Part III of the roundtable delves into the shortcomings of this squad, and from the variety of answers, it seems that there is plenty to pick apart. Previous questions can be found under the 2009 preseason roundtable tag.
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.
3. What are the Oilers' greatest weaknesses heading into 2009-10?
Shepso: 1) Winning faceoffs. This is going to be a serious problem unless Poo or PO’S prove better than they are, or if Cogs decides to go prima donna and not move to the wing. This team is screwed and none of Quinn’s new offensive tactics will work without a reasonable set of centers. Puck possession is key.
2) Goaltending Depth. This is also a problem of epic proportion should the Wall come down for any length of time. On one hand, if it should come to be, I’d like very much to see JDD go on a run and prove he was worth the three-headed monster of last season. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance in the kid, especially that game against the Rangers last year, so who knows? At the same time, if this team has a shot at the second season, JDD had better play only 25 games or less.
Hbomb: This one is even more obvious than the strength: the center position. Past Shawn Horcoff and his proven capabilities as a first line "power vs. power" option (if you look at his production post-lockout, he's roughly a 65 point per 82 game player, which would translate to rougly a middle-of-the-road level of first line production in the NHL this past season), and Sam Gagner seemingly ready to take the step as the 2nd line "soft opposition" offensive center, this team has little to no proven depth. Marc Pouliot shows promise at times as a guy who could be a secondary tough minutes option, but he's also been plagued by inconsistency. Gilbert Brule has never recovered from being rushed along by the Columbus Blue Jackets after being drafted in the top ten of the 2005 draft. Right now, those are the team's third and fourth options at center (I'm not even considering Andrew Cogliano's decade worst faceoff percentage here - it's quite obvious to me that he should be an option on the wing for the Gagner soft-parade line and not a 3rd line center consideration). This team, ideally, needs at least one of Manny Malholtra or Blair Betts, if not both.
Problem is one of the other major weaknesses of this team at the current time - a lack of cap space. They've been good soliders for the MacT-era Oilers, but Steve Staios and Ethan Moreau need to go at the first opportunity presented by another team to unload the last two seasons of their respecitve contracts. It's 4.7 million in cap space better spent elsewhere.
Other issues include goaltending depth (this team's season is over if Khabibulin can't perform like last year AND stay healthy) and a lack of size at forward (I won't say toughness, because smaller guys can be resillent - I see flashes of it in Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky doesn't fear traffic one bit, and, going back to the "gold standard for everything" known as the Detroit Red Wings - guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg aren't exactly huge men, but they're not pushovers either). If St. Louis came along and offered David Backes up for Andrew Cogliano tomorrow, I think it would take all of three seconds for Steve Tambellini to accept that trade and, in the process, make this a better hockey club for the long term. My worry is giving up a young "small but skilled" kid for a forward with size but less skill (Ryane Clowe seems to be a name commonly connected with such a "potential mistake").
In short - when you've missed the playoffs for 3 straight years and made minimal personnel changes over the summer, your list of issues is going to be extensive.
Dawgbone: It has to be their forwards. The Oilers are in a bit of a transition period where they have some good guys at the top (Horcoff and Hemsky), some decent 2nd tier guys (Penner and Pisani) and some young players who have made some pretty good strides based on their roles (Gagner and Cogliano). The problem is it just isn't enough. Horcoff and Hemsky at the top aren't nearly enough (they need another guy in there, Tanguay would have been awesome). In 05-06 they had Horcoff, Hemsky and Smyth and while only maybe Smyth was in the top 10 at his position, they made up by having 4-5 guys at the 2nd tier level. The Oilers still don't have enough secondary help and that's the biggest weakness on the team. You could artificially bump Penner up to Horcoff and Hemsky's level if you had 2 lines worth of players underneath who were reliable. The problem is after the first 4 (Horcoff, Hemsky, Penner, Pisani), the Oilers have a bunch of guys who can play at the NHL level, but they need to be sheltered. You can live with 3-4 of these players on your roster, but there's just no way you can do it with the 10 the Oilers have right now. The balance is way off. The good news is a lof of the players at that level are showing signs that they can do more... it's just a matter of when they'll be able to start.
