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Oilers Roundtable Discussion, 1/3 of the way through the season - Part I

Injuries and a new coaching staff - how has the initial portion of the season matched with expectations?  The Copper & Blue's roundtable is back to answer those questions. 

Our lineup includes: the prolix Shepso, combining modern western philosophy and hockey at Bringing Back The Glory; Chappy, owner of This is Not a Love Song; HBomb, everyone's favorite bartender in the Oilers' 'sphere;  Dawgbone, the pragmatic commentor that writes too infrequently at After The Green Light; Doogie2k, the go-to guy on physiology working at Still No Name; everyone's favorite antagonist Ender, Doogie's partner in crime at Still No Name; and SumOil, a frequent commenter here and the biggest optimist that any of us know. 

Find the entire series here, tagged 2009 midseason roundtable.

They all weigh in after the jump.

C&B:  Can the Oilers, in all honesty, blame injuries?

Shepso:  I really don’t know how to answer this question as the team hasn’t played with a full roster since approximately game three, at which point (I believe) the team was 1-1-1 including two brutally humiliating defeats at the hands of the flames. The 6-2-1 start to the season really seemed to lull the team into a false sense of security. In other words, they had bought into the false consciousness initiated by their supposed success, even though management was still providing them with a less than ideal situation in which to work with, thus alienating them from themselves and their labour and leading to the inevitable crash in productivity based on unsustainable expectations and an internalized over-inflation of their material value. (Papa Karl, I do love you… now when is the revolution going to start?)

Basically, what I am getting at here, is that the team bought into the myth that they were good enough, despite being outplayed and outshot, despite the swine, the pubis thing, the gradual losses of Steady Stevie, big sexy, Lubo, Ladi, Chorney, Hemsky, Horcoff, Nilsson, Brule and now even Duff Man has mono… Ok, well, maybe the injuries are a little bit to blame, but the fact that DP is suddenly our best man on the draw (9/11 last night) and is really carrying the team on his (not so fat) back, well, the system was flawed from the start-kinda like capitalism. I want to, and several times have implored others to tow the company line and wait and see what happens when everyone is healthy, but the thing of it is, most of the team is back now and they still don’t look so great. Sure, a 4-0 win Monday night is still a 4-0 win, but so is a football in the groin sometimes. This team coasts at the best of times, doesn’t seem to work very hard and gets outplayed in nearly every game I have watched this season. The only really consistent players have been Penner night in and night out (that A he wears sometimes should become permanent), Souray when he’s been healthy, and Ladi freakin Smid. The team still has holes to be filled, and the injury imp, bastard that he is, is not completely to blame.

Chappy:  Being well out in front of the league in man-games lost to injury, you have to at least partially take injuries in account.  It seems like every other game another guy is hitting the deck.  I'm sure Dean Arsene is a stand up guy, but I can safely say that no one expected to see him on the big club this year.


HBomb:  They can argue it's had an impact, but there's obvious deficiencies on this roster even when everyone's healthy (3C, 2LW being the two most obvious spots).  If they say at the end of the season that the Injury Bug is the reason they didn't make the playoffs, I hope someone in the Edmonton media has the guts to call BS. 


Dawgbone:  I think blame is a bit of a poor choice of words here, because while this team really wasn't good enough in the first place, it's been compounded by the injuries.  It's one thing to have a team with a couple of holes here and there.  You can sort of work through it, hopefully catch some breaks (like they did early), and see if something comes up later in the season where you can address a couple of needs.  As it stands now, there isn't anything that gives you much hope that they will be in that position.  The biggest issues with the injuries is that it happened to areas the Oilers were strong in (for the most part).  The Oilers top six (Souray, Lubo, Gilbert, Grebs, Staios, Smid) have combined to miss 36 games.  Jason Strudwick is second amongst Oiler defencemen in games played.  You can live with guys like Stone, JFJ, Comrie, etc... missing time because there are several guys in the lineup that can fill those roles.  Once you start losing 2 and 3 of your blueliners at one time it makes things far more difficult.  Not only do you already have the initial holes in your lineup, you've now got new leaks springing up on the other side of the ship.

