COULD BE A RED OCTOBER

Jason Gregor
September 26 2013 12:01PM

The Oilers final roster hasn't been made official, but with Ryan Jones clearing waivers and Denis Grebeshkov, Corey Potter, Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all injured it is obvious who will be on the team. The only change could come in the form of a waiver wire pickup over the weekend when teams make their final cuts.

If a viable centre is available, general manager Craig MacTavish will need to decide if this player is better than Marc Arcobello or Will Acton.

Even if they claim a centre on the waiver wire, the Oilers will start the season with some key injuries and a very difficult schedule. They could find themselves in the "red" very early.

In their first 19 games, only 6 of them are at home, and 14 of their first 19 are against the eastern conference. The East has most of the true heavyweights, so I'm expecting we'll see Steve MacIntyre more often early in the year than later, but he isn't the main storyline for the Oilers.

If the Oilers are going to end their seven-year playoff drought, they will need to be better on the ice, than they currently look on paper. Their defence is much better than last year, but the right now the forward group isn't; on paper anyways.

The Oilers start the season with only one proven NHL centre. Taylor Hall gets an asterisk beside his name, because he's a elite player, but moving to centre will be a challenge, especially when he has to face regular NHL teams.

Can Jesse Joensuu, Acton and Arcobello be productive NHL forwards? We'll find out quickly

The only preseason game they played where the opposition had more than 70% of an NHL roster was against the Jets in Winnipeg. Their previous four games against the Canucks (2), Rangers and Jets were against lineups with half a roster of AHL players. I'm not sure how much we can take away from those games.

The Oilers blueline should be much better than last season, and Devan Dubnyk looked sharp in preseason.

WHO WILL LEAD?

Hall will need to be just as dominant as he was last season for the Oilers to be in the race at the end of October. In the last 20 years, 77% of teams that were in a playoff spot at the end of October made the playoffs in April.

I'm not sure if the new schedule, playing every team at least twice, will impact that % or not, but even if it doesn't, it is clear the Oilers will need to be close, or in a playoff spots, after 14 games.

Hall averaged 18:37 of icetime/game last season, and head coach Dallas Eakins has already stated Hall is going to play more this season. I'm guessing he'll play close to 21-22 minutes a night, but even with more minutes it will be extremely difficult for him to produce more than he did last season.

Hall had 50 points in 45 games; he averaged 1.1 points-per-game. Only six players, Crosby, St.Louis, Stamkos, Kane, Lupul and Ovechkin had a better PPG average. (Lupul only played 16 games, so I'd say five.) Just having Hall on the ice more should help the Oilers cause, but he'll need some teammates to step up if the Oilers are going to be competitve.

Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky need to be much better than they were last year. Smyth is back playing wing, where he belongs, and that will help him. If Hemsky can find the game he had between 2005-2011, he'll be a huge benefit to Hall. Hemsky is completely healthy, and there is no reason he shouldn't be able to produce playing with Hall.

Jordan Eberle and David Perron have shown good chemistry early on. Eberle will also get more icetime, and he needs to play like he did in 2011/2012, while Perron should produce more than Magnus Paajarvi. The Smyth/Hall/Hemsky trio will likely face the top defencemen most nights, so Eberle and Perron must produce against the 2nd and 3rd D-pairs.

I believe the key to the Oilers treading water lies at the hands of Boyd Gordon, and specifically Nail Yakupov. Gordon isn't a point producer. He's never scored more than 8 goals or 29 points, so it's unrealistic to expect he'll produce much more over the entire season, but players get on hot streaks, and he'll need one early.

I see Yakupov as the key to success early on. Most opposing coaches will put their 3rd pair defencemen against his line, because he's the only proven NHL threat on that line, so Yakupov will need to feast on "softer" matchups. I don't like the term soft/easy, because every NHL player is damn good, but there is a drop off from the 1st pairing down to the 3rd and Yakupov has to score at even strength against those players. I expect he'll produce on the PP, but the Oilers will need to producing 5-on-5.

