Thus far we've reviewed strengths, there are a few, and weaknesses, there are many, in the 2009 preseason roundtable. Part IV takes a peek at training camp and the player battles that fans can look for as September progresses.
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.
5. Which Oiler is most likely to surprise everyone with a better-than-expected season next year?
Shepso: For the love of all that’s good and true in the world, I really hope it’s going to be Dustin Penner, but my prediction is that PO’S is going to have a breakout season.
Hbomb: If we're talking about surprising "the masses", my pick is Shawn Horcoff. The guy didn't have his best season shooting percentage wise last year, and it showed in his offensive numbers. But the fact remains that a) he outscored playing against the other team's best at evens and b) he produced at an elite rate when playing with Ales Hemsky AND Dustin Penner. If he either gets consistent minutes with those two from the get-go this season, or if Coach Quinn says "to heck with hard matching lines", we're going to see a strong offensive season from #10. Granted, people will still complain about his contract, but in my humble opinion, those people need to wake up - this team lacks a lot of things that he brings to the table, and I am, for one, glad they've got him locked down long term for market-value (at least based on the cap projections when he signed the extension in July 2008).
Dawgbone: Fernando Pisani. I think most people know how good of a hockey player he is, but I think he's going to have a great year this year (stats wise). I have a feeling he'll play a lot with either Gagner or Horcoff and I think it's going to give him a boost offensively (to go along with his already stellar defensive play). He's got a good shot, and I think if he plays with those 2 guys he'll get a lot more chances (like he did in the 2006 playoffs).
Doogie2k: I'm tempted to be a smartass and say Horcoff or Khabibulin, depending on which definition of "everyone" you choose, but more seriously, I think Ladislav Smid is getting closer, and could conceivably improve his defensive game this year to the point that we don't worry that much about him anymore. He stated in an interview with Dan Tencer on August 14 that while he'd love to be relied on more offensively, he'd be content to earn more ice time on the penalty-kill, to show the coaching staff what he's learned. He's also put a lot of work into getting more physical at the right times, and I think with the right tutelage, he can put it all together and give the coaching staff some hard decisions down the road.
Lord Bob: Dustin Penner is playing for a coach who doesn't hate him, and that alone should be worth ten or fifteen points. The left wing depth is just as bad as it was last year and without MacTavish's irrational prejudice, one presumes Penner will get the top six even strength and top powerplay time his numbers have clearly earned. While noone is suggesting a Hart nomination, he'll be able to prove he's more than the number-one Wendy's customer in Western Canada.
Bruce: This question is at least as much about the expectations as it is about the players, so I default towards those players who are deemed to be weak links and/or who have fallen out of favour. Poster boy for this category is Robert Nilsson, who around the Oilogosphere has been variously buried in the minors, "traded for picks", or simply gotten rid of in an unspecified manner, as last year's bargain contract is viewed as this year's millstone. Nilsson is in tough in the numbers game for a top 6 spot, but he is one of the most highly skilled players on the team I expect him to be highly motivated as well. Besides, Pat Quinn has a soft spot for Swedes.
Of course, it's possible that Nilsson will surprise everybody with a better-than-expected season in Columbus.
Derek: I agree with Doogie - Ladislav Smid is going to have a breakout year. Though the management of his development has been less than stellar, Smid has 200 games under his belt and he's only 23. Defensemen take so much longer to develop, but Smid is going to get a real sweetheart break because he gets to work with Tom Renney. For an example of what Renney can do, look no further than Daniel Girardi of the Rangers. Smid is bigger, has a better pedigree, more skills and more experience at the same age. Renney turned Griardi into one of his reliable matchup guys and one of his two stalwarts on the penalty kill. I suspect Smid is in for a rocky start to the season as he learns what Renney wants him to do - but his second half should be a revelation.
Jonathan: Patrick O'Sullivan. I was very tempted to say "Dustin Penner", for a lot of very good reasons, but the fact is that O'Sullivan struggled all last season after holding out in training camp, and had very poor results after coming over to Edmonton and so expectations are low. O'Sullivan's a tremendous shooter - he just missed the 50 goal mark as an AHL rookie - but he's also a guy who seems to recognize the need to play two-way hockey and has become a penalty-killer at a very young age. He should put up decent totals but he'll also be an important part of the roster in ways that don't show up on the scoresheet. At the risk of offending Derek, there's a chance he comes out of camp with a first-line job.