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 Calgary Oilers
September 28 2013, 05:41PM
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DSF wrote:

The Oilers are a Hall injury away from the abyss.

The Nucks are a pair of Ben Eager and Mike Brown high sticks to the faces of the Sedins from the abyss.

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#2 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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#3 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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#4 Flynn
September 28 2013, 02:44PM
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Let's HOPE that your wrong as usual then

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#6 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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#7 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 04:52PM
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DSF wrote:

The Oilers are a Hall injury away from the abyss.

Silly me thinking the last seven years was the abyss.

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

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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 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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#11 TM8Trent
September 28 2013, 09:13PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

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.

Every team has players who aren't "gritty" and the Oilers are no different. But who is and who isn't? This is who is in that category for Oilers forwards in the top 9: Hall, Yakupov, Joensuu, Smyth, Gordon, Perron. Sure, they're not Boston, LA or SJ, but this is a group that does play with grit. They're also maturing..

Who might we consider less than intimidating and not overly "gritty"? Eberle (who finishes his checks), Gagner (who drops the gloves every so often), Hemsky (who certainly goes into the tough areas. RNH (also goes to the tough areas).

This is not necessarily a group of forwards lacking grit. Do they have the size and the ability to intimidate other teams? No of course not. Their team has been built to intimidate with speed and skill, like Chicago. Actually having the Hawks beat the Bruins last year reinforced for me that you can win with a team like that. Who do you take, Kane or Lucic? You take Kane.

Mac was brought in to try and curb goons like Kassian's behavior, and whether or not having a nuclear deterrent like Mac can really make a difference is certainly debatable.

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#12 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 05:43PM
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Calgary Oilers wrote:

The Nucks are a pair of Ben Eager and Mike Brown high sticks to the faces of the Sedins from the abyss.

Sweet irony would be a couple Torts blocked shots away.

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#13 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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#14 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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#15 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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#16 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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#17 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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#18 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 06:27PM
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Has something changed?

Half the roster.

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

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#20 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 07:32PM
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nunyour wrote:

There's not to many 3 for 1 anymore.would you do a yak for lucic ?

No.Hell no.

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#21 6 ring circus
September 28 2013, 10:33PM
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Why didn't Mac T trade for Colborne ? A young 6 foot 5 center would have been a good pickup for a 4th rounder.

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#22 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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#23 Robin Brownlee
September 28 2013, 04:54PM
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@pkam

"I think having more home games later when RNH and Gagner both in the lineup is in favor of us."

I'll say it again: starting the season without RNH and Gagner does not provide the Oilers some kind of immunity to future injuries.

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#24 Robin Brownlee
September 28 2013, 06:55PM
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@Dawn

If you've been paying attention, which seems unlikely given your Chicken Little comment, you know there have been misgivings about this line-up for some time.

Do you actually think what's been written here by myself and others is based on one game or are you just funning us while shooting selfies in your room wearing a Jamie Benn jersey?

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#25 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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#26 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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#27 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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#28 Pouzar99
September 28 2013, 05:21PM
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I would dearly love to argue against Robin's assessment, but I can't. Losing your top two centers and kicking off the season with the schedule from Hell is almost guaranteed to put this fragile squad behind the eight-ball. I was enraged last year when Tambellini postponed RNH's surgery so long that it ended up effecting this season, reason number 1001 to fire him. Now, with the addition of Kassian's idiotic goonery and the cruelty of the schedule makers, we face an enormous challenge.

I think making MacT GM and Eakins head coach were very good moves, and there is no doubt that in my mind the Oilers are an improved team with a very promising future, but Eakins is really going to have to pull off a coaching and motivational miracle to keep them in the hunt until mid-November.

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#29 #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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#30 David S
September 28 2013, 04:47PM
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Maverick007 wrote:

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?

Because guys like Grebs wouldn't come on a PTO knowing full well they are something the team needs. And don't forget he was making pretty good coin in the KHL.

As far as Jones goes, all I can think of is the team didn't want to look bad in front of fans by giving Jones a PTO. You cannot underestimate how much public relations factors into what teams like the Oilers do sometimes.

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#31 David S
September 28 2013, 04:50PM
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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.

Given how busy MacT was this summer, who's to say he didn't pitch Grabovski and he declined? There's alot of good players that won't touch Edmonton because of things like the brutal travel schedule and living in a fishbowl.

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#32 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 04:53PM
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Mac-T if there ever was a time for a bold move it is now, grab a center.Sooner rather then later.This weekend would be great.

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#33 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 05:06PM
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DSF wrote:

Going on 8.

Yes, when will the six headed snake lose its head after 10?

All kidding aside I have been saying for a couple years now the team is being built to win when Rexall2 opens.

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#34 Oilcruzer
September 28 2013, 06:04PM
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Enough of the negativity.

Who else is going to the opener?

(time to begin hype)

I need to make some kind of bet with DSF. Our bet last year was screwed by the lockout.

Oil will still be the next Canadian team to win the cup.

