Edmonton Oilers

It wasn’t too long ago when Kevin Lowe lamented about the poor financial situations the Oilers were in and as a result being unable to remain competitive because their best players annually headed for greener pastures. After the CBA, all of a sudden the Oilers were big-time players, landing Sheldon Souray for $5.4m/year, Dustin Penner for $4.25m/year and then fitting in Lubomir Visnovsky‘s $5.6m/year contract. All of a sudden the post-Gretzky era Oilers were no longer the stomping pad of the Northwest. The Oilers, in part because of their fantastic rookies, were big surprises in the West, no doubt helped by an incredible league-best 15-4 shootout record. It’s no surprise that no matter how weak on paper the Oilers look, Craig MacTavish has always managed to keep his teams in the race. This year, he’s got some pieces to play with.

There’s no shortage of offense up front, even though the Oil offense was ranked a abysmal 17th and 21st on the PP. A large part of that was due to injuries, in which Shawn Horcoff played only 53 games after averaging almost a point per game, and powerplay quarterback Souray was limited to only 26 games. Adding a big versatile winger in Erik Cole didn’t hurt either, and neither did the acquisition of Visnovsky, giving the Oilers two powerplay weapons from the point. Sophomores Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are expected to improve on their noteworthy rookie seasons, and in any other year, had there not been as much rookie talent, both would’ve been given Calder nods. The Oilers are slick, no pun intended. They’re speedy and they know how to use it to burn you. They have more than enough weapons on defense to play a smooth and fast transition game. The only thing that may be of concern to the Oilers is their lack of size up-front. The three top point-getters for the Oilers last year, Ales Hemsky, Horcoff, and Gagner, don’t stand an inch over 6’0″ and combined for only 87 PIM.

Defense is where it starts to look rather bleak. The Oilers’ defense was ranked 26th in the league last year, despite Mathieu Garon‘s respectable 2.66 GAA and .913 SV%. A part of that is due to the injury bug, in which Souray and recent castaways Joni Pitkanen and Matt Greene missed significant time. Stay-at-homes Steve Staios and Ladislav Smid had subpar seasons as well, finishing -14 and -15 respectively. But theoretically speaking, even with all of Edmonton’s top 6 healthy, they wouldn’t rank near the top 10 in defense because their two best defensemen, Souray and Visnovsky, are known more for their blistering slapshots than their defensive prowess. Neither plays particularly big, and the top four hitters on the team were actually forwards, two of whom have left (Jarret Stoll and Curtis Glencross). The Oilers also had one of the worst turnover ratios in the league, highlighted by defensive specialist Staios’ 84-33 giveaway-takeaway ratio, although he was one of the league’s best with 187 blocked shots. The Oil defense has its holes, but hopefully they can move the puck up the ice fast enough to make sure they don’t get caught flat-footed in their own zone.

Heading into camp, and barring some sort of injury, Mathieu Garon is the number one starter. You can bet that Dwayne Roloson is not happy with that, who left Minnesota after being notified that the team would be going ahead with Manny Fernandez. Roloson, at 39, is still an effective starter, but as a backup with a $3.6m price tag he may be too much, and he’ll no doubt be subject to trade rumours throughout the year, especially if Garon can solidify his status as a legitimate NHL starter. Garon, at 30, needs to prove that he is starting material after being used as a 1B or backup throughout his NHL career.

One of the biggest reasons for the Oilers’ success is their incredible shootout record. Had the Oilers 15-4 record been something more human, the Oilers could’ve finished with a point total in the high-70s. There’s almost no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Oilers won’t be as successful or lucky, whichever term is preferred, in the shootout this year. There’s an element of luck involved, and when your winning percentage is off the charts (.789) you’re bound to come crashing down to Earth some day. The Oilers improved their roster offensively, and while that does mean that they’ll rely less on the shootout, there’s still defensive holes and question marks in net that new GM Steve Tambellini has to worry about.

The Oilers seem to have their team set now. They’re roughly $2.5m away from the cap ceiling and that’s about as close you’d want to be in case of emergencies or just having enough cap room to acquire another player. The Oilers only have Cole as a UFA next year, and depending on how well he and the Oilers play, he could be dangled as trade bait, but that is unlikely to happen since the mentally tough Oilers will be in contention until the last week of the season.

The key player to really watch this year is Gilbert Brule. The former first round pick is as talented as they come, and proved to be too talented for the WHL, but due to age restrictions in the AHL stumbled for 3 seasons in Columbus. He had a strong showing in the AHL last year (10 points in 16 games) and could start the season there, but he could get a call-up soon if the other Oiler youngsters can’t keep it together. Brule was slowly becoming a career checking line player under Ken Hitchcock, but perhaps MacTavish’s more free-flowing style will be better suited to his talents.

The Oilers play in a tough division in a tough conference. The Oilers are slowly inching their way towards the playoffs, but there’s still some holes to plug, mainly on defense, and if either Garon or Roloson falters, who’s next? Devan Dubnyk, once hailed as the next great goalie for the Oil, has hit some bumps in his development and is not ready for NHL duty yet. However, with young guns Gagner and Cogliano providing the spark, things are finally looking real bright in the City of Champions.

