Veterans in danger of losing their jobs

Jonathan Willis
September 15 2008 04:34PM

Training camp is an exciting time for fans. With the exception of the entry draft and the first couple of days of free agency, there isn’t much in the summer to keep hockey fans following the game (barring acrimonious disputes over restricted free agent offer sheets). Training camp gives fans their first looks at some prospects, and showcases others.

There is, however, a group of players who are threatened by training camp. These are bubble players—generally, players who had a spot last year, but either underachieved, or have both trade value and a younger player angling for their job. These guys come in all types:

Mike Grier, 2002—Lowetide mentioned Grier the other day, after Kevin Lowe’s interesting comments about possibly trading a veteran. Here’s what Lowe said at the time:

"It’s never easy to trade a player but, in this case, it was even more difficult because of the contributions Mike has made to our team over the past six seasons. He has been an extraordinary leader for us, but the time has come for us to make room for our young prospects."

Travis Green, 2003—I can’t find a link, but after waiving Green, Pat Quinn said something to the effect of “training camp having meaning,” and he pretty strongly implied that Green had shown up expecting to be handed a spot and hadn’t put the necessary work in.

Ryan Potulny, 2007—Potulny spent a good part of 2006–07 playing with the Flyers, but when the team underwent radical improvement over the summer, Potulny found himself in the minors, although there’s a pretty good case to be made that he wasn’t any less deserving of a spot than he had been the year before.

Which players are in some danger of losing their spots this fall? Here are my picks:

Robert Nilsson

Nilsson had a very nice season last year, and there’s every reason to expect that he’ll continue to improve. On the ice, however, he’s very comparable stylistically to Rob Schremp, a guy who has spent his entire summer lifting heavy things for Chad Moreau. If Schremp has a stellar training camp, he could very well play his way on to the roster, and a guy like Nilsson, who has excellent trade value, could be moved to shore up a position of weakness.

Dustin Penner

Erik Cole is the player that people hope Dustin Penner will turn into. Although Cole is widely expected to test free agency, if the Oilers feel they can sign him long-term, Penner is the logical candidate to leave town. That said, he’s probably going to get more time after a disappointing initial season in Edmonton, and there’s no reason the team can’t carry two players of this type.

Ethan Moreau

When healthy, Moreau brings unique skills to the roster (size, willingness to use it, experience) and is obviously a leader in the dressing room. However, he hasn’t been healthy in two years, and despite J-F Jacques’ continuing health (and performance) woes, the Oilers may decide that a player like Gilbert Brulé can replace some of the physical element that Moreau provides. It really isn’t very far from 4th line LW to being off the team.

Marc Pouliot

This is the third year in a row that Marc Pouliot has been penciled in for a spot in the lineup. The last two seasons, he’s lost that spot with uninspired performances in both training camp and actual NHL games. Given the improvements elsewhere on the team, the Oilers can’t afford to give a roster spot to a player who is clearly spinning his wheels; thus it’s imperative that Pouliot show his best from the very beginning.

Denis Grebeshkov

The Oilers have a truck-load of defensive prospects, and with the premium on puck-moving defenceman right now, Grebeshkov could attract a very decent return. I imagine that he’ll probably stay, but a strong camp by a guy like Josef Hrabel might make Grebeshkov expendable. Also playing into this equation are the possible KHL concerns for Grebeshkov down the road.

Ladislav Smid

The trade of Matt Greene indicates that the Oilers are not content to spend development time on prospects who aren’t improving. While Smid still has time and has taken encouraging strides, he really needs to have a strong camp to stay ahead of the prospects directly behind him on the depth chart.

Jason Strudwick

I generally agree with Lowetide’s suggestion that Strudwick will see heavier levels of responsibility than the vast majority of observers expect, and that he’ll likely perform above his career norms in that role. However, if Strudwick doesn’t look great in camp, a player like Theo Peckham could grab his job.

The smart money says that all of these players are on the ice when the Avalanche come to town on October 12th. Still, the possibility exists that one or more of them are moved, and it certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone if it happens.

—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue , and a frequent OilersNation contributor.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 jdrevenge
September 15 2008, 05:56PM
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There are three guys on your list that i think are going to seriously suprise this year be it with the Oil or not.

Nilsson, Pouliot and Grebs will show their pedigree this year and fight off the fringe guys.

Nilsson is a way better defensive player than Schremp. Stats may not show yet but we'll see.

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#2 David S
September 15 2008, 07:09PM
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Again with the Schremp.

Jonathan, I read your posts with great enthusiasm and most time you're right up the pipe. But comparing Schremp to Nilsson? C'mon. I'll give you that he played himself onto the team, but the guy has serious wheels and buckets of talent (Nilsson). Not to mention that he's an integral part of a line that has serious chemistry (and don't think that doesn't count for alot).

I can't imagine for a second that Nilsson's been smoking butts and layin' in the sun all summer long. The whole team has taken training darn seriously and no doubt Robert is on this train too. He'll be ready to go - book it.

Schremp has to play his way onto this team, and this is his last at bats to do so. While I agree that Nilsson "might" be trade bait, there's no way in hell he's gonna lose his place to a guy like Schremp. No way in hell.

