When Punch Imlach returned to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 1979, he told the media the Leafs had only “5 or 6 good players.” He fined players for not wearing ties, he no longer allowed beer drinking on flights and he decided Darryl Sittler was a cancer to the team.
Imlach was a control freak and his tactics were outdated for the time (the Leafs actually were a pretty good hockey team during this time and had enjoyed some success under Red Kelly and Roger Neilson earlier in the decade) and he arrived just in time to shake up the franchise and move around the deck chairs.
Imlach mentioned in his book Heaven and Hell in the NHL that his biggest problem in the summer of 1979 was at center and involved foot speed. Darryl Sittler wasn’t as fast as he used to be, Walt McKechnie was slow even though he could do things, Jimmy Jones was a good penalty killer but not a fast skater and Paul Gardner was a fine scoring center but quite slow.
So in the group Imlach had some nice offense from Sittler and McKechnie and had a pure scorer coming in Gardner, but had very little in the area of speed. This would impact his club because he wanted a strong forechecking team that created offense from turnovers and at center the club wasn’t well suited to that style. Imlach’s drafts and trades that summer were made to get the club faster up the middle and by the summer of 1981 the Leafs top 4 centers were Darryl Sittler, Bill Derlago, Laurie Boschman and then guys trying to get established like Bruce Boudreau and Mike Kaszycki and Mark Kirton.
The one thing the Oilers don’t have to worry about moving forward is their centermen lacking a wide range of skills. Shawn Horcoff has good size and speed, some grit and is underrated as an offensive player (mostly owing to the calibre of players he’s out against every night). Based on how quickly he improved this past season, Sam Gagner may actually lead the centermen on this team in points this season, an exceptional accomplishment based on age and experience. Gagner doesn’t have top end size and speed but appears to be an elite talent whose intelligence and passing skills make him unique and multi-dimensional in a man’s game before age 20. Lordy . Andrew Cogliano is the perfect bookend to Gagner, with his tremendous speed and nose for the net. Although lacking in size I don’t think anyone would define him as a perimeter player, certainly not based on his first NHL season. After that it’s Kyle Brodziak, who has skill, grit and can fill the checking, penalty killing and (hopefully) faceoff roles that used to belong to the now departed Jarret Stoll. In the same family of players is Marc Pouliot who now has a two-year, one way deal in pocket.
This is a nice group of centers, with the only real flaws being lack of experience after Shawn Horcoff and a lack of size (Gagner and Cogliano). Giving 2line minutes to Sam Gagner or Andrew Cogliano isn’t going to be a major concern this season, and one of Brodziak or Pouliot should be able to fill the 3line role. They’ll make mistakes, but this team isn’t built for winning the conference anyway.
No, this Oilers team is about where the Montreal Expos were in 1978: not a serious threat to win the pennant but a team with all its arrows pointed in the right direction. That Expos team had 5 every day players 23 or 24 years old (Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine). The following season they would add a few parts (hello Bill Lee) and win 95 games.
Many of the questions we have about this team at center (can Gagner continue to improve at an alarming rate? is Cogliano the next Butch Goring or is he the next Todd Marchant? Can Brodziak fill Stoll’s role? Where does Pouliot fit in? What about Brule and Schremp?) should be answered by this time next season. Brodziak will be a restricted free agent, Gagner and Cogliano will be one year away from huge paydays and the Oilers will have a better read on Brule.
A “Kyle Brodziak” training camp from Pouliot or Brule would help.