Edmonton Oilers Ales Hemsky takes New York Rangers Danny Kristo into the boards during NHL pre-season action at Rexall Place in Edmonton, September 24, 2013.
Photograph by: Ed Kaiser, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - Training camp is all about opportunity and fresh starts, a dynamic the Oilers’ current top line exemplifies in every way.
Taylor Hall, the top left winger on the club — some would say in the NHL last season — is giving centre a try, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins unavailable until November while he rehabs his surgically repaired left shoulder.
Ryan Smyth, whose sterling career as a corner man, leader and effective presence on the lip of the crease appeared to be slowing to bittersweet crawl the last season and a half, is on Hall’s left side, a rejuvenated first-line winger at 37 years of age.
Smyth had just two goals in the truncated 48-game 2012-13 season and logged minimal power play time. The last two seasons, Smyth described his ice time as being about “different minutes,” many of those spent in a more defensive role, often on the third line.
To Hall’s right skates Ales Hemsky, he of the silky smooth stride and magical moves, who was on the trading block during the off-season. At least, he was until Oilers GM Craig MacTavish announced a week before training camp that Hemsky, a 11-year veteran, was off the market, once again an Oilers in good standing.
The whispers were that Hemsky was off the market because he was an unwanted commodity around the league, so far had his star slid in recent years, many of them pockmarked with injuries.
And how has the trio been handling their new-old roles so far?
On Tuesday, head coach Dallas Eakins declared it the best line in training camp so far.
“All three of those guys have played extremely well for me,” Eakins said.
As for those wondering whether Smyth might slide down to the second or third line so young Nail Yakupov could be installed on the first line, you can forget that, at least for now.
“I get that question a lot about Smytty and I just don’t understand it,” Eakins said. “I’m certainly not going to push down a guy who’s had a great training camp.”
Smyth is grateful he had a clean slate available to him from Eakins this training camp.
“Obviously, he’s given me an opportunity to play with some very highly skilled guys,” Smyth said. “I’ve played with Hemmer (Hemsky) before, so I’ve got a good sense of where he is on the ice.
“I haven’t played a whole lot with Hallsy (Hall), maybe a few games here and there. It’s sure nice. We’ve been buzzing and we just want to continue that. Hopefully, it lasts.”
True to form, the line put the Oilers on the scoresheet in the first period Tuesday night after Marc Staal had staked the New York Rangers to a 1-0 lead with a beauty of a wrist shot from the point at 7:42.
A little more than five minutes later, Hemsky dug the puck out to the point to defenceman Justin Schultz, whose hard pass hit the tape of Hall’s stick, deflecting it past Martin Biron in the Rangers net.
The whole time, Smyth was in his office on the front edge of the crease, distracting the goalie. It was a textbook sort of goal for the line, each man playing his role to perfection, an excellent illustration of what Eakins was talking about.
“I’ve liked that line, think it’s been our best line in training camp,” Eakins said. “You have Taylor and Hemsky, who have great speed, which covers Smytty off a little bit.
“I’m not sure there’s a better guy on our team on the wall than Smyth, so he’s able to get pucks out. And there may not be a better guy on our team who’s willing to go the net, so Hall and Hemsky can do a lot of the cycle game.”
Skill sets that mesh well, in other words, at least so far. Of course, Eakins has plenty of options, with off-season acquisition David Perron, who scored a pair Tuesday night, Yakupov, Eberle and — when they’re healthy — Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner, out for two months with a broken jaw.
“This isn’t about top six and bottom six (forwards),” Eakins said. “I’d rather take the top six and put them vertical and have basically three lines (so) that the other team goes, ‘Which one am I going to check tonight?’ ”
On Tuesday night, Eakins had Hall, Smyth and Hemsky on one unit, with Mark Arcobello between Perron and Eberle, both making things happen.
Perron scored twice, giving him five for the pre-season and six points. A goal and two assists lifted Eberle to a team-leading eight points for the pre-season.
Oh, and Smyth picked up an assist on Ben Eager’s first goal of the pre-season while the Oilers were on the penalty kill at 11:51 of the second period.
The Oilers now are 5-1-1 in the pre-season, including four straight victories, which Smyth suggested is more meaningful than many would suppose.
“People may not say it means a lot, but to us I think it does,” Smyth said. “With all the changes that has gone on, with the (new) coaches and the player movement that has happened in this locker-room, you want to establish yourself with this coach and with each other.
“We’re not a young team anymore, we’re a team that has experience and we’ve got some talent. It’s a matter of putting the product on the ice and so far we’re delivering.”
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