The Oilers sit 27th in the league at the half-way point of their season with 35 points. They hit the half-way point in 09-10 with 36 points and finished last. They had 33 at the half-way point 10-11 and finished last. Most fans weren't expecting a playoff team this season, but another trip to the lottery is one of a number of disappointments. Even in the midst of yet another lottery season, there have been some high points and highlights, but they've been few and far between as injuries have besieged the team over the last month.
To get a wider view of the season so far, we asked our writers, as well as a group of esteemed guest writers, to break down the season to date.
Our lineup this time includes Pat, from Black Dog Hates Skunks, a guy being driven towards the brink by this team, Jeff Chapman, the man behind Oil On Whyte, Jerconjake, who carves through the numbers at Oil Acumen, dawgbone98, who continues to embarrass panels with his tactics posts, Scott Reynolds, Copper & Blue's intellectual force, Derek Zona, who preaches that we're all just slaves to the math, Ryan Batty, the guy with so much optimism, he still attends every home game, and Lowetide the multi-media star, owner/writer of three Oilers' sites and an Oilers' radio show.
Copper & Blue: What has been the biggest surprise about the team and who has been the biggest surprise individually?
Chappy: No question, the biggest surprise about this team was their surge to begin the season. At one point, they were 9-3-2 and wore the biggest hat in the league for a week or so. Individually, I wrestled with choosing Ryan Smyth, Jordan Eberle, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and I've got to defer to the kid. RNH has 35 points in 38 games before sustaining his shoulder injury. Eberle and Smyth have both been great, but *the biggest* surprise? If you told me RNH would average nearly a point per game so far, I probably would've laughed. Show me the next party that guy's going to be at, and I'm wheeling in the keg.
dawgbone: I'd have to say the power play. The PK was going to be better just because they couldn't possibly get goaltending as bad as they got last year while down a man, plus they added some good pkers in Smyth and Sutton. While the PK improvement has been more than what most expected, the power play has improved even more. I don't think many expected the Oilers to have a top 10 PP this late into the season and despite the fact that it has been a bit predictable as of late, it still finds ways to put the puck in the back of the net. The biggest individual surprise has to be Eberle. He's a good player and has always tracked to be a good player, but being a PPG+ player is probably beyond what most expected. Personally I figured he'd be a regular 30 goal 30 assist guy, so this is way above the charts. He's just one point away from last years totals in almost 30 less games. He's a keeper and an absolute steal of a draft pick.
Derek Zona: The biggest surprise was Tom Renney's early season line matching and attention to zonestarts. After Pat Quinn's insane line management and Renney's Alberta Waltz changes, I'd almost forgotten that the Oilers could match too! Real coaching was an Edmonton strength under Craig MacTavish (except for that last season), but that seems like a decade ago. The biggest individual surprise has been Ladislav Smid. We knew that he was a solid lower-pairing defenseman when paired with a puck-mover, but we didn't know that he was able to hang on a top pair when paired with a good enough defenseman.
Jake: I guess the biggest surprise about the Oilers as a team is that both special teams are in the top ten in the league. As of this writing the power play is sitting in fourth in the NHL by percentage and second in goals-scored after finishing 27th last year, and the penalty kill is a respectable ninth place after finishing 29th last season. Individually, it's a toss up but I have to give it to Ryan Smyth with honorable mention to RNH and Khabibulin. Smyth is on pace for 32 goals and 67 points, which would be his highest totals since 2005-06, when he put up 36-30-66 before the cup run. Even at 35 years old he has yet to go more than four games without a point. His return has been better than anyone could have hoped.
Lowetide: Biggest team surprise for me was the start, 8-2-2. I think it points out the importance of veterans along the blue and those fine role players up front like Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff. Along with Khabibulin, they gave Oiler fans a glimpse of the future, even if it was a false run owing to the Gods of Save Percentage. It also gives us a template for next summer’s shopping list.
Biggest individual surprise is RNH on the PP. What an amazing run! His ability to make ridiculous plays 5x4 remind old guys like me of another guy who spent some good years in this city. Wonderful talent. I can’t express how much fun it is to have a PP that works. I’ve spent a decade using Oiler powerplays as a bathroom break.
Pat BDHS: The biggest surprise about the team was their start. It seems a million years ago and a lot of it was crazy goaltending but Dennis King’s scoring chances (and JUST WATCHING THE GAME) showed that the majority of those wins were bought and paid for. Very few flukes. The biggest surprise individually? I thought Eberle would make a big leap but not this big and I never thought Ted would be that good but to me its got to be Smid finally making the leap. Before the year I figured he might, might, be a top four guy. Now a lot of it is Tom Gilbert but he has been a legit top pair guy imo.
Ryan Batty: The biggest surprise about this team is how important Taylor Hall is to their success. When he's on his game he looks almost unstoppable out there. Take him out of the lineup though and the whole team seems to grind to a halt. It's stunning that a second year players has that kind of impact on this team. Individually the biggest surprise has to be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Expectations are always high for a first overall pick but he's blown expectations away. There is still plenty of room for improvement, especially at even strength, but he is much better than I had expected at this point. His vision and ability to slow the game down are really remarkable for a rookie.
Scott Reynolds: There have been a lot of positive surprises for the Oilers so far this year, but at the team level nothing really stands out because most facets of the game have improved from atrocious to mediocre. From an individual standpoint, there have been several huge positive surprises. I would never have guessed that Jordan Eberle would be among the league's leading scorers; that Ryan Jones would be consistently in the top nine and a positive contributor; that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be near a point per game and have such an enormous impact on the power play; that Ryan Smyth would be on pace for his fourth-ever 30-goal, 60-point season; or that Corey Potter would prove to be one of the team's best six defensemen. But the biggest surprise for me would have to be Nikolai Khabibulin both because of his excellent play and because of the way that the Edmonton crowd has embraced him. When the "Khabby" chants rang out in the Oilers' win over Washington, I was absolutely speechless.
Copper & Blue: What has been the biggest disappointment about the team and who has been the biggest disappointment individually?
Scott Reynolds: The biggest disappointment about the team is that they're still in "managing expectations" mode rather than "judge by results" mode, but disappointing might not quite be the right word, since I knew that was the case coming into the year. The biggest disappointment individually has probably been the play of Theo Peckham. He wasn't great last season, but he was decent and young enough to be part of the future at a position that the Oilers desperately need better players. By no means is he the worst player on the team, but I was really hoping he'd continue along an upward trajectory and it hasn't happened yet. Hopefully he has a great second half.
Chappy: The biggest disappointment about the team? Starting out so well, then winning seven of their next 25 games. Everybody knew the hot start was just that, and while I knew the playoffs were some dreamy land that I've only heard about on TV, a part of me thought if they could play slightly better than .500 hockey they might slip in. Advanced stats sometimes take me a minute to get, but seven in 25 is somewhat slightly worse than .500 hockey. The biggest disappointment individually (and through no fault of his own) is Ryan Whitney. The team's got two legit NHL defenders on it as we speak, and while Ryan Whitney isn't Lubomir Visnovsky, he's a guy I'd be happy to have on the blue. His ankle is wonky. I'm not blaming him for that, it's just disappointing that he's not out there racking up assists and helping keep the bad guys at bay.
dawgbone: I think the fall has been the biggest disappointment. The year started off with a lot of promise. Not just wins, but in terms of teams overall ability to legitimately win games without relying solely on percentages. Since about the 15 game mark though, the team has fallen apart and we are now back to what we witnessed the past 2 seasons. In terms of individual disappointment, for me it's Hemsky. I had high hopes for him coming into the season. By all accounts his shoulder problems were behind him and he was coming into a contract year with a lot to prove and the ability to be a leader on this team. Then he re-injures his shoulder making a pass of all things and the whole world has turned against him as he tries to play through it.
Derek Zona: The biggest disappointment was Tom Renney's inability to line match or pay attention to zonestarts over the last six weeks. The first six weeks showed he was capable, but he just quit doing it, right when the Oilers needed him most. The biggest individual disappointment has been Theo Peckham. He wasn't great last year, but when he was teamed with a puck-mover, he was...adequate on the bottom pair. This year, his game has disappeared. Maybe it's his defensive partners, but it's not like he's playing difficult minutes. It's like he forgot how to play defense.
Jake: The most disappointing thing was the Oilers' fall from grace after their hot start to the season. You'd think we'd be used to it by now, but this time there was actual talent to make us believe the winning was sustainable. Playoffs were always a long shot, but it was hard to start 9-3-2 and then watch them go 7-19-1 after that. Individually I've felt most disappointed with Devan Dubnyk. He's shown flashes, but he's got to be better if the Oilers are going to compete and one day rely on him to be their starter. Last year he looked ready to take over the bulk of the load, and this year he's sporting a 3.09 GAA and 0.904 SV% to go with a 5-9 record.