TEAM DEFENCE

With RNH and Gagner injured, the Oilers must lower their GAA. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that they will score more with their current lineup, so Dubnyk and the re-vamped D core must step up.

Justin Schultz should be better. Andrew Ference and Anton Belov (I expect he'll start opening night) are upgrades over Ryan Whitney and Corey Potter/Mark Fistric, and Nick Schultz will be more effective as a 3rd pairing defender instead of being in the top-pair last year.

Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid are similar to Smyth and Hemsky; they must have bounce back seasons. Petry and Smid underperformed last year, and both of them need to be more consistent to lower the Oilers' GAA.

WRAP UP...

  • At the end of last season Craig MacTavish said, "We had a lot of guys that the best they were going to be in any given game was a non-factor." He was referring to his bottom six forwards. Fast forward ahead to today and the bottom six only looks better because Yakupov is in it.

    Boyd Gordon will be a factor. I think Oilers fans will appreciate him, because he's competitive. He isn't going to produce many points, but he's solid defensively and at least he plays hard. However, after those two there are many question marks.

    Can Joensuu emerge as a regular, productive NHL player? He looked good in the preseason, but the quality of the opponents wasn't NHL caliber.

    I'd like to believe Will Acton can make more of an impact than Eric Belanger. Hell, if Acton plays with a pulse, he'll be an improvement, but being better than Belanger won't be enough. He'll need to much better.

    The 4th line wingers will be a mix of MacIntyre, Ben Eager, Mike Brown and Ryan Hamilton. A fighter, two bangers and a minor leaguer. Maybe Eakins will be able to get more out of them, or use them better than Tom Renney or Ralph Krueger did, but that is a big IF at this point.

    MacTavish said he wanted guys who could be factors, yet 66% of his bottom six forwards aren't proven, consistent NHL players. It is a major risk, and he's put a lot of faith that Eakins can get the most out of these guys. If he does, then Eakins will prove to be a better coach than Renney or Krueger.
     
  • Of the 14 October games, 10 of them are against teams who made the playoffs last year. If the Oilers can win 6 games and get an OT point or two, they should be ecstatic. They have a very tough schedule.
     
  • Ryan Jones cleared waivers, not a surprise, and he should get a lot of icetime in OKC. If he plays well early, I could see him being recalled. I don't see anyone 4th line wingers who are a lock to dress every night, so if he produces and plays well in OKC, he could be back in Edmonton very soon.
     
  • I like the hybrid icing and I hope the NHLPA votes it in. There are so few races for the puck that actually impact the game positively; I don't see any reason why they wouldn't implement it this season.
     
  • I don't want to sound like a broken record, or be a Debby Downer, but when you look at the Oilers early schedule combined with their injuries, it is going to be extremely tough to overcome both of them and make the playoffs. I see them making a strong push at the end of the season, but coming up short.

    For the sake of all you loyal Oilers fans, I hope I'm wrong.

STREAKCRED

Wanye is so worked up about his precious Streakcred I have to make sure to add in a plug to play this season. The early bird special is on right now for only $15 a team. I am playing too as it is for charity and I have to admit it is a pretty fun game. The prizes are good too and it is in support of the ICCP. 

You should sign up here.

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR  

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One of Canada's most versatile sports personalities. Jason hosts The Jason Gregor Show, weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m., on TSN 1260, and he writes a column every Monday in the Edmonton Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JasonGregor
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#51 DT
September 26 2013, 03:10PM
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@Mikey

No GM will trade an asset for a player they could've gotten off the waiver wire for free. - Jay Feaster

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#52 pkam
September 26 2013, 03:23PM
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N Russo wrote:

FYI against Winnipeg Yak played 5v5 with Gordon and Omark, notwithstanding the chemistry between the two Europeans (previous games and practice) there was ZERO puck distribution or support from the North-South Gordon. End result was THREE shots on goal for Yak (which included one PP).

Adding Joensuu (who has shown great chem with Gordon early), wont help. He needs a puck distributor like Nuge or Gags. Best bet if Hall stays at C, Yak and Gags/Arco (with Perron) form the third line while Gordon, Joensuu plus one form the fourth.

