Part II of The Copper & Blue's preseason roundtable delves into the strengths of the Oilers, outside of the rabid fanbase, that is. The discussion started with opinions on the new coaching duo, which can be found here.
Our lineup includes: the erudite Shepso, author of some of the most intellectual hockey writings - he plies his trade at Bringing Back The Glory; The venerable HBomb, frequent on-point commentor at Lowetide's place; the incisive Dawgbone, a frequent commentor all over the Oilers' 'sphere, who writes too infrequently at After The Green Light; the pragmatic Doogie2k, an excellent foil and a thought-provoking writer at Still No Name; and the hilarious Lord Bob, whose rapier wit is rarely matched in the 'sphere. Jonathan, Bruce and myself round out this merry band of brigands, obsessives, geeks, and puckheads.
2. What are the Oilers' greatest strengths heading into 2009-10?
Shepso: The Oilers’ greatest strengths at this point are team defense. That’s a good crop of puck movers. Sure, they’re not as big and mean as the big 3 down highway 2, and Vancouver’s upgrades of Erhoff and Lukowich, along with Old Man Mathieu make them better than they were, but I’m convinced our top 4 guys are as good as any top 4 in the west outside of Detroit and maybe Chicago. The other asset is team skill. We’ve got a fast group of forwards. The key this season is to utilize this speed a little bit more. Fortunately, Quinn likes a strong forecheck, which is going to force some of the smaller, faster players to play bigger than they are. I think that will play to our advantage as long as the smurfs stay strong on the puck. A change in the tactics in the offensive zone (so, not just simply "get the puck in deep, hang on for dear life, pass it to Sheldon and get outta the way" or "pass it to Ales who may or may not shoot today depending on his mood") will do a world of good for these players who have so much collective skill, but have spent the last year or two playing in a system built around fear and the inability to find itself. MacT was a great systems coach for 1 kind of team, the team he took to the SCF. He didn’t have that team anymore, but his tactics didn’t seem to evolve. Quinn is a veteran coach who has taken crap teams in LA, Philly, Van, and Toronto to various levels of success by knowing how to adapt his system to the players around him. That’s why he has 2 Jack Adams trophies and a 3rd nomination. MacT just got a lot of praise in the Edmonton press as being a smart hockey guy. Quinn’s team in the last WJHC was not exactly the hugest team in the tourney, yet they were a very good offensive team using the tools they had. Our skillful smurfs will become the asset they were supposed to be given the right guidance.
Hbomb: The team's strength is obvious: the blueline. High cap-consumption aside, they're in reasonably solid shape from 1-6. Lubomir Visnovsky is a pretty special hockey player, Souray is a fearsome combination of a lethal slapshot and physical play, Tom Gilbert still has room to grow and may have upside higher than we ever could have thought possible when he was first acquired for a month of Tommy Salo in 2004, and Denis Grebeshkov excelled last year, albeit against softer opposition. The third pairing is where it gets interesting. Ladislav Smid is around that 200 NHL game mark where D-men usually settle in and start to take a step forward. I'd say it's reasonable to expect him to step forward and past Steve Staios on the depth chart this season. Staios wouldn't be so bad as sixth defenseman. The problem is that contract, and I'd hope efforts are made to find a home for him elsewhere at the deadline (otherwise, he might be a very well-paid AHLer next season, depending on how much the salary cap drops). The Oilers depth will get tested if they suffer any long-term injuries (Jason Strudwick shouldn't be an every-day NHL defenseman at this point, and Theo Peckham, while promising, should be playing big minutes in Springfield this season and not depended on for NHL contributions at this point).
The team's other notable strength? Ales Hemsky and that excellent contract. Rest-assured, if Hemsky stays healthy this year and is at a point a game or greater, that cap hit is going to be talked about as one the new standards for elite player bargain-buys (with the other one immediately coming to mind being the Ryan Getzlaf contract, despite the fact that deal only bought one year of UFA services), now that Henrik Zetterberg's got himself a new deal in Detroit (and, at 6 million, is still relatively underpaid as one of the most complete players in hockey, for the record). Anytime I hear someone suggest trading Hemsky, I want to yell at them. The guy is flat out too good for too cheap to even consider such a thing at this point.
Dawgbone: Without a doubt it's their blueline. If Visnovsky was healthy last year the Oilers probably make the playoffs (that being said, a healthy Visnovksy is no guarantee in any season). The Oilers top 4 is the best in the division and top 5 in the league, especially if Souray plays like he did last year. Their bottom 2 are adequate (though Staios is too expensive in to be in the bottom 2), and I think got exposed a bit only because of how bad the forwards were last year. I think this defence is better as a unit than the 05-06 blueline (they don't have Pronger, but they are better at every other spot by a fair margin).
