Ok, now that I have your undivided attention, let’s talk some Edmonton Oilers hockey. The Oilers, as you may have noticed, have been ubiquitous in the news this summer over their failed attemts to land Dany Heatley. This PR nightmare has thankfully faded with the dog days of summer and the new coup is the recent signing of former bad boy Mike Comrie.
Add this signing to the moves (Nikolai Khabibulin) and non-moves (Heatley, a third line centre) and you are left with many of the same question marks that plagued the Oilers last season. Namely, is this a playoff team?
I can’t answer this question here (but see below!) and only time will tell what a couple of new faces and a host of new coaches will bring to the former City of Champions. New bench boss Pat Quinn and associates/assistants Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming will certainly bring a new look to the team, and I expect the special teams to show some marked improvement.
Many Oiler players are reporting for camp in much better shape and ready to compete for jobs, which is a good thing because I doubt Quinn and Co. will stand pat (pardon the pun) for very long if they don’t like what they see on the ice. So, without further ado, lets take a look at what the Oildrop has to work with this season:
The forward corps for the Edmonton Oilers is crowded to say the least. With a legion of players either cemented into roles or ready to compete for ice time, something will have to give sooner rather than later. Yesterday’s signing of Mike Comrie (pictured below , with Hilary Duff for scale) further complicates matters.
Adding to the mess is the fact that several of the players (Dustin Penner, Rob Schremp, Robert Nilsson) have come to camp in much better shape and seem reluctant to give up their spots (or in Schremp’s case, his chance at a spot). Even with the departures of Kyle Brodziak (traded to Minnesota) and Ales Kotalik (signed with the NY Rangers), the Oilers simply do not have enough spots for everyone.
Further complicating matters is that in addition to the over-abundance of players, they have several guys who have basically the same skill set. Smallish forwards Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Mike Comrie, Robert Nilsson, Rob Schremp, Jordan Eberle, Gilbert Brule, and Patrick O’Sullivan are all under 6 feet and essentially fill the same role. None of them are really suited to a 3rd or even a 4th line role, so someone (ideally a couple of them) have to go. Granted, Schremp and Eberle are in tough to make the team, while Brule could be sent packing to Springfield.
Even with these three players potentially out of the picture, you are still left with 5 guys and 6 spots. The problem is that Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner are all likely at least penciled into 3 of those 6 spots, leaving another 2 guys left out in the cold (or the press box/4th line). Word is that Comrie will get a look as the first line left winger, and Cogliano will get one last shot to prove he is a centre.
Stopping to evaluate what we have here, it would seem likely that Horcoff retains his spot as the 1st line centre (unless Quinn sees him as the shut-down guy) with Hemsky staying at 1st line right wing. That leaves Penner and Comrie to battle for a spot on the left side. If these three our four guys comprise the 1st line (for arguments sake) then that leaves Cogliano, Gagner, Nilsson, O’Sullivan and a host of others for the 2nd line.
Perhaps Quinn will experiment with the Kid Line (Gagner, Cogliano, Nilsson) that had some success two years ago or maybe he blows it up. At this point, its really tough to tell since we have no template to judge what the Mighty Quinn will do. I would expect (at least) that Gagner will be playing centre and Cogliano will get at least a shot at it. If he is successful, watch him to be the pivot on the 3rd unit. If not, he would make an excellent winger with blazing outside speed for any line.
Robert Nilsson might be the odd-man out in this situation. His skills are, like I mentioned, replicated elsewhere on the roster. He is smallish, doesn’t hit much or check well and there are several cheaper prospects (and Comrie) who can likely replace his production. So, trade bait, right? Well, wrong actually. Reports indicate that Nilsson has been hitting the gym hard all summer and is in excellent shape (having added 15 pounds of muscle). Plus, trading a guy with a lacklustre resume won’t likely fetch you much at this point. If he shines in the pre-season, don’t be surprised to see him kept around for at least an audition. Failing that, he could also be sent to the minors (owner Darryl Katz said he has no problem putting a big contract in the minors) to await an injury or a slump.
Patrick O’Sullivan is yet another question mark here. He is said to be willing to play centre, and is adept at either wing. Of all the small forwards, he is likely the most defensively responsible, he can kill penalties AND he will actually shoot the puck. I personally think he will be a favorite of Quinn’s and expect he will be a fixture on one of the top two lines.
