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Third-line centre pushed into increased offensive responsibility amid flurry of injuries
Dan Barnes, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Monday, January 08, 2007

Oiler centre Jarret Stoll says he's playing the best hockey of his pro career.

Based on anecdotal evidence and some impressive stats posted in the past six weeks, it's a popular claim supported by head coach Craig MacTavish, general manager Kevin Lowe, teammates, fans and media.

So, is this a breakout campaign for the 24-year-old from Melville, Sask.? Or just a lengthy hot streak?

Strangely enough, the numbers suggest this season will end up looking exactly like the last one for Stoll. The Oilers are at the midway point of their schedule, he has played in all 41 games and notched 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points. After playing in all 82 games last season, he had 22 goals and 46 assists for 68 points. Multiply this season's ouput by two and voila, it's 2005-06 all over again.

Given the Oilers' overall inconsistency, a tough second-half travel schedule and normal streaks and slumps, I'd say it's too tough to continue his torrid pace for another 41 games and burst over the 80-point plateau. But Stoll's season has already been something of an optical illusion and apparently anything is possible.

The thumb and shoulder injuries suffered by Oilers Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky respectively required other Oilers to step up on offence and Stoll decided to lead the way. Quite suddenly the upper echelon of the Oilers scoring chart was there for the taking. Stoll is currently in second spot, closing in on Petr Sykora. When your third-line centre is challenging for the team lead, even at the halfway point, he is bound to elicit widespread acclaim and raised expectations for a breakout year.

There is also something else at play here; the stark contrast between the Stoll we have seen since December and the impostor who was wearing his uniform in October and November. Stoll had a fabulous training camp, skating hard and scoring almost at will, and looked ready to explode out of the gate. Instead, he basically limped through the first two months and you had to wonder why and where Mr. September had disappeared.

"At the start of the year, I was maybe too comfortable," Stoll admitted last week.

"When I play my best hockey, you want that feeling of fear, that you've got to bring it every night or you're not going to play. That's the good thing with Mac. If you're not playing well, you're not going to play."

MacTavish has indeed benched some regulars this year and Stoll was one of them. It amounts to a slap in the face for a pro like Stoll, who takes pride in being on the ice to kill penalties, score power-play goals, take crucial faceoffs and defend a lead in the last minute. He may have taken that elevated status for granted early this season.

"A couple games I got benched and that puts you back in your place," he said. "It happened to (Shawn Horcoff) and to (Marc-Andre Bergeron) too. You've got to be a little on edge. Not so much that you're vomiting before games. It's a fine line."

Most players know exactly how they're playing and it got to a point in early December where Stoll simply wasn't satisfied with his level of effort and execution any longer.

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