A sure sign that the NHL season is right around the corner is when those in the know start unveiling their predictions for the upcoming season. The first such predictions came out yesterday from The Hockey News who picked the Oilers and Senators to finish last in their respective conferences. Predictably, some fans can't understand how anyone could pick the Oilers to finish last. I might be alone in this opinion, but I don't see how anyone wouldn't.
I think the Oilers should be better this year than they were last season but that doesn't mean they still can't finish 15th in the Western Conference. The Oilers weren't just bad last season, they were terrible. With only 62 points the Oilers could have traded nine losses for wins and still would have finished 14th moving past only the Avalanche. On top of that if you look at the clear victory standings on the right, you'll find no team with more losses than the Oilers. From season to season one-goal losses might fall either way but multiple goal losses don't work like that - there is a lot of room for improvement before this team actually moves up the standings.
If the roster had changed significantly since last season I'd be more willing to think that the Oilers could be poised to make a big jump in the standings, but the roster hasn't changed. Nikolai Khabibulin is still the starting goalie and that isn't going to end well. The defense needed help and got only Cam Barker and Andy Sutton to fill the holes. You could argue that Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk will improve the fourth line, but even if that's true it won't count for much of anything in the standings.
To be honest, aside from the signing of Eric Belanger, I don't think the Oilers have done anything to address the holes in a lineup that we just watched finish last. Why should this season be any different? Sure Belanger will help the Oilers win faceoffs and kill penalties, but he alone won't win the Oilers a lot more games regardless of what Tom Renney wants us to believe.
Any belief that the Oilers will be anything other than a last place team focuses on two things: the young players getting better and the team staying healthy. Again, I think the young stars on this team should improve this season but how much better will they have to be for the Oilers to come away with eight to ten more wins? And what if one, or even two, of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, or Linus Omark fall victim to some sort of sophomore slump? In that case anything but last would seem like a long-shot.
Then there is health; this year the team will be healthier, right? Same thing we all hoped for last season. And the year before too. A run of good health could break out, but more likely there will be injuries because every team has injuries. Will the Oilers have as many injuries as last season? Maybe not but there is so little depth on this club that any injuries at all will leave the team in a real tough spot to find adequate replacements. AHL caliber players filling roles on a not very good team will not end well. But you already knew that because you've been watching it for the last few seasons.
The most likely scenario for the Oilers to finish anything but last is for another Western Conference team falling back while the Oilers make minor gains in the standings. That team could be the Avalanche or possibly the Wild (wow does the Northwest have some bad hockey clubs) both of which Scott doesn't think will be much improved next season. But with a two time loser like the Oilers who did little or nothing to improve their fortunes during the offseason, why would you pick anyone else? It might be hard to hear but the smart money should be on the Oilers to finish last again.