Just need another skilled left winger. Because Perron can't play double- shifted all night.

I didn't watch the Jets games so I didn't know about the chemistry between Gordon and Yak. That is my impression from paper.

If Hall centres Smyth and Hemsky and Arco centres Perron and Yak, then Eberle is the odd man out and has to play on the RW of Gordon and Joensuu. If Eberle does not work neither, Eakins will have some real challenge to deal with.

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#53 oilerjed
September 26 2013, 03:28PM
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Tim in Kelowna wrote:

It isn't Gregors job to be optimistic about the Oilers, he's a member of the media.

If you like the look of the Oilers this year, that's great.

I like the look of the Oilers at the beginning of every year. Its at the end of the year when the lights come on that I realize that I have been chatting up the dragon all night long.

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#56 Will
September 26 2013, 03:44PM
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Tough sledding in the early going. However, as terrrible as the Oilers have been in the past four years, getting off to an early start has never seemed to be a big issue. If the goal is ten wins and a few Betman points, given their opening record in the first ten games over the last few years, I am not worried.

Other teams and goalies always seem to be a little overwhelmed by our speed as they shake off the rust and adjust to their new systems. Or, we could have another year where our goalie wins us ten games.

Just saying if we're going by the past few (maybe not last year), then we'll be in good shape till the Nuge and Gags can come back.

As for out team this year, I like what Eakins is trying to do. We know Hall pushes the play in one direction, so rather than give him all our skill, it will be his charge to face the tough competition and bring up the level of play from our vets who have fallen off the map in recent years.

After that, our biggest problem will be teams with depth. How well our second and third lines match up against the second and third most difficult competition, especially in the early going is tough to say, especially because we play so many deeper eastern teams to start. In our division, LA, and to a lesser extent San Jose are the teams where our second and third lines are really going to struggle. But Phoenix, Vancouver, Calgary, and Anaheim do not look especially dangerous after their top pairing.

Having said that, other than Pittsburgh, no team we play in October in the East looks unbeatable. For some reason the Leafs had our number 2 years ago, but all the others I think are beatable teams with our opening night roster.

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#57 CaptainLander
September 26 2013, 03:52PM
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Being the perpetual Oiler optimist I will look at it this way. There is way to much stock put into the bottom 6, especially the bottom 3. The goal for them is to hit some bodies and not get scored on.

The skill level of Hall, Ebs, Yak, Perron, and Hemmer should be able to carry this team offensively. Also hoping for more offense from the defense this year. I like what I have seen from Belov offensively and hope he can compliment Schultz.

So if we can except that Dubs will have a similar save pct as last year we should be ok in net.

So that leaves the D. Is this D lineup better then last year? Can they reduce the shot totals? Can they get the puck to the above mentioned players more effectively? Again, as an optimist I believe they can and will. I think Eakins aggressive puck challenging strategy will work well for this team.

So in conclusion, will this lineup able to score? I see no reason why not. Will they be better defensively then last season? I think so. Will the Eakins system work? Man I hope so.

Go Oil

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#58 paul le coffee
September 26 2013, 03:54PM
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Frankly, I'm a little skeptical of Will Acton. He'll have to prove himself to me. Father is the assistant coach and Eakins seems to want to give him a buy in. He'll have to play really well and prove that that isn't the case. This isn't minor league. The coach's son doesn't get to play just because.

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#59 Rama Lama
September 26 2013, 03:57PM
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If the Oilers can tread water Until Gags and RNH gets back .........then give them at least 5 to 6 games to catch up we may have a team by December that can compete.

You are not being Debbie Downer by stating the facts..........I just wish you were more Jubilant Jason and keep Debbie in the closet.

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#60 Walter Sobchak
September 26 2013, 04:00PM
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I see the Oilers being a lottery team. MacTavish needed centers before the injuries.

To many unknowns.

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#61 Oiler Al
September 26 2013, 04:11PM
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Easier said than done, but here is what needs to happen for the team to keep their head above water during the month of Oct:

Win 3 of 4 first games .. 3 are at home Win 3 of 6 eastern road games Win 2 of 4 remaing games all western with 2H and 2 R games.

That would give you 8 of 14 wins, slightly over .500 hockey. A challenge but not impossible.

There are still pretenders on this.

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#62 Ari Gold
September 26 2013, 04:53PM
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A whole lot of 'ifs' and 'needs' in this article. From my most recent experience with this team, any time we 'need' something or we can win 'if' something happens, we lose.

How do I drink the Cool-Aid that y'all are chugging?

I'm curious to see how our bruisers will be plugged into the lineup. Will they have a super-goon-line of Brown-MacIntyre-Eager???

That'd be the end of the world me thinks.

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#63 EHH Team
September 26 2013, 05:14PM
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Benny Botts wrote:

@Gregor

What do you think about switching Smyth and Yak? Yak then plays with Hall and Hemmer and Smyth plays with Gordon and most likely Jonesuu. I would like to think if hemmer stayed healthy, that first line would be damn exciting to watch.

I don't think that Smyth can handle the minutes playing full time with Hall, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Yak sharing first line minutes with him.

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#64 Mikey
September 26 2013, 05:23PM
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Ari Gold wrote:

A whole lot of 'ifs' and 'needs' in this article. From my most recent experience with this team, any time we 'need' something or we can win 'if' something happens, we lose.

How do I drink the Cool-Aid that y'all are chugging?

I'm curious to see how our bruisers will be plugged into the lineup. Will they have a super-goon-line of Brown-MacIntyre-Eager???

That'd be the end of the world me thinks.

You're first paragraph is definitely correct.

It's not about drinking Cool-Aid. It's about hoping what your team can do. It's about being positive while pointing out your teams weakness, and saying "maybe" and "if" things go right you get to cheer for your team in the playoffs.

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#65 Ari Gold
September 26 2013, 06:14PM
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Mikey wrote:

You're first paragraph is definitely correct.

It's not about drinking Cool-Aid. It's about hoping what your team can do. It's about being positive while pointing out your teams weakness, and saying "maybe" and "if" things go right you get to cheer for your team in the playoffs.

So the Cool-Aid is optimism! I'll jump on that bandwagon!

I think The oil will have constant offensive threats out on the ice this year. Not just a concentration of talent in the top 6. Yak in the bottom six with possibly the emergence of Joensuu: I'm thinking that we may see a triple threat. With MacIntyre-Eager-Brown to devour the competition in the bottom 3.

I know I'm dreaming, but hey, it's Cool-Aid bliss.

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#66 Spoils
September 26 2013, 07:38PM
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yes it means nothing, but they do have the best preseason record in the NHL. 5-1-1. 11pts (there are a few at 9 in 6 games)...

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#67 TroyB
September 26 2013, 09:03PM
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Now that Cody Franzen has signed in Toronto, Joe Colborne has just become expendable.....a big centre.

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#68 Pouzar99
September 26 2013, 11:01PM
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The goal for the first five weeks? Survival. 13 of 19 on the road, including 6 straight against playoff teams, 5 of them in an 8-day span. With both top centers out for most of this stretch and Gagner like gone for the first 25 games or more, it could hardly be more challenging.

Somehow Eakins has to get the guys to treat this hellacious stretch like a playoff drive, because if they don't they will be in a deep, dark hole very quickly. They are going to have dig deep, block shots, play tough defence and battle every shift. Every time I think of Kassian I burn inside. It is not fair, but that is no consolation.

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#69 j
September 27 2013, 08:19AM
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"We had a lot of guys that the best they were going to be in any given game was a non-factor." This comment has been interpreted that the bottom 6 need to produce more points. I am not sure that was MacT's entire intent. Sure it would be helpful for these guys to chip in. But the biggest issue last year was that the bottom 6 were easy to play against. They didn't bring any emotion. No grind. Have we improved? It would be difficult to be worse. I suspect Eakin behind the bench is the biggest improvement for this group. Failure to contribute something to a game will not be tolerated.

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