So, the Oilers are off to a 2-0 start this season! With wins over the mighty Calgary Flames and the seemingly-invincible Florida Panthers, the Edmonton Oilers are tied for the league's best winning percentage. A remarkable turn-around for a team that, just last season, was dead last in the NHL and sniffing the gas fumes of the likes of hapless Toronto and woeful Tampa Bay. Unlike their cellar-dwelling rivals, however, Edmonton has turned their frown upside down and now compete for the Presidents' Trophy.
Okay, those two particular cellar-dwelling rivals also happen to be off to undefeated starts. But the Oilers are different. Optimism is rampant and parades are being planned. The more pessimistic... dare I say, defeatist?... among you might be saying things like "it's only two games" and "we're not possibly going to finish 82-0 this season after that last horrible, horrible campaign". Well, to you I say: why not? After all, this team is so very different from last season's that an 82-0 season is not only possible, but the only logical outcome.
You don't believe me, I can tell. "Ben," you're saying, "I get the impression you may be displaying your patented dry sarcasm." But come with me, ladies and gentlemen, and I will show you why the Oilers of this season are clearly so different from last year's team that we can only expect the good results to keep coming on.
We ditched the old coach! 67-year-old Pat Quinn was never going to be the right fit for the rebuilding Oilers. Quinn was a decent enough coach in his day, but his stale strategies were never going to fit the modern league. Quinn seemed to have no conception of today's art of line matching or running out powerful combinations that could get results at even strength: he simply trusted that he could keep his players rolling over the boards in sequence and they would get results. As we saw from the team's pathetic games last season, a strategy like this might have been fine in Toe Blake's day but was hopelessly untenable in the modern NHL.
But then came Tom Renney, and a gust of fresh air blew through the Oilers' locker room and renewed the team's spirits. A mere fifty-five years old, Renney brings an assortment of modern ideas and clever, youthful innovations to a team mired in stagnation. Instead of Quinn's old-fashioned line rolling, Renney has employed an innovative strategy our own Derek Zona has christened "Rawhide". The genius of Renney's approach has been to keep the lines rolling in a consistent, reliable 1-2-3-4. That way, the players always know what to expect and the team's considerable depth can be employed to overwhelm opponents on the ice. It is just this sort of brilliant, innovative thinking that an old warhorse like Quinn could never have employed.
We finally got rid of those soft, undersized forwards. This team was just too easy to play against last year in every sense. Robert Nilsson is perhaps the classic example: a mere 5'11", Nilsson was simply too small and lacked the grit to ever succeed as a top-six winger in the National Hockey League. Another sub-six-footer, Patrick O'Sullivan, set the franchise's all-time worst mark for plus/minus in a season. Edmonton's bold experiment with a team primarily made up of midgets was a disaster, but at least it was a disaster the team knew better than to repeat. Time and time again, we heard pundits in the newspapers and on talk radio bemoan the Oilers' lack of size and team grit, and thankfully Steve Tambellini has delivered.
Instead, the Oilers' new forward unit combines size and toughness. Imposing 5'11" winger Jordan Eberle, late of the Regina Pats, has emerged as a top option and has convinced opponents they'd be ill-advised to mess with the Oilers this year. Another positive leviathan, 6'1" Taylor Hall, was drafted first overall and could be described as the team's greatest hope of all. The team even has rock-solid depth in the person of highly-touted 5'7" Linus Omark, currently tearing up the American Hockey League as a member of the Oklahoma City Barons. No wonder the Oilers are creaming their opponents so far this year: the rest of the league is simply terrified to tangle with such brutes.
Our defense has added some savvy veteran talent. How many times did we bemoan it last season? Too many kids on defense! Too many young pups getting thrown into situations they weren't ready for and struggling as a result. When a team is running out 36-year-old Steve Staios, 33-year-old Sheldon Souray, and 33-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky as three of their starting defensemen, as the Oilers did at the start of last year, that's a sure sign your blue line needs more seasoning in the minors. No wonder this team was walloped so badly at even strength: you might as well have thrown a trio of infants out. Rebuilding team or not, such a crippling paucity of veterans doomed this club from the start.
