Over my time at the Copper & Blue, I've developed a reputation as a bit of a ranting, negative lunatic. There's a very good reason I've acquired this reputation: it's accurate. That's pretty much exactly what I am. When the Oilers lose, I'll tear my face off with grief and when they win I'll settle for pulling my nose hairs out bemoaning how close they were to losing.
It's a stressful sort of fandom I live. One filled with black clouds of grim angst occasionally broken up by rays of bright sunshine which serve only to make the darkness seem all the more oppressive.
But in truth, I am not all despair all the time. Sometimes... just sometimes... the Oilers manage to surprise me in an astonishing little way. And so, for your viewing enjoyment and to give myself a break from a constant stream of negativity, gloom, and angst, I present to you six lovely little surprises for the holiday season that the Edmonton Oilers have provided me so far this year.1) The goaltending isn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. Early in the season, I gave Nikolai Khabibulin the nickname "Maginot Line" because he was big, expensive, immobile, outdated, and largely useless. Jeff Deslauriers I didn't give a nickname but, then, I didn't have to because he was Jeff Deslauriers so obviously he was going to be terrible. It would have been like kicking a puppy into traffic to pick on him any more.
Well, neither Deslauriers nor Khabibulin have been terrific by any means, but they haven't been bad. Nikolai Khabibulin's contract was terrible but, a few foibles aside, his play wasn't. With a .909 save percentage and an almost tolerable 3.03 goals-against average while playing through the worst of Edmonton's defensive injuries, Khabibulin wasn't shooting the lights out but was pretty much middle of the pack for NHL starters. He's being paid like an All-Star, but I'm trying to look at his play, not his contract.
Of course, then he strained his back reaching too far for the remote or something and now we're putting up with Jeff Deslauriers. Who's... actually been a bit better than Khabibulin. A .916 save percentage, a 2.61 goals-against average, and his first career NHL shutout. The sample size is small, but Deslauriers is fifteenth in the NHL among goaltenders who've played at least ten games in save percentage. He's tied with Henrik Lundqvist, for God's sake. He's ahead of Roberto Luongo! And he's playing for the Edmonton Oilers!
That's not shabby. That's not shabby at all.
2) Ladislav Smid is quietly becoming brilliant. Obviously, playing with Lubomir Visnovsky helps (more on him later). But the book on Ladislav Smid used to be that he's was a crappy version of Tommy Albelin. Then, starting last season, we started to see more of a physical edge in his game. He got into guys' faces, he didn't take no guff, he started to "clear his neighbourhood" as the astronomers say. Then this year, his strides have been palpable. He's still not a Derian Hatcher sort, but he's getting there.
It is an axiom, at least to me, that defensive defensemen take forever to develop. Defending is hard, guys. You can't just work on a big slapshot or some fancy stickhandling moves and still put up results while learning the game. Until you figure out exactly how things work in the show you are going to get run over. For a long time, Smid was getting killed, but more and more he's figuring it out. We saw the same thing with former Oiler Matt Greene, only to trade him just as the light was starting to go on. Every player in that mold goes through the same thing and the trick is figuring out which kids will eventually get it. Smid is starting to get it.
3) Who the hell are our forwards, and why are they doing so okay? Ryan O'Marra, Colin McDonald, Ryan Potulny, Gilbert Brule, Liam Reddox, Ryan Stone oh god I could keep going. No, it's not the second and third lines of the Springfield Falcons, it's a list of guys we've called up, plugged into the starting lineup, and told "surprise! you're NHL players!"
Well, the results could have been a lot worse, couldn't they?
Colin McDonald, that big palooka, scored a goal. Ryan O'Marra, who I ragged on so much he was on the verge of becoming a running joke, looked better in the NHL than he ever has in the AHL. Liam Reddox slumped towards the end but looked so promising at the beginning of his callup I pronounced him the new Fernando Pisani. Gilbert Brule is this team's fourth-leading scorer (seriously), and no matter what Derek says that's pretty damned impressive in any context. He has nine goals and twelve assists for twenty-one points in twenty-nine games. His previous career highs were nine goals and ten assists for nineteen points in seventy-eight games with Columbus in 2006-07.
Ryan Stone, meanwhile, has been getting positive notices for everything but his scoring. He's banged, crashed, made life miserable for opposing players, looked after himself in his own zone, and chipped in five assists in thirteen games. His return from injury immediately made our fourth line into a credible opponent, and that's been vital to the Oilers' recent success.
Not one of these guys were being counted on to be any sort of positive at the beginning of the year, and yet they've all helped the team, some in big ways, others in small ones.
4) There's a lot of try in this team. Much as I hate to resort to crappy colour-man clichés, it's true. Remember the doldrums of the last couple of seasons where the Oilers were just going through the motions? Crappy players playing a crappy game and afterwards Craig MacTavish would say things at the press conference like "I don't know what else I can say to these guys. They need to figure things out for themselves."?
Yeah, that's not happening anymore. We've had a couple tremendous comebacks already this season, and we've had a couple pretty ugly losses where the team kept fighting until the conclusion anyway. Losing is a lot more bearable when you can see the team cares about it.
5) How incredible is Lubomir Visnovsky? Really damned incredible, that's how incredible. He's been healthy, for the most part, which was a pleasant treat in of itself. But it gets better. His seven goals is tied for third on the team, behind only Dustin Penner and Gilbert Brule. His twenty-three points is second, although he's only one up on Ales Hemsky, the human incarnation of how much the hockey gods hate us. He's +12, which on a team this crappy is hard to do. Among Oilers to play at least twenty games, he leads in time on ice per game. His .767 points per game pace is right back at the élite level he showed from 2005 to 2007 in Los Angeles.
He's sixth in the league in defensive scoring and he's delivering surprisingly excellent defensive results. He's sixth in the league in plus/minus among defensemen, which sounds like I'm making it up. There's nothing not to love about Lubomir Visnovsky's season so far. Some say that he needs to shoot more. Maybe, but I'm reluctant to mess with an All-Star season on a non-playoff team.
6) Special teams haven't been useless. Considering the dearth of offensive creativity and the mediocre lot of defensive forwards we've dealt ourselves, you'd expect both the powerplay and the penalty kill to be completely dire. And certainly the penalty kill has been pretty bad, if not awful, with a 78.8% kill rate plunking them 23rd on the table. To tell you the truth, I'd have put us a lot worse than 23rd at the beginning of the year and that was without considering all the injuries we've picked up, so even that ugly number carries a glittering gem of consolation. If you can throw out guys like Steve Staios, Zack Stortini, and Jason Strudwick on an NHL penalty kill and come up 23rd, things aren't so bad.
The powerplay, on the other hand! Just as devoid of personnel, just as wracked by injury, so ill-conceived that people were trying to talk themselves into Mike Comrie as a legitimate powerplay specialist, and yet they're hitting at a 19.5% rate! That's fourteenth in the league! That's average! I am delighted with average. Whenever any aspect of the Oilers is average, considering what a below-average team they are, that's something. Particularly when the powerplay has been such a history struggle for the Oilers over the last several seasons. It's nice to see results improving even when the team is not.