Doogie2k: I can interpret this question two different ways.  One is, "can we blame injuries for how bad the team's been this year?"  My response to that is, "Well, of course."  Souray missed a good 15 games, Horcoff and Hemsky and maybe even Visnovsky have been playing hurt at various times this year (and now Hemsky's gone for the year, which helps not at all), and Pisani and Pouliot have played barely and not at all, respectively.  I also think Ryan Stone was actually playing well before he got hurt, and that the Oilers have missed him more than most might think: he's big, gritty, and not a fuck-up, which is a big deal on this roster.  And all that's to say nothing of the escalating diseases running through the dressing room: first the regular flu, then swine flu, and then Comrie with mono?  What's next?  Tom Gilbert on the IR with chlamydia?  While you can argue over the extent of the injury effect -- indeed, Scott and Ender did, just the other day -- it's inarguable that injuries to our best players have cost us games.  You can't lose some of the few guys who can play in both ends of the rink for that amount of time and not have it affect your game.

The other is, "can we blame injuries for Tambellini not making a move to improve the team to this point?"  That's a bit more complicated, because I think Tambellini believed that he needed a good look at the lineup before he could judge not just what the team needed, but what they could deal.  The problem is, his coach has been saying since day one that they've only got one good two-way centre (who's been playing through a busted shoulder), and that it's a small team without enough grit and defensive awareness to compete, and I think that's informed our frustration with his lack of a deal, especially since it's exactly what we've been saying for a couple of years.  The other problem that Tambellini faced, of course, was the cap and the fact that any move he made was going to need to involve similar or more money going back the other way, which most clubs aren't interested in at this stage of the season.  It'll be interesting to see what he does over the next few weeks now that he has some space to play with, and whether his fellow GMs buy his public stance that he's playing wait-and-see, or if they'll be able to smell the desperation of a man with one of his best players on LTIR.

Ender:  To some extent, yes.  Realistically this team doesn't have a lot of players who will tilt the ice by themselves (if they have anyone).  As such the key to this team's success *has* to be their team/line play.  All the team-building weekends in the world won't help you if the lines aren't together for more than a week or if your roster changes by 20% on a week-to-week basis.  As it is, the "healthy" players seem to be playing hurt and I honestly can't think of any team in the league who has the depth to deal with these sorts of injuries on this short of a timeframe.

SumOil:  There are many teams who have been bit by the injury bug and have remained competitive, if not dominant. Three teams that come to mind are the New Jersey Devils, the Red Wings and the Bruins. The Devils at one point had 4 of their regular 6 D-men out to injuries. That did not slow them down. The injury bug for Bruins and Red Wings has been well documented. Even then, they have been competitive. They have definitely lost games, but have played with vigor and purpose often out-shooting and/or out-chancing their opponents. Its not the injuries that is hurting the Oilers as much as an obvious lack of depth and refusal of sticking to the game plan. There aren't players in the system who could offset the loss of either Hemsky, Penner or Horcoff. Also most of the players in the AHL are either on AHL contracts or just not good enough to be in the NHL. 

Injuries are an excuse by the management and the players for the poor showing. Patrick O'Sullivan is generally playing in an uninspired lazy manner. Players are abandoning their defensive assignments. Many of the roster players aren't contributing in any positive manner. Is it the fault of injuries that Gilbert is unable to break the opposing forwards' puck-cycling? Of course injuries are somewhat  responsible for our record. However they cant be blamed for our mistake prone insipid play. First show me hard-work, commitment to game plan and mistake free hockey and then blame the injuries if you lose.


C&B:  Have Quinn and Renney mattered at all?