Doogie2k: Centre depth. Oh God, centre depth. While I said above that I think Quinney could potentially get the most out of these kids, until they actually do, I'm scared out of my damned mind for what could be. I know, the optimist in me is saying that I should just relax, wait for the real games to start, and see then whether face-offs and defensive prowess will be real problems, but twelve years of following the Oilers as my primary team, with the post-Patrick Roy Habs as my secondary team, has tought me the value of caution in my optimism.
The other thing that scares me is the backup goaltending. I went over it to some degree in the same article in which I protested the pre-emptive burial of Khabibulin, but I just don't have much faith in Jeff Drouin-Deslariers at this point. If he looks shaky while earning the first star at MSG, and only looks worse from there, how can I believe in him? Whether you think his problems are due to lack of talent, lack of proper development, or both, I have a hard time believing that he's anything more than a career backup and a stopgap until (hopefully) Devan Dubnyk develops. Whether you think Dubnyk will develop is another open question, but I think the fact that he still put up an okay SV% behind the AHL's worst team tells me that he is in no way a lost cause; unlike Deslauriers, he's had the benefit of a full-time minor-league team for most of his pro career. I don't know if he challenges for the backup job this year (I'd say not), but he's definitely a threat for 2010-11.
Lord Bob: Perversely, defense is also this team's greatest weakness. The team has a $22.9 million cap hit tied up on the blue line, mostly on big, long-term deals for Visnovsky, Souray, and Gilbert. Visnovsky is unlikely to outperform his $7 million salary, and Souray will be hard-pressed to beat his career year last season. Gilbert and Grebeshkov will cost a hearty $7.15 million for a second pairing, and most glaringly Steve Staios, our sixth-best defenseman, is down for an indefensible $2.7 million cap hit for another two years. Only Grebeshkov and to a lesser extent Smid have shown any signs of outperforming their deals and they're not signed long term. The players are fantastic, but the team would be better if we could shed Souray or Gilbert and add two to four quality players in their stead.
Bruce: Oilers continue to lack players at the prime of their career. They have two distinct groups, up-and-coming youngsters with 3 or fewer years of NHL experience, and 30-something vets with 8 or more years trying to survive the downslide of their careers. I believe only Ales Hemsky (6-year vet) falls in the happy medium between these extremes.
A similar scenario prevails between the pipes, where 36-year-old Nik Khabibulin is an injury risk with a couple of raw rooks (combined NHL experience: 10 GP) waiting in the wings. One of them, preferably JDD since he will get his at-bats first, needs to grab the opportunity and show that he can be relied on to provide adequate relief once a week or so, otherwise Khabibulin gets played into the ground with several possible bad outcomes.
Other potential Achilles heels include a lack of battle-hardened two-way forwards, lack of depth behind Horcoff in the faceoff circle, and the inevitable by-product of both those things, trouble on the penalty-killing unit. Team size, aggressiveness, and compete level also need to be upgraded in 2009-10.
Derek: Outside of Shawn Horcoff, this team lacks mountain climbers. Someone is going to have to take up the slack left behind when Kyle Brodziak was traded, and that amounts to 330 defensive zone faceoffs. It would be a major concern if the Oilers were a team driving the play and pushing the other team back, but the makeup of this team is such that they are going to be pushed back in a big way. Even with Brodziak, MacTavish had to kill Horcoff to save Cogliano and Gagner -- now that Brodziak is gone and an adequate replacement hasn't been signed, either Horcoff will only take defensive zone faceoffs or this team will have problems. Pisani is probably the only other forward on the team that can climb mountains - one train of thought is that Pouliot will be between Moreau and Pisani in a Reasoner-type role and that's not going to be enough. There could be some real trouble ahead for these boys, and Shawn Horcoff will need a full time medical staff to keep him together.
Jonathan: A lack of outscorers. The Oilers have a very nice defensive corps and a group of very experienced, very capable coaches coming in, but they're going to be hard-pressed to make this group of forwards make the playoffs. There are some nice pieces (Hemsky, Horcoff, Penner) up front, but the rest of the guys are either question marks because of age and inexperience (Gagner, O'Sullivan, Cogliano, Nilsson, Pouliot, Stortini) or age and injury concerns the last few years (Pisani, Moreau). Aside from that, I'd say Nikolai Khabibulin's lower-body. He's had a ton of injuries the last few years (averaging 17 games a year hurt) and if he goes down the Oilers are running with Deslauriers/Dubnyk.