October 05 2008 03:08PM
In Kevin Lowe’s final season as the team’s General Manager, the Oilers took major steps to improve their roster from top to bottom, and appear poised for their first playoff action since Game Seven of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals. Improving youth, along with a talented group of arriving veterans should make this team a superior group to the 2007–08 team that challenged for a playoff position.
There is some confusion as to who, exactly, is running the show in Edmonton. General Manager Kevin Lowe was promoted to President of Hockey Operations after a busy summer, making room for ex-Canucks Assistant GM Steve Tambellini. Clouding the picture even further, long-time Oilers executive Kevin Prendergast and lawyer Rick Olczyk were both given positions as Assistant GMs. Tambellini has a solid resume and has worked closely with Lowe under the umbrella of Hockey Canada, so I would imagine that this group works well together
Craig MacTavish enters his ninth season as the Oilers head coach, and he is under more pressure this year than in any in his tenure to date. He’s well-regarded as an excellent developer of young talent, and he’ll need to excel in that role this year as the Oilers will have an extremely young team up front and on the back end. Only three of the team’s first 15 games are at home, so he could be in trouble early if the team struggles with the difficult schedule.
If anything, the Oilers forward corps will be even younger this season, as veterans Reasoner, Stoll, Torres and Sanderson were either traded or allowed to depart via free agency. Curtis Glencross also went unsigned, and the Oilers appear poised to replace these contributors with youth and a pair of incoming players; former sixth overall pick Gilbert Brule and ex-Hurricanes forward Erik Cole. Here are the forwards who played in the NHL last season (minimum ten games), ranked by quality of competition:
Jarret Stoll: 0.76 PTS/60, 1.51 GFON/60, 3.09 GAON/60
Ales Hemsky: 2.36 PTS/60, 2.71 GFON/60, 2.94 GAON/60
Erik Cole: 2.10 PTS/60, 3.53 GFON/60, 2.64 GAON/60
Marty Reasoner: 1.46 PTS/60, 2.20 GFON/60, 3.33 GAON/60
Dustin Penner: 1.34 PTS/60, 2.56 GFON/60, 2.78 GAON/60
Raffi Torres: 1.22 PTS/60, 2.04 GFON/60, 2.31 GAON/60
Shawn Horcoff: 2.59 PTS/60, 3.14 GFON/60, 2.67 GFON/60
Fernando Pisani: 1.55 PTS/60, 2.37 GFON/60, 2.74 GAON/60
Ethan Moreau: 1.21 PTS/60, 1.62 GFON/60, 2.63 GAON/60
Sam Gagner: 1.96 PTS/60, 2.33 GFON/60, 3.19 GAON/60
Robert Nilsson: 2.37 PTS/60, 2.98 GFON/60, 2.29 GAON/60
Gilbert Brule: 0.87 PTS/60, 1.53 GFON/60, 1.96 GAON/60
Kyle Brodziak: 2.09 PTS/60, 2.76 GFON/60, 3.44 GAON/60
Andrew Cogliano: 2.28 PTS/60, 2.92 GFON/60, 2.99 GAON/60
Geoff Sanderson: 1.82 PTS/60, 2.15 GFON/60, 3.47 GAON/60
Curtis Glencross: 1.97 PTS/60, 2.54 GFON/60, 1.88 GAON/60
Zach Stortini: 1.24 PTS/60, 2.38 GFON/60, 2.04 GAON/60
Marc Pouliot: 1.55 PTS/60, 2.58 GFON/60, 2.84 GAON/60
PTS/60 – average number of points recorded for every 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time GFON/60 – average number of goals scored for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice GAON/60 – average number of goals scored against for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice
Although the vast majority of fans view the losses of Stoll, Reasoner and Torres as largely inconsequential, the fact is that they all played extremely difficult minutes, and now somebody else on this team needs to step into the role. I expect that Craig MacTavish will start the season with the following lines:
Cole – Horcoff - Hemsky Nilsson – Cogliano - Gagner Penner – Brodziak - Pisani Moreau – Brule - Stortini
There’s been some question about who should play with Hemsky and Horcoff, and I really believe that Dustin Penner will eventually get the job, for a pair of reasons:
Penner played well with the tandem last season.
The third line needs a better defensive player.