Predicted lineup:
Erik Cole – Shawn Horcoff – Ales Hemsky
Dustin Penner – Andrew Cogliano – Sam Gagner
Ethan Moreau – Kyle Brodziak – Fernando Pisani
Robert Nilsson – Ryan Potulny – Marc-Antoine Pouliot

Steve Staios – Lubomir Visnovsky
Tom Gilbert – Sheldon Souray
Ladislav Smid – Denis Grebeshkov

Mathieu Garon – Dwayne Roloson

scratches: Jean-Francois Jacques, Zack Stortini, Gilbert Brule

Coach: Craig MacTavish
GM: Steve Tambellini

Predicted finish: 3rd Northwest, 9th West

This article has 9 Comments

  1. Interesting comments.

    Garon was the top shootout goalie by a mile last year and if you watched many of the shootouts (you may have I’m not sure) you’ll notice that he challenged the shooters a LOT more then any other goalie in the league. By coming way out and cutting down the angles he basically forced the shooters to deke him out and with his flexibility he was able to stop a lot of chances that way.

    Combine that with guys like Gagner who excel at the shootout and I would bet money that the Oilers will be tops in the league in that department again next year.

    The big knock against these guys are their youth. It’s a big question mark as to whether the sophomore slump will hit or if the kid line (Nilsson, Cogliano, Gagner) can keep up the late season pace they had last year.

    Also if Horcoff stays healthy and that line develops some chemistry with Cole, you could very easily see 70 points from Horcoff and 85+ from Hemsky.

    Garon will be the starter on this team for the entire year, but with so many questions they could finish 10th in the Conference or really surprise and win the division.

  2. Garon was an incredible 30/32 last year. I have doubts that he can equal or improve this number. I would think that at least a couple more shooters will have figured him out. Even if that isn’t the case, 30/32 is just off the charts. The Oil may finish near the top in shootouts again, but the fact of the matter is, as they team they’re not as good as their point total indicates, in large part because of the current point system. They can’t rely on extra point shootout wins to get to the playoffs.

    Horcoff, if healthy, can top the 80-point mark easily. He was on that pace last year and with a better linemate and better PP it shouldn’t be out of the question.

  3. The main reason why I wonder if Horcoff will indeed hit that pt/game pace is two-fold.

    1) Hemsky will likely miss a few games because of the way he plays.

    2) Horcoff’s SH% will likely drop off a bit.

  4. 1 This is true, and Cole is another bad neck injury away from retirement, but the offensive corps in Edmonton got better this year, especially with Visnovsky on the point.

    2. Horcoff’s shooting % was high, but just two years ago at 13.2% a clip he still potted more than 20. His shots per game average has also gone up year after year.

  5. As an Oiler fan I am hoping you are right about him. He’s the hardest working player on the team on most nights (because Moreau can’t stay healthy), and I’d love to see him get rewarded for it.

    Another thing I just noticed is you spoke of Dubnyk but Jeff Deslauriers earned himself a one way contract this year. Now a big part of that is because they need him to play a certain number of games over the next couple of years for contract reasons that I won’t get into right now, but he is going to get a crack to play some backup, even if it’s only a few games this year and more next year.

  6. Good point about Deslauriers. He was way behind Dubnyk in the Oilers depth charts but his strong play has earned himself a one-way contract while Dubnyk is still trying to find his game on a consistent basis.

    Thanks for the heads-up jstainer.

    Could you please elaborate a bit more on Deslaurier’s contract situation? This is the first I’ve heard about this and I’m curious. I know that some teams have a tendency to demote/promote rookies to prevent them from reaching bonuses. Is that the case here? Are the Oilers attempting to “save” money once again?

  7. Jason, you talk about Smid and Staios having poor years and use as evidence plus/minus.

    Do you really think plus/minus is a strong indicator of even strength play, given that there is a high margin of error with that stat.

    On every goal, numerous players are given a plus who had little or nothing to do with the goal being scored, and the same goes with a goal against, where players who had little or nothing to do with the goal going in are given a minus.

    This happens, enough, I believe to made plus/minus a crude and inaccurate barometer of ES play.

    What is your take on the stat?

  8. My understanding of JDD’s contract status is that because he is 24 years old now they have to play him in a combined 28 games over the next 2 years otherwise he becomes a Group Five UFA.

    By signing him to a one way deal I think they are just covering their bases and getting ready to play him from time to time so that in case he continues to make some good strides like he has been they will have already chipped away at that 28 game deficit that they need to make up to avoid potentially losing him.

  9. David, I do think +/- is a very misleading stat, and it’s often used to show how good defensively a player is. However, (and it’s been noted before in a previous post) +/- is a better indicator of how NOT good a player is on defense.

    The Oilers were an interesting case last year because of their atrocious GF-GA ratio. The Oilers were -27 in that department, placing them between the Jackets (-20) and Blues (-30), both teams who missed the playoffs by a significant margin.

    While Staios did have to play against their opponents’ top pairing, the fact of the matter is, and while the team as a whole didn’t do well in the +/- category, Staios and Smid were the worst among their defensemen. Last year also saw Staios post one of the worst +/- in his career. He hasn’t posted a +/- that low since 2000 when he was on the Thrashers. Smid improved marginally, but the drop-off in points (10 in 77 games to 4 in 65) was a little alarming. Perhaps Smid simply hit the “sophomore wall.”

    jstainer, thanks for clearing that up. On a one-way contract I think that means Roloson will not finish the season as an Oiler – he may not even have to wait until the deadline to find his new home. I think keeping JDD up in the press box is a waste, and if he goes through waivers I’m pretty confident someone will pick him up. Interesting situation, no doubt.

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