Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We're so glad you could attend
Come inside! Come inside!
--Emerson, Lake and Palmer
I could easily make an argument that the above highlight represents the high point of the season for the 2009-2010 Edmonton Oilers. The team was completely healthy and tied with their arch-nemeisis, the Calgary Flames, in the last minute of the 3rd period. After that, it was all downhill. Injuries exposed the Oilers complete lack of depth. Khabibulin's injury and both Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk's struggles were simply a self-fulfilling prophecy that exposed management's terrible decision-making. The bottom-five penalty kill exposed management's unwillingness, for the last three years, to bring in veterans. The team's destruction at even strength was exacerbated by Pat Quinn's old school 1-2-3-4 line changes. In short, all of the doom and gloom that poured from the Oilogosphere last summer wasn't dark enough.
For what seems like the fifteenth time in the last twenty seasons, the Oilers have sold hope and the future once again the fans are buying it, along with ticket mini packs in spades. What's in store for the Oilers in the coming year? After the jump, our authors preview the 2010-2011 Edmonton Oilers.
Ins and Outs:
by Benjamin Massey
The Oilers have had a rough off-season. They've lost effective, high-value centre Marc Pouliot to the Tampa Bay Lightning for nothing. They've lost Nikolai Khabibulin's dignity to Tent City for nothing. They've lost effective, tough-minutes penalty killer Fernando Pisani to the Chicago Blackhawks for nothing. They've actually paid the snakebit but talented Robert Nilsson to play in Russia eating chocolate chip cookies and done their best to ruin their former best defenseman, Sheldon Souray, by any means short of execution. In exchange for nothing. They got rid of Patrick O'Sullivan, which if you're Bruce McCurdy probably counts as addition by substraction, but had to take back the 700-year-old Colossus of Old Jim Vandermeer in exchange. Mike Comrie, who was one of the franchise's all-time villains before his return and his surprisingly effective wing play in an injury-shortened season, was also unceremoniously punted. It's not often a team that finished last overall decides to get rid of some of its proven NHL talent and take nothing in exchange for it, but then Steve Tambellini is not your ordinary general manager.
That said, managing to dump Ethan Moreau on waivers, on top of actually getting a draft pick in exchange for the visibly decomposing Steve Staios at least year's trade deadline, is something like that dirty, smelly bum on Granville with no teeth somehow using his own excreta to paint the Mona Lisa. It's beautiful, and it's undeniably impressive, but you can't overlook the circumstances of its creation.
Of course, the Oilers have moved to replace this proven talent. They're added rookies Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Linus Omark, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle, which as Derek has shown ought to go just swimmingly. They signed Steve MacIntyre, a largely useless goon who's played in two leagues that don't exist anymore and seemed certain to be the worst player on the Oilers this year, then just to make MacIntyre feel better they re-signed Jean-Francois Jacques who's even worse (when healthy, which mercifully isn't often). They got Martin Gerber as a fourth goalie, who may not be good but is at least sober. And they picked up more AHL beef than you can shake a stick at. Alexandre Giroux, Gregory Stewart, Brad Moran, Richard Petiot, Ben Ondrus, Shawn Belle... oh, I can talk about them all day. Particularly if you let me swear.
To turn off the sarcasm for a moment, the Oilers did trade for and sign Colin Fraser, a genuinely impressive, useful young player who is almost good enough to replace for the Kyle Brodziak Tambellini gave away for next-to-nothing before last season. And they picked up Kurtis Foster who is overpaid and likely to be thrown in way over his (very high) head but is at least a worthy NHL defenseman. Moreover, for all my mockery, Jim Vandermeer is likely to do us more good than O'Sullivan ever did. There is good news in here. Unfortunately, the good news consists largely of shuffling deck chairs and replacing players you've gotten rid of with older, inferior versions.
If one counts "Khabibulin with a bad back, a possible drinking problem, and an enormous load on him even assuming he isn't in jail" as a downgrade on "Khabibulin", the Oilers are pretty clearly worse at every position than they were at the beginning of last season. A season in which, lest we forget, they finished last. On the bright side, they had a lot of rotten puck luck this year and hopefully Tambellini's bought that out as well.
by Bruce McCurdy
1) The Oilers have a passionate and dedicated fan base who will continue to support the team through difficult times. Despite the Oilers' DFL finish in 2009-10, interest in the club remains through the roof, with fans turning out in droves for the closed circuit of the Entry Draft, packing the house at summer development camp, jamming the interweb all summer long, etc. Little likelihood of attendance slipping in step with the team's dismal performance, as happened mid-90s. Arguably, a majority of the team's fans have been on board with a rebuild strategy longer than the organization itself has.
2) The organization is brimming with young talent, especially on the forward lines. Three highly-touted first round draft choices will be given every chance to make the big club next month, including Taylor Hall, the first overall pick who was the reward for Edmonton's futility in 2009-10. The newcomers all arrive with impressive credentials: Hall is the two-time Memorial Cup MVP, Jordan Eberle the CHL Player of the Year, Magnus Paajarvi an All-Star at the World Senior Hockey Championships. While the yellow brick road will be cluttered with speed bumps, especially at first, the Oilers haven't seen quite such an influx of young talent for fifteen if not thirty years.
The system is also flush with less-touted but still promising young players in Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander and Tyler Pitlick up front, Jeff Petry and Alex Plante on the blue, and Olivier Roy in the nets. This well should be pumping up talent for a few years to come, and master scout Stu MacGregor shows no signs of slowing down.
3) At the NHL level, there's nowhere to go but up. The squad can't possibly be as dismal as the sad sack crew that played under a black cloud in 2009-10. The team was ravaged by virulent sickness early, then lost its top scorer and its #1&only goalie, both for the season, in November. At least one of those guys will be ready to roll in October, and boy, did this team miss Ales Hemsky. While there are still some veteran messes to be cleaned up (Khabibulin, Souray), the organization has moved out some veteran underachievers, creating cap room and space on the roster itself for the next generation. Rome wasn't built in a day, but the atmosphere "in the room" may improve overnight. Open up a window, let the bad air out ...
by Jaysen Knight
Three??? Only three??? Okay, let's make this easy on myself and go with the most obvious:
The best goalie the team employs is sub-average in terms of play, usually injured and might even be suspended to start the season. The first back-up has been a prospect so long,with results so... middlin'... that's its hard to believe he's a 'veteran' now. The second back-ups main claim to value is that he is two years younger than the first back-up and the first back-up hasn't impressed. The 'farm' guy had a broken back and if he is going to play well anywhere it can be argued the farm team needs him more.
So yeah. Goaltending is a weakness. As it has always been, the best way to have a bad team is to make sure the goaltending sucks. Good to go then.
The two best defensemen on the team are fairly good positional guys who are a bit above average offensively and just a bit below average defensively - which is to say that they are smart enough to get by regardless of the role they are asked to play but not so good that they aren't massively affected by who they play against. The Oilers top-2 defensemen would be awesome 3rd or 4th defensemen on a good team.
The next best defenseman on the team has been asked to stay away from the team.
After that we have a guy who is a bit of a mirror image of the top-2 guys: not as smart but more physical, not as good on offense but could be better on defense (by virtue of being more willing and able to play the 'clear-the-opponent-from-the-crease' game). The problem with Smid is that, to date, he has not shown an ability to adapt well to different circumstance and he is not an independent force.
The next two guys are depth guys. Specialty players. One who is tough and plays #5 minutes and another who is great on the powerplay and plays, otherwise, #5 minutes. One of them will get to live their dream.
After that we have farm boys. My they grow up fast nowadays.
So yeah. Defense is a weakness. Luckily Gilbert and Smid have seen this movie before; having been on the 2006-07 team they know full well how this will play out.
Now that Tambellini has vanquished his arch-nemesis, and proved to everyone just WHO the boss is (you neither Danza!), all that he has left to do is build a winning hockey team. heh
Look, Oiler's management doesn't have a good reputation throughout the league right now. Comrie, Smyth, Pronger, Nylander, blah blah blah, Souray. Good teams don't have so many strikes against them that I have to resort to a 'blah blah blah' insert.
Part and parcel of being a good GM is having the ability to know when to make something happen and when to make something happen RIGHT NOW. Everything, and more imo, gained from bringing the hammer down on Souray was lost prior to the hammer ever being swung. Given what he (Souray) said, a good GM deals with Souray within days - not months - DAYS. IMHO, Tambellini played it wrong off the hop and all he managed to do was win back some pride and staunch the bleeding. Yay for us.
I wonder how many of you realize that:
- IF Souray really did show up to ensure the Oilers had no reason not to pay him,
- THEN it is the team that looks bad. Not Souray.
Think about that. It becomes a matter of trust and honour and it isn't Souray's character that is being called into question.
So yeah. Management is a weakness. At least now we know Tambellini has balls.
I just wish he wouldn't rest them on the coffee table. In public at least.
The Depth Chart
by Scott Reynolds
You'd think that a team coming off of a 30th-place finish would have some significant job opportunities, but as the summer has progressed, the direction of the team has become quite clear and the major battles in training camp will take place on the fringes of the roster. That's not to say that the team has solid depth at any position: they don't. What they do have is a few players they can count and a lot of raw talent among the forwards, a defense that promises to be overwhelmed, and a dog's breakfast in goal.
