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Edmonton Oilers Season Preview: Forwards

One of us is crazy and it's not you.
--Larry Fine

It may be a bit overwrought to say that the past five seasons have driven Oilers' fans crazy, but but half of a decade without the playoffs and two years in dead last does strange things to a fan's brain.  Add on the league's worst special teams, the league's worst starting goaltender, a coach unwilling to match lines, and a General Manager hellbent on assessing until he discovers the meaning of life and few could blame the fanbase for getting a little edgy.  This year is supposed to be different.  This year the closet is stocked full of shiny new toys and the team is meaner.  This is the year the team rises from the basement and begin the ascent to greatness. 

There are only a few small things to overcome -- goaltending, defense, depth, and special teams.  Other than that, it's all good.  Great, even. 

Over the next five days, the writers here will preview the 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers, breaking down the forwards, defense, goaltending, special teams and offer up some predictions and an overview of the coming season.  We begin with Part I, the forwards.


Ins and Outs

The Oilers let go of seven forwards, one of consequence, one with waylaid potential and five replacement-level players or worse.  Gone from the lineup are Gilbert Brule, Andrew Cogliano, Colin Fraser, J.F. Jacques, Steve MacIntyre, Dustin Penner, Liam Reddox and Zack Stortini. The only true loss was Penner, the Oilers best and most consistent forward over the last few seasons.  Penner's goals and puck possession will be missed.  Cogliano takes his "Lord I was born a centreman" act on the road to Anaheim, where early reports talk about Randy Carlyle's desire to move Cogliano to the wing.  The other four were spare parts on a 30th-place team, parts that can be replaced for the league minimum.

The Oilers added six forwards, two of consequence, two brimming with potential, one specialist and two replacement-level players or below.  Steve Tambellini added Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Anton Lander, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Lennart Petrell, and Ryan Smyth.  Actually, Smyth added himself.  Smyth should replace much of what was lost with Penner's departure, but he is aging.  Belanger is the Wes Walz the Oilers have needed for the past three seasons and brings faceoff ability, defensive responsibility and superior penalty kill play to a team desperate for all three.  Lander and Nugent-Hopkins are in an odd position - they both made the team because of injuries and they are both likely playing for the same spot on the fully-healthy depth chart.  Lennart Petrell is Patrick Thoresen without the offense, but he brings a reputation as one of the best defensive forwards in Europe.  Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager are hired knuckles.

The Depth Chart

Smyth (94)
Horcoff (10)
Hemsky (83)
Hall (4)
Gagner (89)*
Eberle (14)
Paajarvi (91)
Belanger (20)
Omark (23)
Eager (55)*
Lander (57)

Jones (28)
Nugent-Hopkins (93)

Petrell (37)

Hordichuk (16)



Three Strengths

It's almost impossible to believe, but this group of forwards should be strong on the penalty kill.  Shawn Horcoff and Belanger are experienced pivots and Ryan Smyth is a proven asset while short-handed.  Petrell brings his reputation as one of the best penalty killers in the SM-Liiga and Lander was Timra's first option on the penalty kill for the past two seasons.  Ales Hemsky will take an occasional turn and Coach Renney should be able to work Magnus Paajarvi's blazing speed in with Belanger or Horcoff on occasion.  For the first time since 2007, the Oilers have forwards who know what they're doing when they are short a man.  However, it still won't be enough to overcome the deficiencies on defense and in goal.

Unless Tom Renney decides to try the "balanced" lines that Pat Quinn rolled out two seasons ago (J.F. Jacques the first line left-winger!), he should be able to use Smyth and Hemsky as a toughs line with either Horcoff or Sam Gagner.  Gagner has a history of performing well with strong linemates and Horcoff can work with nearly anyone (except you, Patrick O'Sullivan) and come out ahead.

Outshooting hasn't been a concern in Edmonton for quite some time.  Whether it's because they didn't care, were unable, were under-manned or some combination, they were one of the most outshot teams in the league in the last few years.  The forwards should close that gap this season.  Taylor Hall is a shots machine and Magnus Paajarvi isn't far behind when he gets the playing time.  If a Smyth-Gagner-Hemsky line comes together, they should, at the very least, break even against the toughs.  Horcoff and Linus Omark should acquit themselves nicely against third-level competition as well.

Three Weaknesses

The biggest weakness in this group is age.  Seven of the top thirteen forwards are under the age of 25.  Only Ales Hemsky is in the prime of his career.  While Oilers fans have longed for a young core group of forwards for two decades, a young core needs a significant group of veterans in their prime to lean on when things get tough.  The Oilers don't have that right now.

There is no "D" in "Young Gunz!" and it's a problem.  The Oilers are going to play from behind quite often, and it's not just because of inferior defense and goaltending.  The young core of forwards is still learning their way around both ends of the ice and will take longer to figure out the defensive game.  Until then, the best bet for this group is to hold on to the puck unless they are shooting it.  The lack of defense is the reason why Petrell made the team.

Like last year, many fans are counting on the latest youngster to fix the power play.  But like Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, and Omark before him, Nugent-Hopkins is going to need time to become a superior player with a man advantage.  The sophomores should take a step forward and help, but as they showed last year, amateur power play production doesn't immediately translate in the NHL.

Three Predictions

Without a new power play system, the Oilers will again struggle, especially early on. Shuffling inexperienced players through a failed system in the hopes of finding a spark won't work, even with Ryan Smyth back in front.  If Coach Renney implements a new power play system, there is plenty of skill, especially Hemsky and Omark, plenty of shooters, especially Hall and Paajarvi and a garbageman in Smyth to score power play goals.

Taylor Hall still plays the game like a cannonball, and has a new, more feisty side to go with his explosive game.  But that feisty side will come with a price -- Hall is likely to get hurt again, especially if he chooses to fight his own battles, and because Oilers'  goons are never on the ice with the talent and choose to only fight other goons, Hall is going to fight his own battles.  A young kid who will throw his body and head into any situation to get a puck or score a goal is always an injury risk.  But that same kid fighting garbage players to protect himself is trouble. 

Magnus Paajarvi will be the pleasant surprise of the season.  Paajarvi will have a full season of Linus Omark and should have either Shawn Horcoff or Eric Belanger playing rover for him.  If he picks up from where he left off in 2011, he's going to score 25 goals.  That's probably too much to expect given the lack of minutes to go around, but 20 isn't.