Don't call it the first line, top line or scoring line. This year's evolving Oilers squad seems to be striving for something of an egalitarian vibe, so coach Ralph Krueger simply calls it "Nuge's Line" – that of teen phenom Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with wingers Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall.
"We have no 1-2-3-4 in this lineup," Krueger said Monday, after revealing an early look at line combinations in the team's first full practice. "Everybody's going to be important here."
Call it whatever you'd like, but Krueger is loading some of the league's top young talent into one line, citing the "strategy and pace we want to play." In turning to the trio, Krueger says he plans to dial back the ice-time given to veterans Ryan Smyth, 36, and Shawn Horcoff, 34, amid the condensed schedule. The coach was careful to not minimize the role his veterans would play, though declined to confirm Horcoff would retain the captaincy.
His line combinations Monday nevertheless send a clear message: this Oilers squad will be led by its drafted-and-developed youngsters, inexperience and defensive shortcomings notwithstanding.
"We need other players to step in," Krueger said, stopping short of calling it a changing of the guard on a team that finished 29th in the standings last year. "We don't want to change any guard any more. We need a balance of experienced players, mid-aged players and young players. That's what good teams are made up of."
Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and prized rookie Nail Yakupov will form another line, one that – like "Nuge's Line" – is made up entirely of the team's first-round draft picks. The team now has 14 former first-rounders in camp after acquiring stay-at-home defenceman Mark Fistric from the Dallas Stars on Monday.
The Oilers' success, Krueger believes, will rest largely on improved two-way play – a "patient, five-on-five game" – from young, developing players such as Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Hemsky. It's a challenge the players welcome.
"I'd like to think [Krueger] can put us out in any situation right now and we'd be capable of playing good defence as well. That's a big part of the game," said Eberle, 22, who played on a line with Hall, 21, and Nugent-Hopkins, 19, in the American Hockey League during the lockout. "I mean, it's kind of a no-brainer to us that we'd be together."
Nugent-Hopkins believes he's improved since his rookie season, particularly on face-offs. "I think we've all taken big steps in the defensive zone. We'll continue to work on it," he said, nonetheless sticking with a score-first outlook: "As long as we have the puck in the offensive zone, we won't have to defend."
But the team has learned the hard way that scoring doesn't mean winning, says Gagner, a 23-year-old centre entering his sixth NHL season. "It's time to turn the corner and to start winning. I think we all know that in here," Gagner said. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
He's now among the young stars Krueger is relying on in saying "the transition phases are over." The Oilers want to win now, largely by relying on youngsters to bear defence in mind amid a high-flying tempo. "That we're going to be exciting offensively is a given," the coach said. "… But when we don't have a puck, that's where we still have a lot of growing to do."
Smyth and Horcoff played on a line with 22-year-old Finnish prospect Teemu Hartikainen, while Krueger made up his final two lines with players seen to be jockeying for a roster spot.
The team gave up a third-round pick in this year's draft to acquire Fistric, who joins defencemen Ryan Whitney, Ladislav Smid, Nick Schultz, Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry and Corey Potter. It's unclear who the starting six will be. The Oilers "wanted to be in a proactive mindset" by trading now for a defender, general manager Steve Tambellini said.