The veteran presence at forward consists of Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, and Ales Hemsky. That's it. They probably won't all end up on the same line, but there's little doubt that they'll play more minutes than any other forwards on the team. After that, we're into the raw talent mentioned above; unfortunately for Oiler fans, this year's results will probably reflect the "raw" more than the "talent". I think that it's generally more helpful to talk about a top nine than it is a top six, so it's probably the way I'd have gone regardless, but that understanding of this year's Oilers was buttressed by some recent comments from Oiler forward Andrew Cogliano: "I think this year's team could be a perfect balance of nine guys who can play with anybody. As long as you're in that mix, you'll get your minutes." In my view, that top nine is pretty much set. The returnees to the group are Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule, and Andrew Cogliano, all of whom signed new contracts this summer as restricted free agents and come into the season looking to establish a place on this team for the long term. They're joined in the top nine by the three famous rookies in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi. In theory, these three will need to win their spots, but considering the Oilers already have them selling mini-packs, it would take a Thorntonesque choke-job for one of them to not make the team. The rest of the spots on the team are virtually guaranteed to the remaining players with one-way contracts: Colin Fraser, Ryan Jones, Zack Stortini, Jean-Francois Jacques, and Steve MacIntyre. I'd like to think that Jacques and MacIntyre are vulnerable, but the reality is that the team liked these guys enought to sign them and it will take some kind of effort (or an injury) for anyone else to break through. The most likely candidates for that kind of training camp performance are AHL veteran scorer Alexandre Giroux - who's also on a one-way deal but is slated to star in Oklahoma City - and pint-sized Swede, Linus Omark. Other players under contract with at least some NHL experience include Liam Reddox, Brad Moran, Ryan O'Marra, Ben Ondrus, and Greg Stewart.
The situation on defense isn't any better. Sheldon Souray is still technically a part of Steve Tambellini's organization in the same way that a pimple is a part of a teenager's body. And just like a pimple, the more Tambellini tries to rid himself of the situation, the worse (and more obvious) the problem gets. With the Souray situation festering in the background, the two best defenders by far are Americans Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney. Both players are very good, but neither has been asked to consistently handle tough defensive minutes, and considering the other options, it's a near-certainty they'll be asked to step up this season. Ladislav Smid and Kurtis Foster round out the top four, which really isn't pretty. Neither player has ever been a legitimate top four option yet in his career. The Oilers have tried Smid in that role before, and at only 24, the hope is that he emerges as a player this season. But the Oilers aren't giving him much in the way of help; don't be fooled by Foster's point totals - he was a bottom pairing defender with a great shot on the PP with the Lightning last year, and a move into the top four is a major step up for him too. Maybe one of these guys could move up if paired with a reliable partner, but asking it of both seems a bit of a stretch. These two would make a strong third pairing, but are miscast with this much responsibility. The next man on the list is Jim Vandermeer, and he's probably the only defender who's not being asked to take on extra responsibility to begin the season. Vandermeer is a tough hombre, and should be fine on the bottom pairing. The thing is, someone is bound to get hurt, and at that point, he's probably the first candidate to move up and is very likely going to be exposed. After Vandermeer, the Oilers are down to defenders who shouldn't be playing in the NHL. Jason Strudwick, Taylor Chorney, and Theo Peckham had three of the worst six Corsi rates in the entire NHL. Now, part of that is starting in the wrong end of the ice with the worst available teammates on the worst team in the league, but another part is the fact that these three guys are the worst available teammates on the worst team in the league. Strudwick, in my view, is virtually guaranteed a spot on the club. He was signed more for his attitude than his hockey skill, and as sure as he is not to improve the latter, the former is sure to remain excellent. That leaves Peckham, a waiver-eligible pugilist, and Chorney, a finesse defender who's a career -74 in 144 professional games. I think Peckham wins this fight, but the sad fact is that there will be some nights this year where they'll both be in the lineup. Others on the roster with NHL experience include Shawn Belle, Richard Petiot, Alex Plante, and Johan Motin.
Finally, the goalies. Oh, the goalies. If Nikolai Khabibulin is healthy and unincarcerated he's likely to be the starter, but even putting those issues aside, Khabibulin also just isn't very good. His EV Sv% over the last five seasons is .904, which is well below average, and slightly below the newly-signed and bound-for-Oklahoma Martin Gerber (.906). It's possible that Khabibulin stays healthy and plays well, but it doesn't look promising. And that brings us to the two young goalies, Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers. These two are likely battling for one spot with the big club if Khabby is healthy, which is disheartening because if last here taught us anything it's that these guys suck. The list of goalies in 2009-10 with an EV Sv% worse than Deslauriers' .905 but with more starts than Deslauriers' 48 is as follows: nobody. Dubnyk was one of the seven goalies with at least ten starts whose EV Sv% was worse. Dubnyk's relative youth probably gives him the inside track on the backup job, but I'd be pretty surprised if either guy was picked up going through waivers.
