Photo by: Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons
Without some sort of hockey god intervention, the Oilers are headed back to the lottery for the third year in a row. The percentages and the soft early schedule allowed them to jump out quickly, but that hot start belied the structural issues with the team. By points per game the Oilers sit 13th in the conference, 24th in the NHL and they're one of the coldest teams in the NHL at the Christmas break. They're a second pairing short of just being a competitive team and their goaltending is bound to snap back to reality soon.
At some point, hopefully sooner than later, Magnus Paajarvi will get the call to come back to Edmonton. The points weren't there in the NHL, but the shots were still there and the attention to defense was as well. His biggest deficiency is his willingness to settle, but he's dynamic and he's still a far better player than Eager, Hordichuk, Petrell, or Lander. Omark will be back by the first week of February and should be back in the NHL shortly thereafter. He's proven himself to be a complete offensive player and an amazing talent low in the offensive zone. Like Paajarvi, he's better than the entire fourth line and his power play ability makes him better than Jones in my book. The Oilers need to stop treating the Swedes like red-headed step-children and field the roster on merit.
The Chosen Line of Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle has been fun to watch, especially at home. Hall has become not just the line's motor, he's become the driving force behind the entire team. He's an unconscious shooter (the only one on the team) who is slowly developing his passing game. He's the one member of this line that doesn't need protection. Nugent-Hopkins is growing into his role and still has his faults, but he's a sublime talent who sees the game well ahead of the play, something the Oilers haven't had in the middle since Doug Weight. Eberle is least golden of the golden boys, but he might have the best hands of the bunch. He's a finesse player without being soft, and he does his best work when he's got to handle in a phone booth. Bruce likes to compare him to Joey Mullen, the great Flame and Penguin who was both diminutive and slicker than the devil in velvet pants.
There's a certain familiarity to an unbalanced Oilers' roster. Management has spent an immense amount of effort over the last five years turning and churning the roster and somehow each year they end up with a severely unbalanced roster. This year the management team thought it best to start the season with only two top four defensemen in Gilbert and Whitney. Smid has stepped his game up after finally getting the chance to play night-in and night-out with a puck-mover and Potter looked like yet another of Glen Sather's personnel mistakes for a month. But since the heights of October, Whitney is playing injured and doing so poorly. Potter has looked average at best, though he's been paired with Whitney, which hasn't been easy on anyone. Jeff Petry has been solid in between his nightly turnover, but he's been forced to carry Theo Peckham, who lost his game somewhere on holiday over the summer. The Oilers are left with a top pairing that can hold their own in Smid and Gilbert, and make no mistake, Gilbert has been truly remarkable. In my eyes, he's playing at Norris levels right now. They've got a bottom pairing guy in Petry who is growing up with each game and another bottom-pairing guy in Andy Sutton, who upon his return from injury will have missed 13 games due to suspensions, 10 due to injury and will have played in 16 games, hardly the paragon of consistency. The Oilers need help on the back end in a big way.
Since Georges Laraque left for Phoenix, management has tried to replace his intimidating presence on the ice. Laraque was no great shakes as a player, but he wasn't consistently abused and stuck in his own end. The Oilers have tried five men in his stead, all to no avail. Boulerice, Eager, Hordichuk, Macintyre, Stortini have combined to be neither intimidating, nor effective. Oiler have Oiler has been subjected to hard hits, blindsides, and late runs and the presence of these hired knuckles has done nothing to stop any of it. At some point, management is going to realize that being tough and playing tough are completely different things, as the Detroit Red Wings demonstrate each year. Wasting a roster spot and icetime on useless players only serves to keep the Oilers far from the playoffs.
Barring Kurri's intervention, the Oilers will finish their sixth season in a row without a playoff appearance. Six long seasons bobbing like a cork in the ocean at the mercy of the wind and the tides. How long is six seasons? Doug MacLean managed the Blue Jackets for six seasons without a playoff appearance and was fired for it. He may have single-handedly killed hockey in Ohio for a very long time. We're in Doug MacLean territory now.
Unrestricted free agency starts on July 1st 2012, which is just seven months away. Hopefully by then the Oilers will have realized that Cam Barker and Andy Sutton are not the answer to the blueline problems and they'll sign some useful free agents. They need men who can get to the puck and get it up and out of the zone smoothly and cleanly. I hear Denis Grebeshkov is going to be a UFA in Russia.
As a team, the Oilers have suffered eight ligament injuries so far this season:
Ankle: Barker, Gagner, Omark, Potter, Whitney
Shoulder: Hall, Hartikainen
After starting the season 6-2-2, the Oilers have gone 9-14-1. That's a 65 point pace for a full season.
Since signing his six-year extension in the summer of 2006, Ales Hemsky has suffered ten injuries that have kept him out for an extended time. His injuries include his right shoulder, right shoulder, knee, concussion, left shoulder, leg, groin, concussion, shoulder, and right shoulder. Those injuries have kept him out of 134 games. It's difficult to think of another player in Oilers history who possessed so much talent and missed so many games.
When the horn sounds on the end of the Oilers' 2011-12 season, it will mark the 11th season under Kevin Lowe's control. And though Lowe was a decent General Manager before the lockout, he's yet to adjust to a salary cap world and hasn't fielded a competitive team since he traded Ryan Smyth. Over the course of those 11 seasons, the Oilers have three playoff appearances - currently tied for 25th in the league over that span. Should the Wild and Coyotes make the playoffs this year, the Oilers drop back to 27th place. The Oilers are in front of only Columbus, Winnipeg and Florida over that span.
Those twelve forwards are waiting for the puck on the breakout and have been all year long. They're still waiting...