No Cigar: Eight Years Out

Robin Brownlee
September 28 2013 01:09PM

When I picked the Edmonton Oilers to make the playoffs last season I was playing a hunch despite plenty of evidence I'd be wrong. I was, of course, as the Oilers made it seven straight years out of the post-season.

Picking the Oilers to miss the playoffs in 2013-14 is no such matter. It is, despite my sense there has been more optimism about Edmonton's chances from pundits around the NHL, not to mention long-suffering fans in the City of Champions, going with the odds instead of against them.

No matter which way you lean, of course, it's all crystal ball stuff. Taking hope and want – two emotions that are the very essence of fandom – out of the equation as "objective observers" should, doesn't mean you'll be right, as I proved last season, when I mistakenly thought the Oilers might excel in a 48-game sprint instead of an 82-game marathon.

Do I think the Oilers will push the playoff pace this season after fading down the stretch last season? Yes. Do I think the Oilers, with a new head coach in Dallas Eakins and a roster that's seen significant turnover – for the better – are improved? Yes.

Do I see a playoff spot? No, for two reasons – a tough schedule and injuries, and how they'll intersect at the beginning of this season. This is a team that's been dealt some tough cards on both fronts. Close, but no cigar.

THE INJURIES

Despite a 5-2-1 pre-season, one which wrapped up with a 4-0 loss to the Dallas Stars in Oklahoma City Friday, Edmonton's much discussed lack of depth at centre, a black hole made darker by the ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the loss of Sam Gagner to a broken jaw, can't be overstated.

With RNH and Gagner out, Taylor Hall, making the switch from left wing as a fill-in, is the team's top center. Behind him, Mark Arcobello, Boyd Gordon and, it appears, Will Acton. Anybody who thinks that group is good enough (assuming GM Craig MacTavish doesn't bolster it), is leaning far too heavily on hope and want and ignoring the obvious.

While I think the Oilers have wisely been taking a pessimistic approach to the return of RNH, pegging it at the end of October, I suspect he'll be back closer to Oct. 1 than Nov. 1. I've said it before and I'm saying it again. Let's split it right down the middle and say he'll be back Oct. 15.

Even if that's the case, that'll put RNH out for the first seven games of the season. I don't think it's a stretch or looking for an unduly negative angle to suggest it could take him the rest of October, a total of 14 games, to get back into game shape and get his timing back.

Compound that with Gagner, the team's No. 2 centre, being out until the end of November, which translates to 27 games (plus additional time to knock off the rust), and I don't see Edmonton's paper-thin collection of men in the middle being nearly good enough against real NHL line-ups – something they saw little of during the pre-season.

THE SCHEDULE

Even if the Oilers had a full line-up that wasn't punched full of holes down the middle by injuries, the schedule-maker, as Jason Gregor has already pointed out, didn’t do them any favors.

The Oilers play at Rexall Place just six times in their first 19 games, a stretch that sees them make a six-game swing to the east in October and a four-game trip in November.

That's 13 of 19 games where opposing coaches get the last line change and the upper hand in match-ups up front and in defensive pairings against Hall, David Perron, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. Those are match-ups, it goes without saying, already made easier by the absence of RNH and Gagner.

Take a look at the schedule and tell me how many points you see the Oilers getting out of those first 19 games, even if Nugent-Hopkins gets back after, say, seven games. Do they get 10, 12, 15? More?

MAKE IT EIGHT

What I see is a team undermanned by injuries in concert with a very tough schedule having to play from back in a re-aligned Pacific Division pack from the end of November on. How far back? I don’t know, but the start the Oilers are facing takes away much of any margin for error they have.

I expect the line-up MacTavish has assembled to improve as the season wears on, even though there's questions about the bottom six forwards and the defense, which looks better and marginally deeper on paper, but has yet to prove it on the ice against real NHL line-ups.

That said, even if the Oilers can stay relatively healthy after they get RNH and Gagner back and after living out of a suitcase for most of those first 19 games, has this team improved enough to charge from behind and earn a playoff spot after folding with the money on the table last spring?

