Since this week is Northwest Division Week, I thought I’d write my own Edmonton Oilers season preview, somewhat but not entirely in the style that the podcast has been doing these things.
Last Season: They were incredibly, almost indescribably, bad, earning the #1 pick with all of their might. Their final record was 27-47-8, good for 62 points and dead last with a bullet: the 29th-place team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, had 74 points.
Additions: Colin Fraser, Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, Steve MacIntyre (WHY?!), Martin Gerber, Alexandre Giroux, Shaun Belle, Greg Stewart, and Brad Moran
Subtractions: Ethan Moreau, Patrick O’Sullivan, Robert Nilsson, Ryan Stone, Fernando Pisani, Ryan Potulny, Marc Pouliot, Mike Comrie, Aaron Johnson, Dean Arsene, Chris Minard, Charles Linglet
Prospects to Watch: Too numerous to describe them all in detail, but leaving aside the three everyone’s familiar with and talking about already – Jordan Eberle, Magnus PÃ¤Ã¤jÃ¤rvi, and Taylor Hall, the Oilers’ last three first-round selections, or “the Sales Crew,” as some have called them – as well as guys like Anton Lander and Toni Rajala, who we already know are staying in Europe this year, we have:
- Linus Omark (23): A shootout wizard with over 200 pro games’ experience in the SEL and KHL, he’s the unnoticed NHL-ready prospect. Omark is small, but he’s apparently got some two-way ability, which may force the big club’s hand in choosing between him and one of the shinier prospects. He might be a guy who starts the year in the AHL, then winds up replacing one of the other kids when they struggle around December.
- Theo Peckham (22): The time is now for Peckham. He’s got the physical tools to be a punishing defender in the Jason Smith mold, but he had a rocky start last year due to injury and poor conditioning. He seemed to get it together in the second half, though, and there’s a spot there for him to apprentice on the third pairing this season, if he wants to grab it. With Steve Smith – another guy Peckham could stand to emulate in a lot of ways – tutoring him from the bench, he could earn himself a more permanent place on the roster by the end of the year…as long as he doesn’t score on himself, of course.
- Alex Plante (21): Injuries have sidetracked him, but have yet to utterly derail him, which is a small miracle in and of itself, given the nature of them (two concussions and a back injury). After leading the WHL in playoff defensive scoring in 2009, he stepped into the AHL and earned more responsibility over the course of last season, including a brief NHL call-up, before his second career concussion terminated his season. He doesn’t have Sheldon Souray’s cannonading shot from the point, but he could develop into a Souray type of player: a physical, shot-blocking top-four defenceman who can run a power play and kill penalties. He still needs to work on his foot speed, but he’s been doing so every summer to date, which is a good sign. He’ll be a top-four, and possibly top-two, guy in Oklahoma City this year, and will likely see a little more NHL time, too.
Honourable mention goes to Teemu Hartikainen (20), a fifth-round power forward from Finland who’s shown good hands and put up numbers in the SM-Liiga; he may earn an NHL call-up at some point in the year, but forward is a crowded position for youth.
- Youth: With the Sales Crew all penciled into the opening night lineup, to go with a forward corps that already includes Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, and Shawn Horcoff, there’s loads of speed, skill, and hockey sense there, which could make for some exciting plays and exciting games.
- Coaching: The hiring of Tom Renney represents a return to responsible bench management, after a year of Pat Quinn’s inattentive 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 line rolling and bizarre line combinations (Horcoff-Hemsky-Jacques? Seriously?!). While the aforementioned veterans will probably see their numbers suffer somewhat by playing against the best of the best and starting a lot of shifts in the defensive zone, simply because no one else can, it also means that the kids won’t get completely murdered every shift, and will have the best possible opportunity to show their stuff. Effective line combinations will probably also make a big difference, especially with the rookies.
- Youth: Young guys get slaughtered by pretty much every defensive and possession metric ever devised, meaning that however easy the coach tries to make it for them, they’re probably going to still spend a fair bit of time trapped in their own zone and giving up goals that players with a little more seasoning and savvy will avoid. This is especially true of 18-year-old rookies not named Sidney Crosby, which means things are going to be particularly difficult for Taylor Hall.
- Defence: Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney were good in a short stretch after the deadline last year, but I’d like to see them together for a little while longer before I believe in them as a No. 1 pairing. After that, though, things get really sketchy. We probably have Ladislav Smid and Kurtis Foster on the No. 2 pairing, which is one pairing higher than I’m comfortable with. Then there’s the third pairing, which over the course of the year will likely include various combinations of Jim Vandermeer, Jason Strudwick, Theo Peckham, Taylor Chorney, and Alex Plante; outside maybe Vandermeer, none of those options are very confidence-inspiring.