Regardless, the difficulty of opposition will doubtless go 1-3-4-2, with the “Kid Line” grouped together to avoid the opponents’ big guns. Given the sheer number of road games at the start of the schedule, it’s going to be tough to shield them completely, and they may not remain a unit throughout the season.
The first line should be able to play a power-vs-power game, but the big question is the third line, particularly at the pivot position. MacTavish has been so concerned about this that he’s given Pisani a cameo at centre this pre-season, but that doesn’t seem like a permanent solution. Can Kyle Brodziak (3.44 GAON/60) handle an increased workload? If he falters, can Marc Pouliot do the job?
The fourth line will likely be strong again this season, with all four players boasting a physical and energetic game.
This is one of the more offensively capable forward corps in the division, even in the conference, but their ability to prevent goals will likely decide the outcome of the Oilers’ season.
Much like the Avalanche, Edmonton is relying on its defensive corps to help keep them in the playoff race. A nice mix of returning veterans and young talent do a good job of limiting chances against.
Steve Staios: 0.65 PTS/60, 2.29 GFON/60, 3.20 GAON/60
Sheldon Souray: 0.76 PTS/60, 1.66 GFON/60, 2.42 GAON/60
Tom Gilbert: 0.98 PTS/60, 2.89 GFON/60, 2.98 GAON/60
Joni Pitkanen: 0.84 PTS/60, 3.10 GFON/60, 3.10 GAON/60
Ladislav Smid: 0.25 PTS/60, 1.91 GFON/60, 2.93 GAON/60
Denis Grebeshkov: 0.84 PTS/60, 2.90 GFON/60, 2.64 GAON/60
Lubomir Visnovsky: 0.80 PTS/60, 2.63 GFON/60, 3.30 GAON/60
Jason Strudwick: 0.10 PTS/60, 1.47 GFON/60, 1.67 GAON/60
Matt Greene: 0.10 PTS/60, 1.73 GFON/60, 2.21 GAON/60
Allan Rourke: 0.00 PTS/60, 2.18 GFON/60, 2.18 GAON/60
Mathieu Roy: 0.46 PTS/60, 2.73 GFON/60, 2.73 GAON/60
It’s worth noting that Visnovsky ranked fourth in quality of opposition among Los Angeles defencemen; he may slot a little higher on the Oilers depth chart than his number would indicate. Based on quotes from the coaching staff and pre-season play, the following pairings will likely start the season:
Souray – Staios
Grebeshkov – Gilbert
Smid – Visnovsky
This is going to be a very interesting season. Souray and Staios are somewhat suspect, to put it mildly, as a shut-down pairing, given that Staios struggled in the role last year and Souray’s history of injury, and for that matter, play prior to last year, don’t give a lot of reason to believe they’ll be successful. Still, they’re the best options at this point in time.
Beyond that, the very young pairing of Gilbert – Grebeshkov could be either very good or very bad. Grebeshkov was chaotic for much of the season, and started to show incredible promise after the halfway point. Gilbert moved in the opposite direction, posting great numbers to start the year and slowing down in the second half. They haven’t looked good in the pre-season; if that continues it could be a very difficult year.
Ladislav Smid comes into training camp both bulked up and more confident, while Lubomir Visnovsky adds an elite offensive element on the back-end. Jason Strudwick should easily replace Matt Greene, and in case of injury there are good call-up options on the farm (Roy, Peckham, Chorney, Hrabal).
2005–06: 63GP, 31-26-3, 3.22 GAA, .894 SV%
2006–07: 32GP, 13-10-6, 2.66 GAA, .907 SV%
2007–08: 47GP, 26-18-1, 2.66 GAA, .913 SV%
2005–06: 43GP, 14-24-5, 2.73 GAA, .899 SV%
2006–07: 68GP, 27-34-6, 2.75 GAA, .909 SV%
2007–08: 43GP, 15-17-5, 3.05 GAA, .901 SV%
Jeff Deslauriers (AHL):
2005–06: 13GP, 4-7-0, 3.15 GAA, .897 SV%
2006–07: 40GP, 22-12-3, 2.47 GAA, .908 SV%
2007–08: 57GP, 26-23-5, 2.90 GAA, .912 SV%
I’m in the minority among those who follow the Oilers in that I think the contest for the starting role will be much closer than expected. Mathieu Garon is a high-quality goaltender, but he has only once played more than 60 games in a season at any level, and I wonder about his durability. Craig MacTavish has always spoken very highly of Dwayne Roloson, and he offered up this quote in a recent Dan Barnes article:
“Roli is going to get opportunity, absolutely. Everybody will. It's going to be dependent on who's the best goalie and that's pretty easy to determine."
