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.
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