- Goaltending: The Oilers’ goaltending depth chart for 2010 consists of, in order: 1) a 37-year-old convicted drunk driver with a long injury rap sheet, dehydration issues, and one good season in the last six; 2) a 25-year-old prospect who spent key developmental years eating hot dogs and watching other teams’ prospects get better, while the Oilers twiddled their thumbs on their AHL affiliation; 3) a lanky youngster who very nearly set the NHL record for most minutes played without a win; 4) an aging career backup/marginal starter last seen in the NHL sieving it up for the Leafs and Senators two seasons ago. There’s some potential there to be sure, and I’m the last guy to hold Devan Dubnyk’s W-L record against him alone, but any way you look at it, if the plan was to win hockey games, surely even Jose Theodore would’ve been signed by now.
- The Elephant (Not) in the Room: Now that it’s abundantly clear that this was Sheldon Souray’s last act in an Oilers uniform, the question becomes, what the hell do we do with him? Ideally, the return would be a young defender and a draft pick, but that absolutely isn’t happening now, not with bridges so thoroughly burned. The best-case scenario, I think, would be taking on a different problem contract of equal or lesser duration. While Wade Redden would appear to be an ideal move – it would get the Rangers under the cap, and give the Oilers a veteran defenceman looking for a fresh start – he also costs $1M more than Souray for twice as long. I’m beginning to think that I’d rather see him just bought out and be done with it: I don’t know the exact rules for buyout cap-hits, but ballparking it at under $2M over the next four seasons, it may be an attractive option if things drag out too much longer. Re-entry waivers – half the cap hit over two years – would also work in that scenario.
- Injuries: The Oilers have been one of the most-injured teams in the NHL the last few years. The training staff, led by Kevin Lowe’s brother Kenny, was fired during the summer in the wake of Sheldon Souray’s comments to the media, but Souray was specifically critical of management, claiming they, not the trainers, forced him to play injured. Knowing Kevin Lowe’s reputation as someone who’d play through anything – to say nothing of his overall track record in player procurement, salary management, and pissing off players and managers alike – you have to wonder if the right Lowe was fired. I guess we’ll see.
- Depth: I was waffling between putting this entry here or under Weaknesses. Certainly, the Oilers have been haemhorraging good depth players, especially centres, since 2006, and generally failing to replace them, making things much harder than they had to be. This year, though, there’s some unknowns. Will Fraser and Horcoff be enough down the middle to cover their defensive needs? Probably not. So, is Gagner’s two-way game ready? Maybe. Do we want to use Gagner in a two-way capacity? Probably not; I’d rather get him scoring first. What about Cogliano? He says he’s committed to playing a better defensive game and learning how to win faceoffs, so maybe he takes the third-line centre role. Will someone like Chris Vande Velde or Ryan O’Marra force his way onto the roster as a penalty killer? What effect, if any, will Zack Stortini’s surprising competence at fourth-line centre have on how this shakes out? And what about down the wings? Are there enough guys on the roster capable of playing a two-way role to force someone like Jean-Francois Jacques – a good AHL player but a terrible NHL player – off the roster? Who would replace him? Another young guy, like Omark, or one of our AHL veterans, like Moran or Giroux? Are they really going to run out Steve MacIntyre again? Didn’t they learn the first time that he’s a goon who can’t play hockey? Will PÃ¤Ã¤jÃ¤rvi’s experience as a converted defender give him an edge somewhere along the way? There’s a ton of questions here, and while I’m leaning towards this being a weakness, the bottom half of the roster seems pretty malleable; that could be where the interesting decisions are made in training camp.
Keys to Victory: It really depends on how you define “victory.” Many fans would rather see another lottery pick this year, then get really good next year; that might be the best strategy, especially if they’re in a hole by the All-Star Break. In terms of winning the most hockey games this year, it basically requires everything to go right: at least two of the Sales Crew reach Calder-level performances, the goaltending is at least adequate, the injuries die down, the young vets take the next step, Shawn Horcoff has a bounce-back year without a bum shoulder and two boat-anchors strapped to his legs, and so on and so forth. Is it possible for this team to make the playoffs? Well, the Avalanche did it last year, despite getting outshot and outchanced horrifically for much of the season: if enough improvements and enough luck come in enough areas, the Northwest is no flaming hell outside of Vancouver, so anything’s possible. Still, I wouldn’t call it terribly likely either way: I don’t see a Craig Anderson anywhere in that lineup, for starters.
Given that this is a young, rebuilding team, it’s probably in everyone’s best interests if the team tanks it for another year, collects another shiny bauble, then comes back in another year or two, once the new kids have had some seasoning and maybe a guy like Lander’s ready to come over. Maybe then we start playing more like a Los Angeles or even a Chicago, and we can finally be proud of our team again, after so many years of making the news for being so horrifically run. Regardless, everyone knows that our Stanley Cup dreams are probably three or four years away at this point, so let’s just hope the kids learn a few things over the course of the season and that no one dies in the process: Lord knows we’ve had just about everything else happen.