Luckily, this is one more department in which the team saw the light. It all began with the clever trading of one of the aforementioned midgets, Patrick O'Sullivan, to the Phoenix Coyotes for Jim Vandermeer. The 30-year-old Vandermeer can be confidently expected to bring all the skill, experience, and poise of a man with 557 penalty minutes in his first 327 NHL games to the raw blue line. Signing 28-year-old Kurtis Foster was similarly brilliant, as the Oilers have long been hopelessly unable to find a tall defenseman capable of firing a hard slap shot from the point. Meanwhile, dumping the three defensemen I mentioned earlier, but keeping the rest of the defensive corps clearly proves this team has identified its weakness and addressed it ruthlessly. With such a mature approach, how could victory not result?
We have the right sort of captain at last! Once, Ethan Moreau seemed like an obvious choice to captain the Edmonton Oilers. A veteran and a long-time member of the team, Moreau was also a solid two-way forward who once had some scoring talent but was now on the down-side of his career. He might have been overpaid, but he also seemed like a Kelly Buchberger sort of guy: someone who might not be able to contribute on the ice but whose intangible contributions would more than outweigh that. Well, obviously, that didn't work, and Moreau was unceremoniously dumped on waivers and claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Into the void steps Shawn Horcoff. It's true, Horcoff's best playing days are behind him. A series of injuries and the inescapable ravages of age have diminished Horcoff's once-considerable scoring talent. But he still brings some defensive skill and is a solid two-way forward even if he is on the downside of his career. Moreover, he's renowned as a dressing room leader and his off-ice contributions cannot be overstated: he brings to mind former Oiler Kelly Buchberger, another leader with words rather than talent who helmed this team to some seasons that were almost successful before being graciously permitted to leave to the Atlanta Thrashers in the expansion draft. Horcoff and, indeed, all NHLers can only hope to be such fine captains that they merit such a dignified sendoff.
Edmonton has resolved its goaltending problems. Everyone criticized the Oilers last year for spending too much money on aging, injury-prone, and never terribly effective netminder Nikolai Khabibulin while relying upon the inexperienced Jeff Deslauriers to back him up. And it's true, we still have Khabibulin. But Khabibulin has one more Stanley Cup than you or I have, and two games into the season it is clear that his chronically injured back will not be an issue. Compared to last year, when Khabibulin's foibles cost us the season opener against Calgary, his shutout performance against the Flames last Thursday indicated the return of his old Cup-winning form.
In the backup spot, Jeff Deslauriers has been augmented by young Devan Dubnyk. Reminiscent of the New Jersey Devils when Martin Brodeur first came into the league, Edmonton is relying upon both an older goaltender and a young, brilliant prospect and will simply play whichever is the hotter hand. Except that Brodeur and Chris Terreri didn't have the likes of Nikolai Khabibulin showing them the ropes. Imagine the New Jersey Devils near-dynasty of the pre-lockout period, except instead of Brodeur they had Brodeur and Tom Barrasso? We might still be counting those teams among the greatest of all time. The Oilers have a chance to pick up where they left off.
As you can see, this team is radically different from the one that disappointed us last season. With a comprehensive overhaul from forward to goal and back again, as well as fresh ideas behind the bench and a brilliant new leader in the dressing room, it's no wonder we're on top of the league. The surprise isn't that the Oilers are off to an undefeated start, it's that there are people who thought they wouldn't be.
I'm excited to see how far this team can go. Asking a Stanley Cup of them is probably a bit lofty, but anything short of a Finals appearance will have to be a disappointment. The best part is that, if we fall short, next time they can overhaul the team again and we'll improve even more. Forget the Detroit Model, the Edmonton Model is clearly the wave of the future.