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#35 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 06:16PM
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pkam wrote:

So all the coaches are BS when they say the goal is to make .500 on the road and .700 at home?

So home ice advantage is also BS since a win on the road game and at home are the same 2 points?

There is a home ice advantage.The last change putting your stick down last on draws and your fans. That does not change the fact every game is worth two point home or away.

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#36 otter2233
September 28 2013, 06:38PM
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Hey Kool-Aid drinkers, it is called REALISM NOT NEGATIVITY!!! The Oilers were a long-shot for the playoffs with RNH and Gagner, how on earth can they make it to the playoffs with those two key guys either in the press box or on the ice but knocking the rust off for at least the 1st 25% of the year? How many teams that are actually deep at center, nevermind as thin as the Oil, could survive without their top 2 players at that position? Virtually none.

Believe me, I crave a playoff game as much as the rest of you but this year just isn't the year... not quite yet anyway.

And @ Oilcruzer I will also be there opening night! >

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#37 BorjeSalming-IanTurnbull
September 28 2013, 07:25PM
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My three questions entering the season

1. Can Ryan Smyth keep up with the play of the 2013 game? Playing him with two of the fastest Hall and Hemsky seems counterproductive.

2. Can Mr. Dubnyk steal 10 or so games for a young and fragile team going on the road for much of Oct. and Nov?

3. Why has the management of the Oilers refused to address the centerman and functional toughness in the bottom 6? Can't wait to see a tired Acton-Brown-Big Mac take on Thorton-Marleau-Pavelski

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#38 Oilcruzer
September 28 2013, 07:46PM
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DSF wrote:

Ottawa.

(a little amazed no one caught this)

DSF - owch. Not drinking the Canuck-oolaid either then? FYI I'm an Oiler season ticket holder who lives in the lower mainland. I've watched the tide shift after the 'Nucks lost to the Kings. People are walking zombies again, resigned to the fact the 'Nucks were one goal short of their cup.

I feel their pain. But I don't own it. Nor do I dwell in it.

(thinking about that now though, if I had 40 years of virginity and was almost there but foiled at the bedroom door, I might burn a few vehicles as well.)

The question of whether we bet who wins first, Ottawa vs Edmonton, is kind of a sucker bet for me given Ottawa is close.

And it is more likely that neither will win it this year. Then it's a nothing bet.

Let's come up with something that we can bet on for this year - hell it's for charity.

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#39 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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#40 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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#41 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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#42 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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#43 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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#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 pkam
September 28 2013, 04:45PM
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I don't understand the reason why it is so bad that we'll be on the road 13 of the 1st 19 games. Assume we are going to lose all the 19 games, would you rather lose 13 road games and 6 home games, or 13 home games and 6 road games. I'll take the 13 road game and 6 home games. I think having more home games later when RNH and Gagner both in the lineup is in favor of us.

If RNH is going to miss a month and Gagner is going to miss 2 months, I'll rather it happens early than late. If we are going to miss the playoff by a few points, I'll rather we are out in March and fight our way back and miss, rather than we are in the playoff in March but hit the injury bugs then fail to protect the spot and miss by a few point.

Even We miss the playoff, it is more exciting and I feel better in the 1st case. And in case we make the playoff, would you rather having a healthir squad and winning into the playoff, or a depleted squad and surving to stay in the playoff?

And with the injury to our 2 top centres now instead of later, it is more likely that MacT will do something to help our centre depth than if we are healthy. It is also easier to get help via trade or waiver now than near the trade deadline.

It does not look good, but it can be worse.

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#46 DSF
September 28 2013, 05:01PM
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Spydyr wrote:

Silly me thinking the last seven years was the abyss.

Going on 8.

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#47 15w40
September 28 2013, 05:12PM
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@Spydyr

IMHO if they don't start winning before then, some of their talent is going to walk. If they have another brutal year in the standings and J. Schultz has a good individual season, he may be the 1st to start to look around.

Didn't have an issue jumping the good ship Anaheim to get a chance to play. The fan base may be that invested but they are sure getting restless and another couple of losing seasons and this can officially be classified as an infinibuild.

People will begin to lose the will to care anymore.

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#48 Oilcruzer
September 28 2013, 07:36PM
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nunyour wrote:

There's not to many 3 for 1 anymore.would you do a yak for lucic ?

That had to be a troll post. Yak for Lucic? Straight up?

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#49 Crackenbury
September 28 2013, 11:11PM
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There better be another deal for a center in the works, because Colburne is exactly what the Oilers could have used on the fourth line. I would have easily given up an unconditional 3rd round pick for him and beat the Flames offer.

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#50 15w40
September 28 2013, 11:12PM
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@6 ring circus

Yes - especially when they are not flush with centres and have none of his stature.

I know he doesn't play really heavy but they could have used him in the system.

That being said, Eakins has coached him a lot and you gotta think that MacT would have talked to him about it and maybe got the thumbs down.

That or there was some serious sleeping at the switch going on........

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