I don't see it.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

Aceb4a1816f5fa09879a023b07d1a9b4
A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#1 Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate
September 28 2013, 01:14PM
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I think they will miss

Too much hurts to overcome

Close but no cigar*

* I see them giving us fans a hell of a run in April, only to finish 9th and miss by 2 points.

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#2 yawto
September 28 2013, 01:15PM
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How many days to the first. Need hockey. Good read RB.

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#3 The Ghost of Jari Kurri
September 28 2013, 01:21PM
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Dream crusher...

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#4 Walter Sobchak
September 28 2013, 01:33PM
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Not even close to a playoff spot, one injury away from being a lottery team.

MacTavish should have acted earlier.

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#5 Geoff
September 28 2013, 01:35PM
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Bring on the challenges of the first month. Oilers always do well in the first month then fade. As eakins said it's always better for a team to face adversity. Will it be too much though? No idea but I think this will bring the team together.

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#6 Jerconjake
September 28 2013, 01:35PM
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All of this could have been easier with a few choice additions. I'm sure a guy like Grabovski is looking much better now that there's nothing up the middle in Edmonton.

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#7 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 01:47PM
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That home game on the 24th looks silly. Might as well be on the road.

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#8 TM8Trent
September 28 2013, 01:47PM
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Good assessment RB. The only thing missing is the likelihood other teams will too taste the injury bug. I know it's hopeful but I think we can assume most teams will lose some of their key players over a season to injury and hopefully balance the scales a little bit. It's rare a team stays healthy all year. Losing your top 2 C is very tough, but Hall's move to C compensates for some of that.

With a 40% turnover in players, a new coach & systems, and the young talent a year older I think it is almost impossible to predict how the Oilers will perform. I am more optimistic, though.

I like the defense immeasurably more. Belov in a handful of pre-season games improved dramatically throughout and I am convinced he will be one of the best defenders the Oilers have. J. Schultz a year older. Adding Ference. This year N. Schultz could drop right out of the line-up, where he played top 4 minutes last year. This defense is very solid now. Petry has (aside from a few glitches) has looked excellent. Smid is Smid.

Eakins preaches compete and brought guys in who he knows will do that consistently. Acton & Hamilton will, if nothing else, be aggressive on the puck.

I say they perform reasonably well without RNH & Gags and with a full line-up should be among the best in the west.

The biggest question, as always, is Dubnyk. The strengthened defense should by itself lower the goals against. He consistently has had a pretty solid sv% so he's a capable goalie. This leads me to believe his numbers will improve, and more wins should be the result. Will it be enough? I think so.

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#9 Dog Train
September 28 2013, 01:49PM
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And that's why they play the games.

I have the Oilers just outside of the playoffs but a break one way or the other could change their fortunes. The early schedule is tough but I've always believed that I would rather be on the road early because the road trips build camaraderie and I would rather face tough teams early because they might still be working out the kinks themselves. Teams that have been successful don't always have the same gear in October as they do in March and April. The injuries make things tough, no doubt, but maybe we can tread water in the first month or two.

They play the games for a reason and there will be plenty of time for negativity later on. For now, it's all about the Kool-Aid. GO OILERS GO!!

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#10 Aitch
September 28 2013, 01:53PM
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I might be ignoring the injuries, but I've been on the record elsewhere as saying they'll win the division. I'm not nearly as worried about playing in the Pacific as everyone else is, simply because with the new schedule format, the games against their own division represent a smaller portion of the games than it did in the past. And even bad Oiler teams did well against the East Too bad most of the Eastern games will be in the first month.

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#11 madjam
September 28 2013, 01:57PM
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Final exhibition game Eakins believes is a wake up call to team , expects much better in season . Hall reaps praise on Dallas team for stymying Oilers . How many other teams are going to stymie us throughout season ? Right now we might be weaker going into season than last with even worse results . New GM , coaches and system could stall positive results for far to long . Exhibition showed some promise , but last nights performance with almost full squad was probably indicative of how season might unfurl . An undermanned Dallas squad beat us in every part of the game , and it was not from lack of trying on our part . Room for concern !

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#12 Harlie
September 28 2013, 02:08PM
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That heater would make Lewinsky's knees weak.

And if MacT's version of bold is watching a thinly assembled team hobbling its way through the start of a season we are Lewinskied.

I never understand why the first 15 games in a season appear to mean squat only to have the last 15 games be do or die. Why not treat every fricken game the same? And if you have that philosophy you expect MacT to make a move. C'mon Mac!

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#13 EricOG
September 28 2013, 02:09PM
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Whoever made that schedule hates the Oilers. I'ts not just the away games. It's Ovechkin twice, Crosby and the Sedins.

Even with no injuries it's one heck of a bad way to start a season for any team. 6 wins will be a very big victory.

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#14 coco crisp
September 28 2013, 02:21PM
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I hope MacT adresses the hole in the middle if RNH takes a set back... Get off that Tambelini grind.

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#15 Will
September 28 2013, 02:29PM
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Does it stand to reason that if having a tough schedule with an injury riddled team means few if any points, an easier schedule with a full roster will yield lots of points? My point being, though there's nothing to do about the injuries, the silver lining is maybe we get them out of the way early when we're already facing a tough schedule.

In other words, would you want your team to be injured during a difficult schedule stretch or an easy one? Obviously we'd all rather not have any injuries but if we're against the wall to begin with, might as well get it all out of the way at once, so we can at least hit the mid way season on the upswing instead of the downward trend.

Also, hockey is so variable. You just don't know what could happen. Remember the year Habby won us a bunch of points in the opening month or two? Who's to say Dubnyk doesn't start the year on a hot streak. He definitely won games on his own in the early going of last season.

I think in the opening 19 games, out of a possible 38 points, if we get 18 points then I think we at least stay in the running for the playoffs. I certainly remember last year when we were like 6 points out of a spot and went on a five game win streak to claim a spot. a Five game win streak is not that excessive for a team like ours. So as we can see that 8th spot by the time we get healthy, then I think we could make a run.

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#16 Harry
September 28 2013, 02:36PM
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I understand trying to spread out the scoring a bit but can someone please tell me why Yakupov in on the third line?!

He would look amazing next to Hall and either Perron or Joeansu.

Arguably our best goal scorer on the third line with Gordon just makes zero sence to me

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#18 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 02:40PM
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@Will

Bettman points make it near impossible to gain ground. If we fall too far out of it early its over.

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#19 Justino
September 28 2013, 02:41PM
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I choose to be optimistic and say the Oilers will get 15-16 points in the first 19 games. We wont play ourselves into that deep of a hole and we'll be able to make a strong push when dec/jan comes around. Our kids are growing up and a rebound season from Eberle and a breakout season from Yakupov will help us keep afloat.

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#20 Flynn
September 28 2013, 02:44PM
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Let's HOPE that your wrong as usual then

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#21 Time Travelling Sean
September 28 2013, 02:45PM
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I hate Kassian. I want SMAC to break his jaw, then break Kesler's jaw. :@ I'd do it myself, I'm just 5'9 and weigh only 140 pounds.

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#22 TM8Trent
September 28 2013, 02:46PM
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@Robin Brownlee

True that.

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#23 vetinari
September 28 2013, 02:53PM
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I'm hoping that we can stay around .500 hockey until the walking wounded come off IR.

I wonder if the Olympic break may also factor into things? I doubt that the Oilers send more than a player or two to Olympic teams this year and the break might give us some time to heal up for a final push in the last two months?

In any event, I'm just asking for meaningful and competitive hockey come March...

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#24 #ThereGoesTheOilers
September 28 2013, 03:00PM
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@coco crisp

A Tambelini grind would be to watch us struggle the first 19 games and then make a lack-luster acquisition to try and bolster the status quo. I don't see MacT doing that.

Let's see how the kids swim first before we declare it a death by drowning.

*edit* Unfortunately, I agree with Brownlee. We miss post season by a hair.

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#25 WONGER
September 28 2013, 03:15PM
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PICK UP LUKE GAZDIC off of WAIVERS !!!!!!! The Wonger gave MACT a big HINT a few days before MAC and PL3 were available!!! GAZDIC (great 24 year old enforcer who can play a little bit) will be available on waivers soon!!! So will Honest JAY ROSEHILL!!!!!! Take 'em both if BROWN and MAC are both out!!!What the hell, take them both anyway!!! You heard it here first courtesy of the WONGER - TOUGHNESS and ENFORCER EXPERT!!! PHD in Gooning it up!!!!!!

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#26 Smokey
September 28 2013, 03:17PM
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My heart wants to believe this is the year. However another coach another new system, the failure to address both the lack of size and depth at center means I would not play the Las Vegas odds. I still like to know why we signed both Jones and Grebeshkov, and the overpay of Ference had me shaking my head. I know I am in a minority, but how can this team expect to win with a lack of center depth. I felt this way before Sam was greeted with the lumber. Why do people

I so want my head to be wrong, and my heart to be right.

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#27 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 03:20PM
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I like Yak on the third. He's going to see his power play time, and that third line is going to see a ton of minutes. It's pretty obvious our 4th might see the least amount of TOI in the league. I don't even really see it as a typical third line. Spread the offense out, and shelter the kid untill the wounded return. Lines are going to change anyways then so who knows where he lines up later on.

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#28 Freewheeling Freddie
September 28 2013, 03:26PM
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With all the Bold Bold moves mac made the playoffs should be no problem.

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#29 Cynic
September 28 2013, 03:27PM
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Luckily for the Oilers, the Flames are still in the Western Conference.

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#30 Norm
September 28 2013, 03:27PM
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I thought two months ago that Mact had to improve centre ice and bottom 6 overall play and said so. I thought failing that the Oil could be hovering around 25-27th place overall by Jan '14 and that was before Gagner went down. I don't want to experience another season of failure. Something has to give. After watching Petry and Smid fumble with the puck like it was a full diaper I'm concerned about their ability to get the job done.

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#31 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
September 28 2013, 03:44PM
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Oilers didn't play poorly last evening. They just decided to save all their goals and assists for the regular season.

Sobering article Brownlee. If you weren't the lead writer here on Oilersnation, you would probably be branded a troll like some regular folk posters are here on a daily basis. It's always refreshing to hear a realists opinion of what will/may unfold this coming season.

After seeing the holes throughout the lineup after MacTavishs bold summer, we can easily see a carbon copy of last season on the horizon. It could even get worse than 25th if injuries continue to mount. The cap has forced MacTavish to use AHL caliber players throughout his bottom 6 group of forwards. Death by papercut instore for this 2013-2014 season. A little unsettling to say the least for a non playoff team.

C'mon now there kids, hit your toy trash botton like you've never hit it before.

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#32 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
September 28 2013, 03:50PM
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Is it true Jehovah Witnesses don't celebrate Halloween because they don't appreciate total strangers coming to their door?

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#33 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 03:54PM
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I don't think MacT is done yet. How could he possibly be? The injuries were not his fault but we knew about RNH forever. I don't know....... he's done enough good things this summer for me to have a hard time believing he's not willing to just weather this out.

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#34 Bucknuck
September 28 2013, 03:54PM
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I hope you're wrong, but suspect that you're right. I'm too darn invested to be impartial, that's for certain.

The only thing that might go in their favour is that other teams might take them lightly, particularly at the beginning of the year, and they might surprise a few early. If they are anywhere near .500 when RNH gets back, then I think they can do it.

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#35 michael
September 28 2013, 04:01PM
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88 point season. The second half will be the best. Olympic break will give Eakins and his boys the time they'll need to rest and refocus for the stretch run. I just think were just in to deep to begin this season. Its like having one foot in the grave before the shovel is even in the ground.

Way to many unknowns going into this season. I see improvement. But it will not add up to a playoff spot. We finish between 18th-20th overall.

ill be fun though to watch this team grow together.

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#36 Robin Brownlee
September 28 2013, 04:01PM
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@Next up, is Connor McJesus.

I don't see this team finishing "worse than 25th" unless the injuries you are talking about are long-term and to others in the top-six -- Eberle, Hall, Yakupov.

I have questions about the level of grit in the top-nine and about what the fourth line is going to look like. I like the defence more than I did last season, but that group is still going to rely on playing time from Grebeshkov and Belov, who is promising but not NHL-proven.

MacTavish and Eakins might well address deficiencies over the course of the season, but it's the combination of the injuries to RNH and Gagner and the brutal early schedule that puts them in trouble off the hop.

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#37 Bucknuck
September 28 2013, 04:09PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Oilers didn't play poorly last evening. They just decided to save all their goals and assists for the regular season.

Sobering article Brownlee. If you weren't the lead writer here on Oilersnation, you would probably be branded a troll like some regular folk posters are here on a daily basis. It's always refreshing to hear a realists opinion of what will/may unfold this coming season.

After seeing the holes throughout the lineup after MacTavishs bold summer, we can easily see a carbon copy of last season on the horizon. It could even get worse than 25th if injuries continue to mount. The cap has forced MacTavish to use AHL caliber players throughout his bottom 6 group of forwards. Death by papercut instore for this 2013-2014 season. A little unsettling to say the least for a non playoff team.

C'mon now there kids, hit your toy trash botton like you've never hit it before.

Quick, you are an enigma to me.

I thought for sure you were a troll about a year ago, but you keep saying smart things with enough regularity that I no longer hold hold that opinion. Pessimist and Lowe hater - definitely, troll... not so much. You also make me laugh once in while, which is always a good thing.

Now, to reply to your pessimistic view that the team will do worse than 25th. I do not believe that is true. When considering injuries I believe that the forward core is about the same as it was (better when RNH and Gagner return). Goaltending is about the same, and the D is much improved.

Ference > Whitney, and Schultz will be better because he's not a rookie, and Smid and Petry are better players than they showed last year. Belov and Larsen are better than our 6, 7 last year, and the callups are better if there are injuries. It can't be worse than last year... it just can't.*

*if it is you will find me sobbing in a corner somewhere during the playoffs.

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#38 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 04:09PM
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Pick 4 AHLers out of a hat and I'd trade you Whitney, Petrell,Belanger and Smithson. The Jones signing was a mistake but atleast he's not in the lineup. That's a whole lot of addition by subtraction there. Joeansu looks good, Belov looks promising, and we don't need to wait 5 years to know who won the Perron deal. This team is better.

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#39 David S
September 28 2013, 04:09PM
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Jerconjake wrote:

All of this could have been easier with a few choice additions. I'm sure a guy like Grabovski is looking much better now that there's nothing up the middle in Edmonton.

Who of our decent players would you have given up? We didn't have nearly the cap space to make it happen otherwise.

And no, Magnus Paajarvi doesn't count.

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#40 David S
September 28 2013, 04:19PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

I don't see this team finishing "worse than 25th" unless the injuries you are talking about are long-term and to others in the top-six -- Eberle, Hall, Yakupov.

I have questions about the level of grit in the top-nine and about what the fourth line is going to look like. I like the defence more than I did last season, but that group is still going to rely on playing time from Grebeshkov and Belov, who is promising but not NHL-proven.

MacTavish and Eakins might well address deficiencies over the course of the season, but it's the combination of the injuries to RNH and Gagner and the brutal early schedule that puts them in trouble off the hop.

^ THIS.

Allowing the sobering reality both Gagner and RNH will take at least a month to get up to speed (Gagner is going to lose ten pounds easy because of a restricted diet) means we'll be in the deep end by the end of December.

I was somewhat optimistic even with RNH having a delayed start, but with both him AND Gagner out I just don't see it happening.

Nobody has mentioned it yet but by over-tasking players to perform beyond their realistic limits night after night it's almost certain we'll have at least one significant injury between now and December. I'm talking one of Hall, Eberle or Yakupov going down for multiple games. That or just plain wearing out in the process, which is what happened in our crash last year.

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#41 Maverick007
September 28 2013, 04:20PM
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David S wrote:

Who of our decent players would you have given up? We didn't have nearly the cap space to make it happen otherwise.

And no, Magnus Paajarvi doesn't count.

Grabovski was a free agent. He would of basically cost us the price of Jones and Grebeshkov. And we all know how good those signings were.

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#42 David S
September 28 2013, 04:24PM
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Maverick007 wrote:

Grabovski was a free agent. He would of basically cost us the price of Jones and Grebeshkov. And we all know how good those signings were.

Well from what I've seen so far Grebs is a decent puck moving D-man, which is what we certainly needed and was identified as a need by the team - which BTW I agree with.

Jones? I dunno. Perhaps there was a thought he would be able to recover his game, but whoo boy does he look like a lost case now.

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#43 15w40
September 28 2013, 04:28PM
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A 23rd to 19th finish overall is a likely landing spot for this group. Still a soft goal here and a soft goal there......

Hall will have to be other-worldly at centre for this thing to stay out of the ditch and #94 will have to keep sippin at the fountain of youth as well.

They were still behind some other western conference teams will all of the regulars at centre so they are in a big hole. Hall may turn out to be an upgrade on Gagner but it may cost some of the production that would have been there with him on the wing. Hopefully the net difference will be positive.

Maybe something pops up on the waiver wire. The rub on that is that there are 6 teams ahead of the Oilers that have 1st crack so if its anybody of substance they may be long gone.

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#44 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
September 28 2013, 04:28PM
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@Robin Brownlee

The grit issue. What do you think about just sending MacIntyre over the boards whenever anything happens? Let him pull a couple Clarksons during the coming season.

0:00 icetime, but he's always there for that nucleur deterrent when needed. His foot speed/capabilities as a player won't ever be an issue. So he gets suspended when his services are required. 40 games in the press box, or 40 games suspended, message received league wide in the later i'd have to think. The team should step up and cover his loss of income in this case.

Many are desperate to have something to look forward to again with the Oilers. Beg, borrow or steal anything to get a competitive advantage over the opponent. Our Oilers have been dead for far too long. With todays anti violence rules, every avenue should be explored to let the league know even the Oilers can puck you up if you mess with them.

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#45 Racki
September 28 2013, 04:33PM
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I think MacT's got to jump on the horn and pick up a centerman for the team. I don't really feel that anyone replacing Will Acton is going to make that big of an impact to the team that it is necessary to pick up two Cs.. but I'd definitely go for another guy who can play up in the top six.

I'd be really hesitant to give the reigns to Mark Arcobello so quickly. The Oil already have Hall and his zero NHL games experience at center, and well, Acton with zero games experience period (even though I did say he's a small factor) and Mark Arcobello with 1 NHL gp is a recipe for disaster. I would pick someone up.

Once all bodies are healthy, you shouldn't be in a position where you've screwed yourself over if you just sign or trade for someone cheap but reliable. Jim O'Brien already passed through at a good value. The Oilers could revisit him if there are no better choices by late Monday.

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#46 Maverick007
September 28 2013, 04:34PM
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David S wrote:

Well from what I've seen so far Grebs is a decent puck moving D-man, which is what we certainly needed and was identified as a need by the team - which BTW I agree with.

Jones? I dunno. Perhaps there was a thought he would be able to recover his game, but whoo boy does he look like a lost case now.

Grebeshkov was always a disaster in his own zone. Why not offer him a PTO since his numbers sucked in the K. Why not offer Jones a tryout also since he sucked last year and had the eye injury? But nope, he signed them without any due diligence. Why not offer Raymond a PTO or so some other options?

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#47 DSF
September 28 2013, 04:40PM
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Willis appears on the Bleacher Report and also picks the Oilers to miss the playoffs.

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1789592-2013-14-nhl-power-rankings-inaugural-edition/page/31

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#48 Robin Brownlee
September 28 2013, 04:40PM
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@Next up, is Connor McJesus.

MacIntyre and lack of grit throughout the top nine are two separate issues.

One player, no matter how tough, can't make up for a group of forwards that lacks a chip on its collective shoulder -- a willingness to battle for every puck, to be first into the corners etc etc. Teams can be gritty and tough with the gloves on. This one is not.

The need to employ a designated tough guy like MacIntyre is a sign you haven't built your roster the right way. It's a Plan B.

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#49 DSF
September 28 2013, 04:41PM
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The Oilers are a Hall injury away from the abyss.

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#50 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 04:43PM
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Agree with you there. The gun was jumped with both Jones and Grebs. I'm not sure if Raymond was ever an option though, but that's off point. There was money, now there is much less. Still a good summer for getting better, but the foresight of having a few million hanging around on a cap reduction year seems pretty self explanatory.

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