Off-season activity: The 2003/04 NHL season abundantly displayed the holes in their roster that Edmonton needed to fill: a starting goaltender, a number one centreman, and a mobile, puck-moving defenceman. In the two off-seasons that have followed, they’ve made half-fearted attempts to fill all these roles. The starting goaltender duties in 03-04 were split by a suddenly-ineffective Tommy Salo and an extremely unproven Ty Conklin. Things look better this year for the Oilers, with Conklin having disproven some of the doubters with strong play in relief of Salo, and for Team USA internationally. Battling Conklin for playing time will be Jussi Markkanen, fresh off an MVP-calibre season in Russia, and previous back-up roles for the Oilers and New York Rangers. A pre-season injury means that Markkanen will likely miss all of training camp, so expect Conklin to assume the role early on. The duo of “Conkkanen”, although unproven, could surprise, and should at least be an improvement over Salo’s shoddy play of last season.
The number one centre spot, a position not truly filled since the departure of Doug Weight, was briefly occupied by Petr Nedved last season. With Nedved’s departure to the Coyotes, MacTavish hopes to fill the number one centre spot with one of Shawn Horcoff or the newly-acquired Michael Peca. While this is an improvement over the gaping hole in that position last season, and the team depth (with Marty Reasoner, Jarret Stoll and possibly Rob Schremp) is actually quite good, this should be a position of concern, as both Peca and Horcoff are better suited to the number two slot. The expectation is that Peca will handle most defensive assignments, while Horcoff, fresh off a fantastic season in Europe, will be given more chances to shine offensively. It could work, but if it doesn’t the Oilers have ample salary cap space remaining, and could acquire a player at the trade deadline, a fact that already has some fans suggesting a return of Doug Weight.
However, according to GM Kevin Lowe, the biggest area of concern for the Oilers was the lack of a true puck-moving defenseman. Although the Oilers were evidently serious bidders for the services of Scott Niedermayer, once that possibility fell through Lowe quickly orchestrated a deal, sending a package including Eric Brewer and former first-round pick Jeff Woywitka to St. Louis for Chris Pronger. Pronger instantly improves the Oilers blueline and should serve as an anchor on the powerplay and penalty kill, which were poor last season. Along with returning blueliners Jason Smith, Steve Staios, Igor Ulanov, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Alexei Semenov and Cory Cross, the Oilers look to have one of the better defensive units in the league.
Also acquired during the off-season was versatile forward Todd Harvey, an intense, irritating sort of pest who should add an element that the Oilers missed in 03-04. When combined with the acquisition of Michael Peca, the Oilers hope to be a grittier, more physical unit up front than they were last season.
Rookies & Prospects: The only two rookies on one-way contracts are wingers Jani Rita and Brad Winchester, both of whom should crack the Oilers roster this year. Winchester was one of the few players on the Road Runners last season who upped his stock with Oilers brass, and the 6’5” bruiser should see 4th line minutes this season. Jani Rita, who has been on the verge of making the Oilers roster for several seasons now, must make the team or his days with the organization are likely numbered. The 1999 first-round pick has good physical tools, but often shows a lack of intensity and defensive awareness, and is not a favourite of coach Craig MacTavish. That said, he had a good season in Finland during the lockout, and has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. This is a make or break season for him.
With Markkanen possibly out to start the season, the door has opened for one of Jeff Drouin Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk or Mike Morrison to crack the team as Conklin’s backup. Although Morrison played well at the AHL level last season, Deslauriers will likely get the call. Dubnyk will return to junior.
Other Oilers prospects, notably Rob Schremp, Yan Stastny, and Danny Syvret, could crack the roster, but all are dark horses. Schremp, barring play that would force the Oilers to use him in their top-six, will return to junior while Syvret and Stastny will playi in the AHL and see time in the big leagues in the event of trade or injury.
Expectations: This season’s Edmonton Oilers look much better than the club has in previous years. Pronger and Peca are significant upgrades, and losing Salo is addition by subtraction. Moreover, the core of the club remains intact, bringing needed chemistry and consistency to the team. This team should make the playoffs, likely ending up between the 5th and 8th seeds in the Western Conference. However, given the renewed focus on divisional play, as well as questions in net and up front, it may be too much to expect the Oilers to do significantly better than that this season.