In the days ahead, there is going to be an insane amount of action all over the National Hockey League. With training camps, roster moves, trade rumours, contract signings and for many fans fantasy hockey drafts all staring us right in the face over the next 10-14 days, by the time the puck drops to start the season the lockout will likely already feel like ancient history.
While I'm not in favour of people forgetting about the lockout and the damage the two parties have done to the league, I am certainly all for getting on with the season and seeing our favourite players get back to doing what they do and providing us with new reasons to cheer, boo, celebrate, bitch and complain, analyze, speculate and obsess over the game of hockey.
A first step towards this goal is to start looking at the roster heading to Edmonton for the abbreviated training camp that will begin mid-week. There will be lots of time to make predictions over the seasons our players will have or what the line combinations will be, but for now, I want to focus on the depth chart, the genuine roster battles and any injuries, trades or roster moves that may take place between now and opening night. Given that, let's start with the teams' greatest area of depth, the Forwards:
Forwards: (This is just a depth chart, not line combinations)
Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
Ryan Smyth - Sam Gagner - Ales Hemsky
Teemu Hartikainen - Shawn Horcoff - Nail Yakupov
Ben Eager - Eric Belanger - Ryan Jones
Ex: Darcy Hordichuk, Lennart Petrell
Considerations: Magnus Paajarvi
The top six forwards are almost a lock. There is certainly an argument to be made for keeping Nail Yakupov in Russia or Sarnia for the balance of the season before starting the clock on his Entry-Level contract, but I think we all know that is not going to happen. The only question remains how the team incorporates Yakupov into the roster. Does he move to the left side to add an additional offensive threat on that side or does the team keep him on the right and have Hemsky continue to play with Horcoff on a tough minutes line?
On the bottom group of forwards, there's not a lot of debate here either on how the roster is likely to take shape. The team likely made a big mistake in re-signing Petrell as it will cost Magnus Paajarvi a roster spot. MPS may get a temporary reprieve as news came out today of an eye-injury to Ryan Jones that will keep him out for a few weeks. That may allow Paajarvi to start the season in Edmonton, but when the team is healthy, I believe he'll spend the year on OKC. If I had my way, they would use that time experimenting with him at centre to see if he can potentially transition to that role and become the heir to Shawn Horcoff in a tough minutes capacity down the middle. Paajarvi has shown he can handle decent competition already and with the team's depth on the wings, I think his best path to making the Oilers may be as a centreman. Paajarvi doesn't appear to have the anatomy of a point producer, so transitioning him into a role that he appears more well suited for him just before the team may find themselves in need of a new defensive-minded centre (with the possibility of Horcoff buyout next summer) makes a lot of sense. Paajarvi is an NHL player and on a team that needs more of those in the bottom six, it infuriates me to admit he's likely to spend most of the year in the AHL.
Getting back to the opening night roster, I believe the team will give Teemu Hartikainen a chance to prove himself, though the exact role will have to be determined in the days ahead. Beyond that, Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff will likely carry a tough minutes line while Eager, Belanger and Ryan Jones (when healthy) will carry 4th line responsibilities barring any trades.
The special teams can be debated in any one of the dozens of posts to come, but I think if you add Yakupov into the mix, the rest of the group will be unchanged from last season.
Ladislav Smid - Jeff Petry
Nick Schultz - Justin Schultz
Ryan Whitney - Corey Potter
Ex: Theo Peckham
Considerations: Colten Teubert
Injuries: Andy Sutton
On defence, the big story is of course Justin Schultz. Schultz has been shredding the AHL from an offensive standpoint and for a team desperately in need of some offence from the back end, he'll be a breath or fresh air to Oiler fans. Where he won't be beloved by the fans will be defensively. It's important to remember that this kid is a rookie and they are going to throw him into some situations he'll need to grow into. While I believe he'll become a reasonably well-rounded player in the long-run, for now, you're looking at more of a Keith Yandle-type of player instead of a Drew Doughty.
Lady Smid, Jeff Petry, and Nick Schultz will provide some steady, competent, if not excellent play for the Oilers, and along with the younger Schultz will likely consume a large portion of the top-four minutes for the team. The wild card in this scenario is Ryan Whitney. Entering the final year of his contract, Whitney has had two full seasons of poor health with a badly injured ankle. If Whitney can take advantage of an extended lay-off to come back healthy and productive, then he will be a major boost to the Oiler blue line. If not, then a thin group will get even thinner and young players like Colten Teubert will see more time and more responsibility than they are ready for.
Corey Potter and Theo Peckham are not capable NHL players on a contending roster and the team would be well-served to try and obtain another defenceman before the season begins. Reinforcements are coming down the road, with the numerous prospects advancing through the system, but none are guaranteed impact players, nor can they help in the present-tense. The Oilers need another player that can provide solid top-four minutes so that they can lessen the expectations on Justin Schultz and insulate themselves from injury concerns with Ryan Whitney and others. The likes of an Andrej Sekera from Buffalo would fit the bill nicely and round out the depth on the roster.
Those with a keen eye will notice that I have not mentioned Andy Sutton here. While Sutton played above expectations last season, he has apparently suffered a very serious knee injury during off-season training and has admitted publicly that he is unlikely to play this season and that his NHL career is likely over. Very unfortunate for the team and for Sutton as he would have been an improvement over Potter in the #6 role.
There is not much to discuss here. This is Devan Dubnyk's team now from a goaltending standpoint. He will be expected to carry the load and will need to do so if the team is serious about its hopes to contend for a playoff spot. Khabibulin has been dealing with an injury during the lockout but is expected to be in camp when it opens. If he is able to begin the season with the team, then all will go ahead as expected. If not, the team will either need to sign an inexpensive option to fill-in, or promote Yan Danis from Oklahoma City. Danis has played reasonably well in the AHL again this year and would likely be a serviceable back-up, but bringing him up would hand the starting job in OKC to Olivier Roy and likely mean that the Barons would need to sign another netminder to back him up or risk having to call up Tyler Bunz from the ECHL, which he is certainly not ready for given his shaky start to his rookie pro season.
Over all, the potential for adding another experienced defender and seeing how the pieces fit together among the forwards will be the most compelling storylines in what will be a very abbreviated training camp beginning this week. None of the teams prospects playing in Junior hockey or in Europe (other than those playing there during the lockout, including Nail Yakupov) will be invited to camp as the group will only include players who have a very real chance of beginning the season with the Oilers.
We'll have much, much more in the next few days, but hopefully this has served as a refresher on where things stand with the Oilers roster as camp gets ready to open in a few days.
Man, does it feel good to talk about this stuff again. So much so that I almost forget how disappointing it will be when Tambellini inevitably makes a number of stupid decisions.
Welcome back Oiler fans!