October 09 2008 11:32AM
"Get giddy. The next few years are going to be a lot of fun in Edmonton."
-- Terry Jones, Edmonton Sun
With more gushing in Oil Country since roughnecks tapped Leduc No. 1, it's obvious optimism abounds when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers on the eve of the 2008-09 season.
Over at The Sun, Jones and hockey writers Rob Tychkowski and Derek Van Diest were unanimous Wednesday in picking the Oilers to not only make the playoffs after two straight years out, but to win the Northwest Division outright. They're not alone.
While I tend to agree with Large the Oilers are going to be fun to watch, I'm not convinced they'll manage either -- winning the division title or making the playoffs. But that's just me.
Here's how I see the Western Conference.
THE TOP TIER
1. DETROIT. In a class of their own. They have Hart Trophy candidates in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, perennial Norris Trophy winner Niklas Lidstrom and they've added Marian Hossa. Great special teams.
2. SAN JOSE. Is this the year? If Jonathan Cheechoo can regain his form, the Sharks will be absolutely loaded up front. I'll take Evgeni Nabokov over Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin any day.
3. CALGARY. If the wheels don't fall completely off Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames will be the class of the Northwest Division. Not many teams have a one-two offensive-and-shutdown punch like Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr on the back end. Nice additions in Cammalleri and Glencross.
4. ANAHEIM. Not having Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer farting around with retirement talk is a bonus. I like the addition of Brendan Morrison.
THE NEXT FOUR
5. DALLAS. Proof that the pre-season means little. A full season of Brad Richards and the grit added with Sean Avery will help, although I'm not sold on super-hyped Fabian Brunnstrom.
6. MINNESOTA. While we might see a return to more defensive hockey and a less potent transition game, the Wild will have enough offence unless Marian Gaborik comes off the rails.
7. CHICAGO. For all the talk in Edmonton about young talent, no team in the conference has more young skill than the Blackhawks with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front and Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith on the back end. A team on the rise in the Windy City.
8. COLORADO. The Avs would be a spot or two higher if it wasn't for the goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft. Expect a bounce-back year from Ryan Smyth. When will Joe Sakic slow down?
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR
9. EDMONTON. This team looks better on paper than it will in the standings, although I fully expect the Oilers to be in the thick of things and destined for another hair-on-fire stretch drive.
There's lots to like about this edition of the Oilers . . .
-- I don't have the doubts about Mathieu Garon some people do. I think he can be the No. 1 guy for 65-70 games, and he'll be motivated because he's playing for a contract.
-- Erik Cole for Joni Pitkanen is a big upgrade. I won't be surprised to see Cole score 30 goals. While Cole, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky weren't a great fit in pre-season, give it time.
-- I don't see a big drop-off, aka the sophomore jinx, for Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. I'd be more worried about Robert Nilsson, only because he's had inconsistency in his game in the past.
-- Shawn Horcoff is in his prime and those people who don't consider him a "legit" No. 1 centre don't get how well-rounded his overall game is. He's in for a bounce-back year and I won't be surprised to see 75 points.
-- Hemsky. He'll be more protected from the constant muggings he's endured for several seasons. Those who've been waiting for that elusive breakout year will see it this season.
Here's what makes me nervous . . .
-- A bogus schedule. The Oilers play 12 of their first 15 games on the road and could spend the first two months of the season digging themselves out of a hole. That's a factor in a conference where you could have six points separating seventh place from 10th.
-- Trouble in the circles. Nobody has stepped up to make up for the loss of Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner on the dot. While I don't put a lot of weight in pre-season records in terms of wins and losses, the Oilers inability to win face-offs has been alarming.
-- The third-line mix. I haven't liked the trio of Ethan Moreau, Fernando Pisani and Dustin Penner a bit. Two guys playing out of position and another who has barely played the past two seasons. Trouble.
-- The power play. Good enough? With the addition of Lubomir Visnovsky and 75 games from Sheldon Souray it should be, but . . .
-- The Oilers have enough offence, but they have to be way better defensively in front of Garon. Have they shown marked improvement in their own end? Well, no.
10. VANCOUVER 11. COLUMBUS 12. PHOENIX 13. NASHVILLE 14. ST. LOUIS 15 LOS ANGELES
-- Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.