Lowetide: I was extremely disappointed in the roster makeup. Sending down Omark so early and not finding a slot for Paajarvi, while holding on to a not quite ready for prime time Lander. They made some unusual choices, and they have not worked out. I understand the fast start may have clouded things, but believe it’s fair to openly question some of the roster moves on cut down day.
Individually, the Cam Barker signing. The Oilers needed a veteran top 4 defender who could help Smid-Gilbert and Whitney. Barker had no history of being that player, and looking at this team now it is galling to imagine what a real NHL defenseman would mean to this young team. And that isn’t second guessing, we knew it at the time. Those signings—the veteran blue—are just so important and the cost was dear. Extremely disappointing.
Pat BDHS: The biggest disappointment for the team is that they could not sustain their start. I don’t mean being top of the conference but just outplaying teams legitimately night in and night out. Its been rare. Biggest individual disappointment is probably Paajarvi especially after his nice finish last year. He got a bit of a raw deal but he really looked lost out there.
Ryan Batty: The biggest disappointment about the team has to be that it's the midway point and we're already dead, again. There have been improvements in some areas, special teams for example, but the results just aren't there in the standings and that's hard to take season after season. Being a season ticket holder I'm tired of watching a slow painful march to the finish line every February, March, and April. Individually I'd have to say Paajarvi. Three points in 25 games and now he's in Oklahoma City trying to find his game. I don't know that he's treated the same as the rest of the rookies but regardless his season has been a disappointment so far.
Pat BDHS: I love Tom Gilbert and he is having a fantastic year but I don’t know that he’s at that level yet.
Ryan Batty: Gilbert has been amazing so far this season so I'd like to think some people are paying attention but he seems to be under appreciated in Edmonton so I highly doubt the rest of the NHL has even started to pay attention. What's funny is that if the Oilers had an actual NHL calibre blue line and Gilbert was being asked to only do about half of what he's doing this season he'd likely have more points and would be a big part of the Norris conversation.
Scott Reynolds: Absolutely not. Tom Gilbert is an excellent defenseman, but there's no chance that he's the best defenseman in the league. If I were making a Norris ballot today and had to pick five guys, I'd go with Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Suter, and (dare I say it) Dion Phaneuf.
Chappy: Tom Gilbert should absolutely get Norris consideration. Tom Gilbert will absolutely not get Norris consideration. Gilbert has easily been the club's number one defenceman throughout the year, he eats a suitcase full of ice time, he's a shot-blocking machine, and as of this sentence has somehow managed to be just -2 on a team that's won seven games over their past 25. The hit that Carcillo planted on him on Monday? Gilbert was scheduled to play three days later. While I think he's the best defenceman on this team, I don't see him coming close to being nominated for the Norris. His name doesn't even come close to sounding like "Chara" or "Lidstrom", or even "Phaneuf", so I don't think there's a ghost of a chance for the guy to get any Norris love.
dawgbone: He should but he won't. This is a name based trophy just as much as it is an ability trophy and he doesn't have the name.
Derek Zona: He should, yes. He's been the best defenseman on the team four years in a row and last season became one of the best in the conference. This season, he's been even better and his all-around game has allowed Ladislav Smid to take a huge step forward in his development. He might still be a step down from Chara, Lidstrom, Weber and Suter grouping, but there's no question that he's as good as the Letang, Keith, Bieksa, Staal group. On a good team, Gilbert would get media attention. He won't get consideration though, and that's a shame, because there's a chance he's going to spend the seven year arc and apex of an excellent career toiling for the worst team in the league.
Jake: No chance. Tom Gilbert's game is so low profile that some people who watch every Oilers game have still managed to hate him for years. He's certainly a quality defenseman and he's changed a lot of minds this year, but he'll be passed over in the Norris race by the high profile guys like Lidstrom, Weber, Letang, Karlsson, et al, and probably rightfully so.
Lowetide: I would stop short of suggesting he’s a Norris candidate, but Gilbert is a quality NHL defenseman. One of the things I’m most pleased about this season is the number of Oiler fans who are coming around in regard to his skills. Tom Gilbert is underrated overall, and a couple of Norris votes would be welcome, but I don’t think he’s the best defenseman in the division and that would be my criteria for Norris consideration.