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Reading Between the Lines

Jim Matheson (seen here in his Edmonton Journal stock photo) is a guy who's been writing about the Oilers for a long time, and a guy who for my money has the best inside track on what's happening with the team. In a town with a bunch of good media types (leaving aside the few regretable exceptions), Matheson stands out because when he hints at something in a column, it's usually something that the Oilers braintrust is mulling over.

Today's Edmonton Journal piece, "Looking into the crystal ball" is a good example of this kind of writing. Let's look at some specific examples.

Q: Will left winger Dustin Penner be shuttled off the No. 1 line with the arrival of Erik Cole from the Carolina Hurricanes for defenceman Joni Pitkanen?

A: Possibly. Penner led the Oilers with 23 goals last year, but only 10 came even-strength, which has to improve. Cole, who turns 30 in November, has more of a pedigree as a scorer and is faster, plus he can be a nasty piece of business when he wants to go to the net. Penner was much better as the season wore on at a lighter weight than the 245 pounds he brought into camp last year. But he still might wind up on the third line.

The blogosphere this summer hasn't exactly reached a consensus on what the Oilers will look like up front, but I think the majority of commenters expected to see something like this:

Penner - Horcoff - Hemsky
Nilsson - Cogliano - Gagner
Cole - Pouliot/Brodziak - Pisani

as the top-nine. The implications of bumping Penner down to the third line are a little worrisome; rather than having two lines with decent tough-minutes potential, the potential top line of Cole-Horcoff-Hemsky would clearly be in a power-vs.-power mode, with Penner-Brodziak-Pisani a clearly inferior second choice.

: With Shawn Horcoff back from his shoulder surgery, what does MacTavish do with his first power-play unit? Second-liner Sam Gagner was very effective there the last couple of months after Horcoff went down.

A: Horcoff is the No. 1 pivot on the top line and was signed to a new six-year contract, which shows their long-term faith in him. But the play-making Gagner had the power-play clicking down the stretch last season. Count on Horcoff getting first power-play time.

This is interesting. I've argued over the summer that Horcoff's faceoffs/defensive ability means that he's going to be stretched awfully thin as it is, and that giving Gagner (who isn't far back offensively 5-on-4) first-line minutes might be the most effective management of Horcoff's ice-time.

Q: Will MacTavish stick with his kids -- Robert Nilsson with Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano -- on a second line? And will Gagner continue on right-wing when centre is his natural position?

A: (in part) MacTavish swears he wants them together because of their obvious chemistry, even though there's really no classic shooter on the line.

While it seems almost certain now that MacTavish will use the Kid Line as a unit coming out of the gate, I really don't see them being kept together long-term, particularly if Cole plays on the top line. If they are kept together, I imagine that they'll actually be the third line, behind the Hemsky and Pisani lines.

Q: Will Mathieu Garon be as hot as he was last year or did some teams find a small chink in his armour late in the year, beating him on the glove side?

A: Garon's contract is up next July. They might want to lock up the NHL's best shootout goalie for three or four more years, but they might also want to see how he is two months into the season, first. Garon, who has incredible quickness across the crease, won 26 games to Dwayne Roloson's 15 last year, and his goals-against average and save percentage were considerably better.

But Roloson stepped up and almost got the Oilers into the playoffs when Garon hurt his leg. Roloson, who turns 39 in October, is obviously on the hot seat. The Oilers weren't crazy about having a $3-million backup for long stretches last year. They won't like it this year, either, unless they split the chores.

Roloson has to be as good as Garon in camp or he'll be shopped around because Jeff-Drouin Deslauriers, who just signed a one-way deal for $550,000 this season, can't be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers and they feel somebody will pick him up. They'll likely carry three goalies to start the season.

Deslauriers will start the season with the team. Beyond that, I think Lowe and Co. have decided that they like the guys they have on the team, but still don't know how everything's going to shake out, so they'll enter the season with who they have and just see what happens.

I'm not really crazy about that, but it has a good chance of working out OK.

Q: What about Kyle Brodziak? Was last season an aberration or is he the late Lorne Davis's last draft find?

A: Brodziak is a big body, something the Oilers can certainly use. He only played 12:55 a night last season but had 31 points, including 14 goals, playing under the radar as a fourth-liner. The key is whether he can stand more scrutiny as the third-line checking pivot, with Fernando Pisani on the right side and maybe Penner.

Brodziak is clearly ahead of Pouliot at this point and should get the first crack at the third line position. A number of bloggers have suggested that Pouliot is a better fit on the line, but be that as it may, to this point Brodziak's shown more at the NHL level (and that includes Pouliot's 2006-07).

Q: What do they do with defenceman Denis Grebeshkov after his breakout year now that Sheldon Souray (shoulder) is back in the top four with Staios, their likely shutdown guy, Visnovsky and Tom Gilbert? Can Grebeshkov get enough minutes as a No. 5?

A: Grebeshkov only signed a one-year contract with the new Kontinental League in Russia romancing him. He opened the eyes of a lot of NHL scouts with his play as the 2007-08 season wore on, cutting down on his riverboat gambler plays. He averaged almost 17 minutes a game. They have to find him minutes, somehow.

Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I really think Grebeshkov bolts back to Russia after this season. It is his home, and it's a decent bet that the money's going to be comparable.

Q: Will there be any room at the inn for Rob Schremp, who's played two AHL seasons and is in the last year of his three-year entry-level contract?

A: Schremp, who played a lot of wing in Springfield, has to knock MacTavish's socks off to make the squad, and despite 76 points in the AHL last year, may be trade bait. He's worked at getting stronger and quicker but he really has to be a top-six NHL forward to be most effective. He doesn't have a one-way contract, which hurts his cause, too.

I think Schremp's going to be a player, but I don't think it will be with Edmonton. There are simply too many other skilled, smallish, less-than-defensively-responsible options up front who are clearly ahead of Schremp at this juncture.

Still, if he blows everyone away in training camp, I think he'll force MacTavish's hand, much like Tom Gilbert did last season.