Two recipients of a mid-season award. One good, the other not so much.
With yesterday's loss the Oilers have now completed the first half of the 2011/12 NHL schedule. The first half of the season saw the team shoot out of the gates posting a 8-2-2 record in the first weeks of the season, a pace that even the most optimistic fan knew wasn't sustainable but was fun all the same. Since that fast start however, the season has taken a decidedly negative turn as both losses and injuries have started to pile up and the team has fallen down the Western Conference standings making the dream of playing meaningful games in March looks less and less likely by the day.
The Oilers 16-22-3 record is good for 35 points and 13th place in the Western Conference. For those who thought the Oilers would be significantly improved in the standings this season this has to be a little disappointing as the Oilers reached the midway points with 33 points last season and 36 the season before and we all know how those seasons ended. Perhaps the biggest plus this season might be that the Oilers aren't already at the bottom of the Western Conference standings like they were in each of the two previous seasons by the time game 41 had come and gone. Don't let it be said that there hasn't been progress.
The season hasn't been all negative by any means though. The play of the Chosen Line can't been seen as anything other than positive. The same can be said for Ryan Smyth who has played like a man much younger than he is. Or Ryan Jones who has surprised a number of his detractors by making a commitment to defensive play that has made him a much better player than he was last season. Or even Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid who have been leaned on heavily in the absence of Ryan Whitney and other players capable of playing a top four role in the NHL.
After the jump I'll hand out the Oilers mid-season awards for Biggest Surprise, Biggest Disappointment , and Most Valuable Player.
Biggest Surprise - Of the three awards I spent more time thinking about this one than any other. In the end though I couldn't pick anyone other than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the Oilers' biggest surprise so far this season. Just months removed from playing for the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL and being selected by the Oilers first overall in the 2011 Entry Draft, Nugent-Hopkins, who won't turn 19 until after the Oilers season has ended in April, has surpassed every reasonable expectation the Oilers and their fans could have had for him.
Nugent-Hopkins, who will miss the next three to four weeks with a shoulder injury, has scored 13 goals and added 22 assists in his first 38 games in the NHL. His 35 points tie him for 30th in the NHL, second on the Oilers behind Jordan Eberle (the other player I considered for this award), and first among this season's rookie class. With the man advantage Nugent-Hopkins has really shined; of his 35 points this season 18 have come on the powerplay. He trails the NHL leaders in the category by just a single point and already has more powerplay points than any Oilers player has accumulated in either of the last two seasons. At even strength the picture isn't as good despite playing with quality teammates against weak competition, but that's not surprising for a rookie. Most everything else he's done has been a surprise though.
Biggest Disappointment - It'd be hard to argue that Magnus Paajarvi, who is currently plying his trade in Oklahoma City with the Barons after recording just three assists and no goals in 25 games and being a healthy scratch on several occasions, isn't the biggest disappointment of the season. As a member of last season's Holy Trinity along with Taylor Hall and Eberle hopes were high for Paajarvi going into his sophomore season, certainly a lot higher than a stint in the AHL with the farm team.
Expecting all three of last season's rookies to be greatly improved this season would have been a little optimistic but of the group I thought Paajarvi had a good chance to be the most improved. After a slow start in his rookie season (six points in 22 games) Paajarvi seemed to turn a corner, a trend I thought would continue into this season. Sadly that didn't happen. Perhaps it was just a matter of line mates and opportunities, or maybe it was a confidence thing and his time with the Barons where he is just off a point per game pace will be just what he needs to get his game back on track, only time will tell. But for the first half of the season Paajarvi has been the Oilers biggest disappointment.
Most Valuable Player - In the off season the Oilers front office chose to add Cam Barker and Andy Sutton to a thin Oilers defence corps rather than players who would actually help. Worse still Whitney missed the start of the season recovering from ankle surgery and when he did return was a shadow of his former self depleting the Oilers blue line even further. With a team this thin on the back end the Oilers are lucky that they've had Tom Gilbert, their first half MVP, available to step up and try to stop the bleeding.
Night after night Gilbert plays big minutes, 23:41 a night on average, almost three minutes more than any other player on the Oilers. And those minutes aren't easy either, Gilbert consistently plays against the other teams best players and still comes away from that assignment looking pretty good more often than not. Even with the defensive workload and responsibilities Gilbert has still been able to record a points at a rate nearly as good as any other year of his career with the exception of 08/09 when the Oilers blue line also included Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky; I think it goes without say that Gilbert is playing a much bigger role on this team than he was back then. And that is why he is the MVP of the Oilers so far this season.