The same article mentions that Roloson lost seven pounds in the off-season, and given his performance with the Wild (where he alternated the starting job with first Jamie McLennan and than Manny Fernandez), he has the ability to win back a starter’s role that he’d previously lost. He looked excellent two years ago, playing behind a train-wreck of an Oilers team, and even though he’s getting older, I very much doubt that he’s lost his ability.
I rather expect that Jeff Deslauriers will get sent down to Springfield, but if he doesn’t he has done a remarkable job to keep himself in play, given the poor situation he was put in by the Oilers’ lack of a farm team. I think he’ll be a good NHL backup for a number of years, but probably not this season.
The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is a 50–30 split in favour of Garon, given that he has the job coming out of the gate, and Dwayne Roloson getting sent out to a contender with goaltending issues at the deadline.
Last season was a typical year for the MacTavish-coached Oilers; they had a poor (on average) power play (16.6%, 21st in the NHL), and an outstanding penalty kill (84,7%, 5th in the NHL).
Craig MacTavish has never iced a team with a poor penalty-kill. That’s a trend I expect to continue this season on the front end, one of the league’s best penalty-killers departed in Marty Reasoner (team-leading 3.10 TOI/60) as well as another stalwart in Jarret Stoll (2.67 TOI/60). A healthy season from Ethan Moreau will help, and Shawn Horcoff, Kyle Brodziak and Fernando Pisani all did a good job last season despite injuries (Horcoff, Pisani) and inexperience (Brodziak). I expect Andrew Cogliano to play a much larger role short-handed this season (he was remarkably efficient last season in spot duty). Other options include Marc Pouliot (if he remains with the team) and Dustin Penner, both of whom have had a good pre-season on the penalty kill. On the defensive side of things, a healthy season from Sheldon Souray will help, as will the loss of Matt Greene (-6.68 GD/60, worst on the team). Steve Staios and Tom Gilbert were both solid in a penalty-killing role last season.
The power play has a couple of new options coming in, with Lubomir Visnovsky most likely to have an impact. Visnovsky had a poor season last year, but has historically been a capable performer. More ice-time for Sam Gagner early on will also help, as he was exceptional down the stretch, and at this point looks ready to replace Shawn Horcoff (who also had a good season) on the top unit. Dustin Penner was effective on the top unit last year, and it’s hoped that he’ll reprise that role, as newcomer Erik Cole is a historically poor power-play option. Robert Nilsson (2.66 PTS/60) and Andrew Cogliano (2.52 PTS/60) had very poor numbers on the power play last season, which one would naturally expect them to improve on. Ales Hemsky (5.93 PTS/60) remains the most potent weapon in the Northwest Division, but Craig MacTavish has to date refused to give him the same level of ice time as similar players. The trade of Joni Pitkanen should be a non-issue; he was extremely poor in the role of quarterback last season, while it remains to be seen if Sheldon Souray can reproduce his Montreal results in Edmonton and if Tom Gilbert can maintain his strong play as a rookie. I’d guess that both perform below expectations, but that the improving personnel up front help to make up for that. There’s no reason that this unit can’t be league-average or better.
Despite the almost irresistible optimism among the fan base, the Edmonton Oilers are by no means certain to win the division. There will be bumps along the way, as young players make mistakes, and a linear development curve is by no means certain. Aside from that, the lack of experience behind Shawn Horcoff at centre, and the lack of a shut-down defenseman on the back end could turn into gaping holes if injuries hit. A difficult schedule early could also sink this team in a hole that will be difficult to crawl out of. With all of that said, this division has taken a step back, and there’s no reason the Oilers shouldn’t return to the playoffs, and battle it out with Calgary for the 2nd spot in the Northwest.
—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue, and a frequent OilersNation contributor.
The OilersNation Research Department™ has been hard at work getting ready for the new season. As 2008-09 draws upon us, we’ve analyzed what the Northwest Division will look like.
Read our Division previews before the start of the season: