Much has been made over the last few days of the potential that the Edmonton Oilers could start the 2013-14 season with Taylor Hall at centre rather than his customary left wing spot.
The idea of trying Hall at centre has been thrown around a little over the last few years and was even tried briefly under Tom Renney earlier in Hall’s career. Prior to that he played one season in junior up the middle with all other experience coming in minor hockey.
The inevitable comparisons are immediately drawn to Mark Messier, who started his career with the Oilers as a winger and then was moved to the middle after four seasons.
The talk has resurfaced in training camp because of the potential that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could miss the first month of the season rehabbing from shoulder surgery. It appears that new coach Dallas Eakins will give him some time there in camp and see what happens. Even if he does start the year in the middle, it could be just until RNH comes back, but if he does excel there, it opens up a world of possibilities.
The Oilers are not what you would call deep at the position. Past Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner the cupboard is bare when it comes to centres who can put up any sort of significant production.
The Oilers also have some depth on the wing especially with the addition of David Perron to go with the complement of Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Ales Hemsky in terms of top six talent.
A recent example of moving a star winger to centre is in Dallas where the Stars moved Jamie Benn from left wing to centre. They, like the Oilers, were thin in terms of top six centres, and when No. 1 centre Brad Richards went down to injury, Benn moved over and hasn’t missed a beat. With the addition of Tyler Seguin, Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley in Dallas this season it will be interesting to see if Benn moves back to the wing.
The ultimate example, especially in Edmonton, is Messier. The Moose played his first four NHL seasons on the wing, and was an all-star in two of them, before he made the switch to centre. I think everyone knows how that move turned out. Part of the reason at that time was the Oilers needed a centre with some size and strength to go up against Bryan Trottier and match up with the mighty New York Islanders at the time. Having Messier as the No.2 centre to combat Trottier and leaving Gretzky free to wreak havoc on everyone else, is a luxury few teams have ever had.
Similarities can be made to the Oilers of 2013. If you look in the Oilers division there is Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf to name a few centres that can be physically dominant in the offensive zone. No one is saying Taylor Hall can match them pound for pound, but when you look at the alternatives, Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, he certainly stands a better chance.
Hall and Messier share a number of similar traits, most notably a fiery competitive nature, and an indomitable will to win. They even share some similarities in terms of play, but Hall has a long way to go to get into the same conversation as Messier, one of hockey’s greatest winners and leaders.
Time will tell whether Hall even starts the year in the middle and if he does whether the change will make him a better player. Hall had a breakout season, albeit a shortened one, averaging a point per game and establishing himself as one of the NHL’s top left wingers last season.
His top asset is without a doubt his speed, and he used that to great effect last season, blasting down the wing and beating defensemen out of the zone. With the move to the middle, it will mean more defensive responsibility and the fact that he will have to use the whole rink, specifically coming back deep in his defensive zone.
Always up for a challenge, it doesn’t appear as though Hall will back down from this one, and at least he is getting the reps in training camp and pre-season games rather than being thrown to the wolves mid-season.
“It feels good,” said Hall. “It’s a lot different accepting passes in the middle of the ice and not having the boards to my left. But I am excited about it. It’s a great time to make that switch, I don’t think there’s a better time in the year than training camp to get really used to a position that you’re not totally comfortable playing.”
At this point his style of game is better suited to the wing, however that doesn’t mean he can’t pick up the new position and excel at it, it will just take a lot of work and practice. The interesting part won’t be whether he starts the year there, but whether he has impressed enough to stay there once Nugent-Hopkins returns to the lineup.
The other wrinkle is that Hall is trying to make Canada’s final roster for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi – as a winger. The team has an overabundance of centres and Hall would certainly be vying for a spot on the wing. It’s hard to imagine a move to centre would affect his chances to play wing in Sochi, but you just never know.
Arguments can be made for both and Hall has the skill set and talent to play both positions well, and on October 1 we’ll all get our answer.
Taylor Hall is not Mark Messier, nor will he ever be, but he is an up and coming star just as Messier was at that point in his career. If he takes on even some of the more valuable traits Messier provided for the Oilers in his Edmonton days, the current version of the team will have a star of their own in Hall.