September 28 2009 11:59AM
The pre-season is done, and outside of JF Jacques and Mike Comrie there haven’t been any major surprises. The most pressing question still hasn’t been answered: Will the Oilers send a proven vet to the minors?
Last night’s re-assignment of Rob Schremp, Taylor Chorney, Kip Brennan, Devan Dubnyk and Jordan Eberle wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has been watching. The Oilers have the day off today, before they start working on their PP, PK and deciding who will be on the opening-day 23-man roster.
The final cuts have to be made by 1:00pm MST on Wednesday, and the Oilers could easily take every last second to decide who stays and who goes. We’ve debated for weeks who should be here, and shockingly, up until last night some actually thought Jacques shouldn’t be in the top 12.
Well, he’ll be in the top three come Saturday.
Jacques will start the season with Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, while Dustin Penner, Comrie and Patrick O’Sullivan will be the 2nd line. The defence has been set since the start of camp, and the only minor surprise is that Lubomir Visnovsky and Sheldon Souray won’t be paired up together. It looks like the pairings will be 44/24, 77/37 and 71/5 with Jason Strudwick the extra guy.
Andrew Cogliano will start on the wing with Sam Gagner, but who skates with them will be decided this week. Ethan Moreau is the leading candidate, and he practiced yesterday so his health isn’t a question mark. Ryan Stone, Fernando Pisani and Robert Nilsson are the other options, and Pat Quinn’s comments about Stone last night lead you to believe that Stone will be one of the 14 forwards come Saturday.
Gilbert Brule and Zack Stortini will be on the 4th line, while their left winger will be Pisani, Nilsson or Stone.
I still don’t see Stone as a long-term solution in Edmonton, but I give him credit for working his way into the conversation. I think Reddox will be re-assigned for sure, and while Quinn hinted last week that Marc Pouliot and Pisani might get the “veteran-benefit-of-the-doubt” stay of execution, he can’t keep to that if Stone makes this team. The numbers just don’t add up then.
That leaves Steve MacIntyre, Liam Reddox, Nilsson, Pisani, and Pouliot to battle for the final two spots. Steve Tambellini will be working the phones in the next 48 hours to try to get something for one, or possibly two of these four players. If he finds a taker, he’ll jump at it. The Oilers love Reddox’s versatility and his compete level, and while he is a long shot, if they can get a deal for Pouliot, Nilsson or Pisani they’d keep Reddox. Some in the organization think he is a cheaper version of Pisani.
What did we learn?
I can’t get a clear read on what the Oilers will do with their final two cuts, so let’s turn our focus to some things that have been overlooked.
Comrie had 10 points, in five games. Pre-season points mean nothing now, but it showed his offensive instincts are still there. Many wondered why the Oilers needed another small forward, but so far Comrie has shown he is much different than Gagner, Cogliano, and Nilsson. He can produce, which is the most important factor. Comrie and O’Sullivan had instant chemistry and if they can get off to a decent start that should take some pressure of the first line.
After only scoring five goals last year, Tom Gilbert vowed he’d shoot the puck more and he did scoring three times in five games. Tom Renney wants his defence to be more aggressive in the defensive zone and he has been pushing Gilbert to jump into the rush a bit more. Two of his goals came when he was the late guy into the offensive zone, and he skates well enough that he should do that more often.
Jacques was given an opportunity and so far he has taken advantage of it. Tambellini said he wanted this team to get bigger, and they did by promoting Jacques. If he continues to play tough, and shows the soft hands (pass to Horcoff last night) he’ll become a fan favourite very quickly.
Anyone who thought Hemsky wasn’t about the system should have watched last night. I sat in the crowd, row nine, and saw up close how sick this guy is. His vision, foot and hand speed is incredible. He didn’t get an assist on Jacques’ goal, but he started the play with a great pass back to Souray. He was dangerous all night, and he might be a better skater than Cogliano. This system demands more skating, so Hemsky should flourish.
I like Penner better with 91 and 19. They play a bit more a cycling game than 10 and 83 and that plays more into Penner’s game. Plus Jacques skates better and is more aggressive, so he’ll protect Hemsky more.
They still haven’t improved in the dot, so that will be a work in progress, but moving Cogliano to the wing automatically makes them better in the draw.
What needs to improve
Their special teams.
Last year the Oilers were competitive five-on-five. They scored 152 goals five-on-five and gave up 150, but they lost the battle on special teams.
They gave up 76 PP goals, and scored 60. The Oilers had the 11th most PP opportunities last year with 354 chances. They finished 22nd on the PP at 17%.
On the PK they were way worse. They were shorthanded the 16th most, 338 times, but only four teams gave up more PP goals than the Oilers’ 76 and they were a woeful 77.5%.
If they improve their special teams by a combined 6% and get to a 100 between the PP and PK then they should be in the playoffs.
Practice on both units will intensify this week, and it will go a long way in deciding if the Oilers end their three-year drought of not getting an invite to the post-season dance.