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#3 lowetide
September 15 2008, 07:27PM
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David S: For what it's worth, Desjardins NHL equivalencies suggest Schremp is a very good comp for Nilsson offensively.

Obviously that doesn't factor in speed, etc but there's little doubt Schremp could put up points given a similar opportunity.

He'd probably be a little better on the PP than Nilsson was a year ago, but I think Nilsson will be much improved this season (his skill set suits the powerplay).

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#4 David S
September 15 2008, 08:00PM
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Crap.

I know I'm outta my league when Lowetide AND Jonathan are on the same page. And for sure there are some stats out there that will make me look like an ass. All I can say is every game I was at last year, Nilsson impressed, especially after Christmas. By the numbers I suppose Schremp might be comparable, but there is ALOT of doubt in my mind that "Schremp could put up points given a similiar opportunity". MacT's too it appears from the amount of time in the bigs Schremp got last year.

Lets not forget that there is no stat out there that measures chemistry and gel, not to mention inbred talent. I can only comment on what I saw last year because I'm not a stats guy. But from what I did see, Schremp has a lot of ground to make up on a guy like Nilsson.

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#5 lowetide
September 15 2008, 08:09PM
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David S: Agree. Also, you have to remember that putting up points is exactly half the game. Every fall MacT gives his "what these kids need to remember is it's also what you leave that counts" and that's the challenge with Schremp.

It was with Nilsson too, that's why he was sent down last season for a time. But the light went on and here he is.

The biggest problem for Schremp is that all these guys passed him. Nilsson, Gagner, Cogliano and on it goes.

He's Mike Easler, 1973. The Astros had Lee May, Bob Watson, Cliff Johnson. PLUS they had just traded John Mayberry a year or so previous to that.

So I think Schremp is probably going to have a career but he'll need some good fortune if it is as an Oiler.

Do you remember the Oilers mid-90s? They had all kinds of wingers: Ciger, Satan, McAmmond, Czerkawski, Smyth, Maltby, a bunch of them. That's what Schremp is facing.

A flood.

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#6 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 08:26AM
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David S:

Completely agree that at this juncture Nilsson is a superior player to Schremp in almost every facet of the game.

I also think that the trade value on Nilsson is much higher than Schremp; thus if Schremp is ready for the NHL, Nilsson may be moved, not because Schremp is superior, but if the return on Nilsson was much higher.

Frankly, though, I wouldn't bet money on it. Maybe a 1 in 5 chance it happens, probably less.

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#7 Wanye Gretz
September 16 2008, 11:22AM
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I'm a coming to your defense David S!

I am completely illiterate so numbers don't mean much to me save their pretty shape and incomprehensible meaning.

I will say though that Schemp can have a corsi rating of 255 1/3 and it won't change the fact that MacT considers him nothing more than bench filler at best. Nilsson on the other hand has been given a new contract at a reasonable rate - assuming he builds on his rookie season. The attitiude and approach to both players on the part of the club will be what dictates their performance.

"The Oilers may decide that a player like Gilbert Brulé can replace some of the physical element that Moreau provides."

GAAAAAH! Willis you son of a gun! Ethan Moreau is a machine who has some faulty parts. Brule - as you and I so eloquently wrote - is an enigma. They aren't in the same league!!

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#8 risto
September 16 2008, 11:50AM
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Nilsson is a total find. We fleeced the Islanders, and he showed he is ready to work both ends of the ice. I can't wait to see him emerge even more offensively.

I hope Ethan can play some games this year. He can fill Glencross's shoes as the energy forechecking hitting guy.

Erik Cole's presence should improve Penner's game, fewer minutes for the big boy will mean more productive shifts grinding down in the corners.

Grebeshkov was probably the most improved d-man in our division, and will have an excellent season.

I love the depth on the big team this year, after a decade of promoting AHL'ers and college kids before they were ready.

The whole Oilogosphere needs to lay off the Pouliot and Sugartits love, likely to be passed by Brule and Potulny now that Jacques is gone.

McMORROW! he's a keeper, Ales (say it like beer) needs a Sammy now that Jumpin Joe Sakic has warned the league he is about to fill Jagr's shoes as the best Czech player in the NHL.

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#9 bebop
September 16 2008, 12:00PM
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Finally I read something on this site that makes me want to throw my laptop into a wall.

In a recent interview Lowe said that Nilsson will definately be on the team when the season starts, he's not going to lose his spot.

And I'd be careful what you say about Moreau, he might just rip your tongue out and wipe his ass with it if you ever question him again.

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#10 Jonathan
September 16 2008, 01:21PM
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To everyone:

Please note that the odds of these guys losing their spots is low in each case; Marc Pouliot is probably most likely to lose his spot, and I'd put the odds of it happening at below 30%.

I just think that these are guys who could lose their spots.

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#11 milli
September 16 2008, 04:35PM
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Ya ya, I'm pretty sure Ethan's gonna be the captain again this year, and by captain, I mean in Edmonton (but it would be funny to watch him wipe his ass with your tongue!!!). Pouly maybe, grebs and laddy, although I hope not, maybe.

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