This situation is, at best, fluid and, at worst, a mess. The good news, dear readers, is that the bottom two lines may be a little easier to figure out. A little easier, but not a lot. As mentioned, there is a slight chance Shawn Horcoff gets slotted in as the 3rd line centre due to his checking skills. He is never going to be a huge point producer, but with good linemates, he can get you 60 points. These totals probably wouldn’t change too much if he skated on a 3rd line with say, Fernando Pisani and Ethan Moreau.
These veteran wingers will definitely see their share of T.O.I with Quinn behind the bench. Both are getting into their mid-thirties now, and injuries are a concern. If they stay healthy, they will counted on to kill penalties and shut down the other teams top lines. If Horcoff keeps the 1st line, Cogliano might get a look here too, if Renney can teach him how to win a faceoff. If not, prospects Marc Pouliot (he is still a prospect to me) or Gilbert Brule might get a chance. Heck, there is even talk at giving Comrie this role. My best guess is that a veteran is either signed during camp or is brought in via trade.
The fourth line could go a couple ways, by my way of thinking. One, Quinn stays true to form and has a couple of knuckle draggers and a babysitter for the rough stuff. This was his M.O. in Toronto (Domi, Belak, Perrott et al) and the Oilers have the personnel to fulfill this role. Zach Stortini certainly likes to fight and is becoming a very useful player in the agitator role. Steve MacIntyre is the epitome of a knuckle-dragger and is a fearsome fighter, but can’t offer much past that. J.F. Jacques is also a big body but really doesn’t use his size effectively and Geoff Paukovich is a dirty mofo who Quinn might like. As for the babysitter portion, the aforementioned Marc Pouliot and Gilbert Brule might find themselves down on the 4th, as might MacTavish favourite Liam Reddox. Colin MacDonald, Ryan Potulny and Ryan Stone are other candidates here.
The second option is go for a high energy unit with some scoring talent. Potulny, Stone, Reddox, Schremp and Jacques could all fit the bill here, as could Brule and Pouliot. The Oilers also signed a 31 year old from the Slovak league named Miroslav Lazo. I don’t have a clue about him, but who knows.
I apologize for the rambling breakdown of the forwards. But, as you can see, there are a plethora of possible combinations and a trade seems inevitable. The only real known knowns (thanks Donald Rumsfeld) are that Hemsky will be counted on to shoulder a lot of the offensive load, Penner should be better under Quinn, the brass hopes Cogliano and Gagner continue to improve and Stortini should get lots of ice and P.I.M.S. Past that, anything could happen between now and the season opener. Your guess is really as good as mine, so let me know in the comments.
Defencively, the Oilers a little easier to figure out. Led by Sheldon Souray (pictures sans shirt, to the left) and Lubomir Visnovsky, the blueline boys are the strength of this Oilers team.
This group has a reasonably nice balance of actual defence and offensive capability. Souray’s 23 goals were tied for the team lead, and Gilbert and Visnovsky (before he was injured) were steady contributors on both sides of the ledger. Denis Grebeshkov, acquired with little fanfare a couple of seasons ago, has rounded into a solid top 4 guy who can help at both ends of the ice.
Also making great strides was Ladislav Smid, the key return in the Chris Pronger deal. He had a career high in points, and exhibited a real nasty edge to his game, which was a pleasant surprise and a great help to the Oilers. Rounding out the defenders are veterans Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick, plus the up and coming Theo Peckham.
The key to this season for the back-enders is getting a full 82 games (or close to it) from Souray and Visnovsky. Having these contributors around full-time would be a serious boost to the Oilers’ chances of making the playoffs. Visnovsky’s steady presence and Souray’s grit and offensive punch could potentially be the difference makers in what is shaping up to be yet another dog-fight for 8th in the West. The more help the aging Nikolai Khabibulin gets, the better he plays. Souray is the real key there, as he (along with Smid) is one of the few guys that makes opposing forwards pay for getting near the crease.
Examining the other skaters, the Oilers will need Tom Gilbert to continue his steady improvement, as he (along with Grebeshkov) figures to be a fixture on the 2nd pairing. A smooth skater with offensive upside (he used to be a centre), Gilbert needs to improve his own zone play while adding some scoring (especially from the powerplay). Grebeshkov, is in the same boat. He showed some offensive flash last year and was really cutting down on defensive miscues by the end of last season. Both players are candidates for their respective countries Olympic teams, so I would bet they are solid, especially in the early going.
Rounding out the top 6 are Steve Staios and Ladislav Smid. Staios has lost a step but still has this season and next on an ill-conceived contract. He isn’t likely to go anywhere as he likely wouldn’t fetch much in return (unless a team needs to reach the cap floor) and the Oilers are short on experience past Souray and Visnovsky. He is prone to getting beat wide, but is still serviceable in a limited role, especially in tutoring Smid. The newly crust Czech is finally starting to live up to his advance billing. The left-handed shot is not any kind of offensive threat, but his defence is sound. Somewhat tough to play against, he closes gaps well and looks after his own end while adding some much needed grit. Count on him being a little meaner this year, as he is another Oiler who is apparently buff and ready to go.
The extra skaters here are likely Jason Strudwick (whose place on the roster isn’t guaranteed) and Theo Peckham, who was very good for a bad Springfield team last season. Strudwick is a guy that just plays a solid up and down game, and is reportedly very good in the room. Not flashy, he can also fill in on forward if need be, and with the diminutive group of forwards, that may be necessary. Peckham is another rough and tumble type, who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and plays an in-your-face style. Taylor Chorney saw a little action at the end of last season, but still figures to start the year in Springfield, as he needs some more maturity. The same goes for Cody Wild, who doesn’t have Chorney’s pedigree, but could conceivably pass him on the depth chart this year.
The Oilers could still acquire another veteran d-man (which I think they need) if the forwards are thinned out via trade. Adding one more calming presence (or dumping Staios), would go a long way to solidifying an already decent group. They certainly aren’t in Calgary’s class personnel wise, but they are better than most of the league and should be the bright spot on the 2009-10 edition of the Oilers.
The goaltending story for the Edmonton Oilers starts and stops with Nikolai Khabibulin. The newly signed goalie will be counted on to hold the fort for the Oilers, as they currently don’t have a battled tested back-up.
In a somewhat surprising move, GM Steve Tambellini signed the aging netminder to a long term for big dollars, after allowing Dwayne Roloson to walk. Though the signing is not terrible, fans and bloggers are understandably concerned about the terms and the injury history of their new goalie.
That being said, Khabilbulin turned in a solid season with the Hawks, and still can still play at a high level. He should, at the very least, provide the Oilers will steady veteran goaltending and will hopefully steal a few games for the Oil. Given the precarious nature of the forwards, they will likely need the help. I would expect Quinn to ride Khabibulin hard if the keeper is playing well, so something in the range of 50 to 60 games is not out of the question.
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers is the likely backup, and saw some limited action last year. Looking great for stretches and like a confirmed rookie at other times, Deslauriers may be thrust into the spotlight this season if Khabibulin gets hurt. He may be ready for more work, but I bet Quinn eases him into game action very gently. If he is found wanting, I would think that the coaches demand a trade or acquisition of someone a little more veteran.
A little further down the chart we find former first round pick Devan Dubnyk. Tall and lanky, Dubnyk played quite well in Springfield last year considering the team in front of him. Though he hasn’t progressed quite as fast as the Oilers would have liked (they didn’t have their own farm team for two seasons), he has shown improvement every year and might be ready to steal the backup job from Deslauriers. Again, only time and Quinn will tell.
This could really go either way. Using the current group of players as the measuring stick, I would say its a status quo type year for the Oilers as Quinn and Renney try to assess what they are dealing with. I wouldn’t call it a rebuilding year, and they likely won’t contend, so I guess you just chalk it up to an 82 game audition. Another year lost in the wilderness for Oiler fans.
To get a little more technical, I would put the ceiling for this team somewhere in the 5th or 6th in the Western conference range. In order to accomplish this, EVERYTHING will have to go right for the blue and orange. Wayne Fleming will have to breath life into a moribund power-play, Horcoff will need 70 points, Hemsky will need to crack 90, Cogliano needs 20 goals plus, and Gagner needs to flirt with 60 points. The defence will need to chip at least 60 goals and Khabibulin will have to have flashbacks to the wild nights at Rae and Jerry’s. Vancouver or Calgary will have to falter, and the Oilers will need to discover what 2 points looks like in St. Paul, MN (and in Dallas).
Should the worst happen, the floor for this team could be ugly. While they won’t be last in the West, I could see a 12th to 13th finish. A lack of direction for the forwards, a spate of injuries and wet behind the ears goalie tandem and you will have anarchy on Whyte Avenue as the Oilers bloggers tear that mother down. The calculators and stats text books will be smoking and a new series of downcast and depressed blogs will be born. We are basically talking Armageddon in North Alberta.