Doogie2k: Clearly, the defence. While there's no Pronger-level elite defenceman here, the top four as a whole stacks up well against a lot of top fours in the League. One of the things Quinn has emphasized in his interviews is the value of the breakout pass, and we've got that in spades on this D, with Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert, and Denis Grebeshkov all capable as playmakers. Sheldon Souray's obvious value is both in his power-play cannon and his rough, physical style, in contrast to the other three, but his defensive awareness is underrated, in my opinion. Yeah, he's not the best skater and he's going to get turned inside-out occasionally (aside: nice job of backchecking there, Zednik and Rivet; way to help your man out), but when he doesn't have to try to keep up with a speeding forward, I don't recall seeing him in a bad position very often. The other three, in addition to having good playmaking abilities, are also perfectly capable in the defensive zone: losing Lubo, especially with Gilbert already playing through a bad back for much of the year, really hurt the team's chances at the playoffs last season, and I think having a healthy top four is going to go a long way to improving the situation on both sides of the puck. As for the rest, Steve Staios is getting up there in years, and gets himself into trouble when he tries to do too much, but my biggest issue with him, truthfully, is his salary: he's getting paid way too much money to play the 5D position. Ladislav Smid is young but improving, and should take another step forward this year. Jason Strudwick...eh, I don't get the praise he's been lavished with, but for the 7D position, I'll survive. I'd rather see Theo Peckham play 20 games in the NHL and 50 in the AHL, personally, but I can't gripe too much.
I'm also a believer in Nikolai Khabibulin, and probably the only one around these parts. I understand the objections, but at the same time, I'm not convinced that being 36 in 2009 is the same sort of problem it was in 1999 or 1989, nor am I convinced that putting up bad SV% numbers on some terrible Blackhawks teams is any evidence that he's going to be bad on this team, especially when I've just cited the defence as a potential strength. Besides, we just had an even older fart of a goaltender come off his best season not spent behind Jacques Lemaire's trap. If Khabibulin starts actually stinking out the joint, then I'll join the chorus of howling, but otherwise, I'm confident that he's good enough to keep this rebuilding team afloat.
Lord Bob: Defense is Edmonton's only real strength. As a 1-2-3-4 combination, Souray, Visnovsky, Gilbert and Grebeshkov rate in the league's top five, and our depth, long a question mark, is an asset with the progress of Peckham and Chorney as well as veterans such as Strudwick and Arsene. The blue treaded water in spite of losing the team's All-Star break MVP in Visnovsky, and the youngsters are better this season.
Bruce: Oilers have a few strengths in '09-10. Their coaching staff is one of the most experienced in NHL history and should be a strength, as long as Quinn, Renney and Fleming don't step on each others' toes. Bucky's job is to watch and learn ... and teach.
The top 4 defenders are very strong, and the third pairing ain't bad either. My hope is that Gilbert, Grebeshkov and Smid are improving faster than Visnovsky, Souray and Staios may be deteriorating. For sure it's now a veteran-laden crew, with the seven holdovers having combined for 3114 GP with nobody fewer than 176.
I'm also happy with a first line of Penner-Horcoff-Hemsky, which has been a significant outscorer (+41/-16) when playing as a trio at even strength the last two years. Let's hope the brain trust will put them back together and bloody well leave them together for at least the first 20 games.
I think Oilers' powerplay is a potential strength as well. The personnel are in place; it's time to execute.
Derek: If they work well together and understand their strengths and weaknesses as a duo, the biggest strength for this team is coaching. In Quinn, the team gets a guy that forces star production out of his stars and gets his role players to run through walls for him, but not so much produce. Renney is not a motivator, though he's been able to coax production out of sullen stars and uses his role players in order to maximize effectiveness. Quinn is not a tactical master and likes old-time hockey in a way. Renney is a fantastic tactician that knows how to use matchups and protect his faults. Quinn employs a hard style with a strong forecheck. Renney is a penalty kill wizard. If these two can make this relationship work, the Oilers will have their most well-rounded bench presence since...arguably ever.
Jonathan: While defense is obviously the positional strength of the team this coming season, I'm going to go with ownership. In Daryl Katz, Edmonton has an owner who is committed to the Oilers for the long haul. He's got deep pockets, and it seems like he's also going to be able to force through a new arena which, while arguably not in the city's best interest is certainly in the interest of the team. Over the short term, we've heard some stories about Katz meddling on the hockey side, but over the long haul a stable, deeply-pocketed owner is going to make this a franchise to contend with - because if the current hockey operations department can't get the job done, he'll certainly bring in one who can.