The Oilers aren't going to be as unlucky as last season with injuries and Tom Renney won't send J.F. Jacques out against the tough minutes of the Western Conference and won't do the line change waltz like Pat Quinn. That alone should be enough for marginal improvements in a significant number of statistical areas. However management has once again failed to find any organizational depth whatsoever and plans on having three rookie forwards in the lineup on opening night. Nikolai Khabibulin's injury/rehab/suspension/alcohol problem/counseling/jail time portends nothing but bad news for the goaltending situation.
Renney and better luck should be enough to get them out of 30th, but even Sidney Crosby himself couldn't get the Penguins higher than 29th in 2005-2006. I'll go with 29th and prepare to welcome
Evgeni Malkin Sean Couturier and two other rookies to the roster next fall.
Most last-place teams need some bad luck to finish in the basement and the Oilers are no exception. They are a spectacularly untalented team with no chance short of Zack Stortini being bitten by a radioactive spider of making the playoffs, but finishing thirtieth is never a likely outcome.
Unfortunately, if the Oilers aren't the least talented team in the NHL they're certainly one of the bottom three. Part of the reason all their players got hurt last year was that all their players have a history of injury, and that hasn't really changed. I've got the Oilers falling out of the playoff hunt almost immediately, finishing 29th in the league and last in the West, and Steve Tambellini talking about how nothing is ever his fault for another half-decade or so before being put out to pasture when Daryl Katz moves the team to Hamilton because we didn't build an arena for him.
You see that? Twenty-ninth! Who says I'm pessimistic?
As I said in my section:
That's a lot of holes and there's no way they all get filled. I'm very pessimistic about 2010-11 and fear that this team will get crushed. When you're hanging your hat on wishful thoughts like "it can't possibly be as bad as you think", that's a tell. It's a development year, with many lessons to be learned at the school of hard knocks, and my most fervent hope is that our young prospects survive it both physically and psychologically.
IF the team enjoys good health (for what would be the first time in five seasons) it will "over achieve". A reincarnation of Nik Khabibulin Ver 2008.09 could lift the team out of lottery range, but the chances of that happening under his peculiar circumstances seem remote. The defence looks shallow even on paper where all of them are temporarily healthy, though we know from bitter experience that won't last. The forward corps includes exactly three guys proven capable of playing tough minutes. Veteran checking wingers Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani, overwhelmed last year, have departed and been replaced by ... nobody who remotely matches their qualifications. From the current depth chart I have trouble finding four penalty killers. The youngsters up front will be fun to watch, except on those presumably frequent occasions that they get schooled on the defensive side of the puck. To learn from your mistakes, first of all you have to make the mistakes, and I anticipate plenty of those.
In a best-case scenario, the newcomers stay healthy and provide Oiler fans with an exciting brand of hockey. The standings may not be a joy to follow, but the individual games ought to be more fun. They better be; last year there were w-a-y too many games that weren't fit to watch. My minimum expectation going forward (and always) is a team that competes hard and revives some semblance of team spirit and togetherness, something which was sadly lacking in recent seasons. It is clear by some of the changes on the roster - both additions and especially, subtractions - that Tambellini at least tried to address that issue, even as he did nowhere near enough to address the team's shortcomings for the immediately upcoming season. It's Year Two of a Five-Year Plan (for those unable to count how many years in a row the Oil will have missed the playoffs by next spring).
I will be the pessimistic one. The team is horrible. A winning season would require that:
a. every player who needs to take a step forward will (Smid, Gagner, Dubnyk, Cogliano)
b. every rookie who needs to play to their hype will (Eberle, Hall, Paajarvi)
c. every veteran who needs to go injury free will (Gilbert, Hemsky, Horcoff)
d. no players backslide (Penner, Whitney)
e. most of the players will stay out of jail
Being contrary I think that a couple of those things will actually happen and the Oilers will be just good enough to be picking in the #5 - #8 range. Yes. That means they will miss the play-offs. It also means they will miss out on the Larsson or Musil.
Being bottom-3 bad requires two of three things to fall into place:
1. being hapless
2. being unlucky
3. being ruthless about being bad
Right now we can only say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the team has #1 going for it. That won't be enough.
A lot of things break right for the team this year and the Oilers finish 24th overall.
This team is bad, but unlike a lot of the bad teams in the NHL (Colorado, Florida), the goaltending is also terrible, which makes the club less likely to win games in which they're outplayed. I don't think this team has much hope for a playoff berth, but I do think their point totals and goal differential will improve significantly from last year. My guess is that they finish the year with something close to 75 points, a goal differential of about -35, and a top five pick in the 2011 entry draft.