Shepso:  In a word, kinda. They have employed better tactics offensively, but on the defensive side of things, not so much. The forwards seem to be lost in the defensive zone, often caught over-pursuing and not doing the little things with the puck to get it out to safety. On the offensive side of the game, the "skill" guys are still trying to be too cute with the puck. If I see one more blind-side behind-the- back spin pass, I might start breaking things. The biggest difference is in the change of attitude that a lot of the players seem to have, about not being afraid to screw up anymore. The biggest impact has been clearly on Dustin Penner, who is emerging as an elite power forward, and we are all so thankful that his boxcars have finally caught up to the underliers! One thing I must say about Quinn is that I really love his pressers. He is brutally honest and his old-coot folksy ways actually make him more fun to watch then MacT sometimes. His directness is refreshing and I think he knows exactly what is wrong with this team. I can see him making a push to get upstairs should Tambi falter at all. He knows how to win and will instil a new culture in the locker room; he just needs a bit more time to do it. Renney on the other hand has been less visible. His PP is doing better(ish) but I just don't want it to turn into the one-trick pony show of pass it to Souray. I also think that Gagner should be taking some of Horc's PP1 time, just to take the pressure off of Hemsky and add some creativity to the formation. Horc should be on PP2 with Cogs and POS. I think that tactically the team plays much better at Evs in the offensive zone and that they make the most of their chances when they get them, but defensively, based on the calibre of players available, I am surprised by the more recent poor play in the d-zone. Some of that must be attributed to coaching now that all the starters but Grebs are in the lineup. 

Chappy:  Yes, definitely.   I think the ship Quinn and Renney are running is a tight operation.  Quinn is a straight talking, no nonsense kind of guy evidenced by his press conferences.  I think we all can agree that we love seeing what the staff has done with Penner so far this year.  

HBomb:  Absolutely.  Dustin Penner has taken the next step, the powerplay has improved, and the team's effort level, for the most part, has been more consistent.   However, as the saying goes, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken feathers, and your record tends to reflect what type of team you are.   This is an 11th or 12th place hockey team folks, no use trying to deny it.

Dawgbone:  Not enough.  It really depends on how much credit you give them for Dustin Penner.  He's clearly outplayed everyones expectations, and he's showing no real signs of slowing down.  The PP has been excellent as well, despite missing some key components on the blueline for various stretches.  That being said, the PK is still a complete disaster (sure they are higher in the standings but they are only marginally better in %), and this team has gotten completely smashed at ES (on pace to be a -32).  Much like last year, this team is getting routinely out-shot and out-chanced, but I think things have actually gotten worse.  A very hot start in terms of shooting % really masked the early deficiencies of this club, but the injuries have evened that out in a hurry.

Doogie2k: I figured it would take some time for their game plan to take hold, and injuries/personnel haven't helped, but I don't think the team is playing dramatically better than they were last season, at least so far.  They've been more interesting to watch, and less likely to give up and go home, but the stupid mistakes and terrible coverage are still well in evidence.  The bright side is that Quinney are certainly more willing to call a spade a spade when asked publicly, rather than scapegoating and covering for the favourites, and are trying to reign in the bad habits without creating the culture of fear that the late-era MacTavish teams seemed to have -- where one mistake led to a night full of tentative and passive play -- but clearly, it's going to take more time for them to have the intended impact.  I do wonder if the team would even be doing this well if they were still coached by MacTavish, though: like I said, MacT's post-2006 teams had a tendency to fall apart when they got behind, and we've already seen these guys claw back three or four times to either make it interesting or win the game.

Ender:  I think so.  Sure, the lack of line-matching is hurting the team right now, but I have a feeling that it just puts more pressure on players to develop faster which could come in handy when (if?) the team gets healthy.  All that said I have a really hard time judging these coaches given the injuries because they seem to think (which I agree with) that team-building is the most important aspect of their job, even moreso than winning.  If they had a healthy roster, I'd be expecting a lot more out of this team.

SumOil: Of course the response to this question is that it is too early to say anything definitive. However there certainly are many positives compared to last season. Quinn's assertion of having a big body on each line is certainly different from MacT's policy of sticking the skill men together. It certainly has paid dividends. These 'coke machines' have led the skilled men do their thing. Early on Stone meshed well with Sully and Comrie. JFJ has done his fair share of work with his hitting. Its exciting. Also I see a better PP and PK structure this season. While our PP has been good(sans the last two games), our PK problem is more dues to lack of proper personnel rather than execution. While Penner and Smid have flourished under the new coaching regime, Gilbert has been bad. I am not experienced enough to say whether it is a confidence problem or misuse by the coaching staff. I certainly miss Charlie Huddy.