not include Poo in this category since he excels as a natural center). The only two categories where the Oilers do not have depth is the ones that Horcoff can play: 1st/3rd line, or the tough minute lines. Actually we have less then depth, since Horcoff cannot play two roles as one player on one team. This is a problem, which most of OilDiaspora has noticed, and needs to be fixed before training camp. Some people do not think this player has to be a veteran and could be filled by Pouliot, but I don't especially considering the ages of the other Centers on the Oilers

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So this brings me back to Robert Lang, Most bloggers, including me, have been calling for a Manny Malhotra, or a Blair Betts to fulfill this defensive stalward center position. Since both of them can play against the toughest compition and are decent to good on the PK. But given the idea that Quinn may run 3 or 4 scoring lines and my rethinking the traditional checking center, has lead me to the position that the potential defensive starward should be a balance veteran that has experience playing at both ends of the rink (and if possible with Stanely Cup experience: I know others don't think winning this bobble is important, I do especially with the lack of playoff experience the Oil have down the middle).

Robert Lang is my new man: he has traditional played a offensive role, but in Detroit and Montreal he was relied upon to play a more defensive role, and has a shinny ring from his time in a Wing's uniform. On the down side, he is getting old and coming off a serious achilles tendon injury and he made 4 million last year. While that contract is far too much for the Oilers to afford, this season has seen a lot less money being thrown around. I wonder if Lang would take a one year 2 million dollar contract? If he would we should sign him now. I'd even throw in a limited NTC (no AHL and he picks 10 teams we can't trade him to) so he is not worried about being demoted and could 'pick' the team that we may trade him to at the deadline. Lets look at his stats last year (for team rankings I only use centers that played over 50 games, and interesting ones I have high-lighted in Red):

Defense
TOI/G: 16:52
QualComp: 0.05 (the toughest minutes on Montreal)
QualTeam: 0.06 (tied for second best teammates with Koivu)
Corsi: -2.5 (the best of all centers on Montreal)*
GAON/60: 2.62 (third on the team)
+/- : +3 (second best on Montreal)
* I don't know how to figure out ZoneShift or Zone Start, so many folks will think the Corsi number is out of context.
Well, I think this shows that Lang is above average defensively, but not a superstar in his own zone. While he is facing the toughest competition, he is doing it with decent linemates. His GAON/60 is also higher then any Oiler Center (playing in over 50 games), and his Corsi is behind Gagner and Horcoff. Still I like the underlying numbers to say he could handle the 'tough' opposition.

Offense
Goal: 18
Assists: 21
PTS/60: 1.85 (second highest on Montreal)
GFON/60: 2.94 (tied, with Koivu, for the best on the team)
Over all, for a player with a shorten season (50 games) 18 goals is pretty fuck'n good. that kind of production would definitely help the Oilers, but goals are not the only problem with this club. Lang only had 0.78 Points per game, but a very repsectable 1.85 PTS/60: from the Oilers, only Hemsky had a better PTS/60 then Lang. He is out scoring the opposition when he is on the ice: as that his GFON/60 is 0.32 higher then his GAON/60.

Penalties
Penalties Taken /60: 1.3 (worst on Montreal)
Penalties Draw /60: 0.7 (worst on Montreal)
AP/GP: 0 (which is predictable)
LP/GP: 0.36 (which is terrible!!)
He is not aggressive, but has a tendency to take penalties. Worst, is that he does not get under people's skin and doesn't draw that many.

Special Teams
PP TOI/G: 3:17 (Second highest on Montreal)
SH TOI/G: 1:57 (Third highest on Montreal)
PP Goals: 8 (highest on Montreal)
Can play both special teams, which would be good for the Oilers, since it was on of their biggest problems last year. He take up some minutes on the second unit PK, but him and Horcoff would not be a total solution one of the young kids will have to step up with over a minute of PK time as well. He would easily be an option, for Quinn, on the second PP team which could keep the pressure on the PP to keep up productivity or Lang will have your spot.

Other (Important) Random Stats
Faceoff %: 48.8% (worst on Montreal)
# of Faceoffs: 768 (lowest on Montreal, did play fewer games then comparisons)
Shots: 101 (2nd worst on Montreal, he did play less then every other Center he is compared to)
Shooting %: 17.8% (highest on Montreal)
Hits: 17 (worst on Montreal)
Well he is not the Faceoff ace we are hoping for, but he does have a better % then most Oiler centermen. He doesn't hit, so that does not bold well for him. His shooting % is amazing, and he does add another shot first mentality to the Oilers (Patty'O being the other one).

Well it is really a mixed report on Lang. Positives: he can help the Oilers' special teams (both of them); he is a shooter; he can play the tough minutes; he can put points up; he is both a plus player and has a plus Goals for minus Goals against per 60 minutes (I can never remember what that is called). Negatives: he takes too many penalties; he is not that aggressive, i.e. AP or hits; his face off are average a best. He could play either an offensive role or an defensive role for the Oilers (but would be best suited for an offensive role with significant defensive responsibilities) .
If the Oilers are looking for a 3rd line checker, then Lang is not their man. If the Oilers are looking to run three scoring lines, than Lang is a good bet to be able to carry a '3rd' line offensively while playing some of toughest opposition and come out on the plus side of the defensive ledger. Also Lang has the ability to play in any situation on the top three lines: including Power vs. Power line (based on his QualComp, Pts/60, and GFON/60 minus GAON/60), allowing Horcoff to be used in a more defensive role or in case of a Horcoff's injury. As well, Lang can play reasonable minutes on every aspect of special teams: this is where the Oilers need an upgrade and I think Lang gives them another piece of the puzzle to play with.

Line Combo Ideas ???
Penner-Horcoff-Hemsky
Cogliano-Gagner-Patty'O
Nilsson-Lang-Pisani
Moreau-Pouliot-Zorg
PB: SMac and JFJ/Brule
This looks like a more balanced line-up then most crazy ideas being floated around, IMO. It plays to a fast, skilled puck possession team the Oilers are trying to make themselves. It keeps the big line together, and evenly distributes passers and scores between '2' and '3': Patty'O and Lang are the shooters, while Nilsson and Gagner are the set up men. Plus I would think the '3rd line' is very defensively responsible, with Pisani and Lang on it, and if Quinn can make Nilsson back check then it might really be a defensive line.

*Next week I'll return with the Philosophy and Defenseman series, next up Wittgenstein*