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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#101 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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#102 The Oilers Shot Clock
September 28 2013, 06:27PM
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Has something changed?

Half the roster.

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#103 Spydyr
September 28 2013, 06:44PM
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pkam wrote:

Did I ever question that a win is 2 points? My argument is 2 points in some cases are easier than the other 2 points. And 2 points in some cases are more important than the other 2 points. Does it make some difference losing 2 points to a cup contender like the Hawks and Bruins, than a bottom feeder like the Flames or Sabres?

"And 2 points in some cases are more important than the other 2 points."

Are you talking divisional games so called four point games?This year with the cross over it would be conference games being four point games also.

If you miss the playoffs by two points does it matter what two points it was?

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#104 YFC Prez
September 28 2013, 07:01PM
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All I ever drink is Kool- Aid.

Hall looks way better than I expected at C. If he excels there this team could have the best 1-2 punch down the middle they have seen in a very long time once RNH returns. Move gags to the wing and they have a reliable "just in case" skilled C .

I doubt this season is as bad as the last 5 ,but I get the pessimism . Oilers are not looking at overwhelmingly stellar odds to see playoffs.

That being said. When the talk shifts to trading away Eberle or Yakupov for a top nine gritty forward, that is a major knee jerk reaction to a problem we don't know the full severity of yet. I would be more interested in watching the waiver wire the next couple of days now that teams are finalizing their rosters.

If the day ever comes when Eberle, Yakupov or any of the young stars are traded the oilers better be getting a stellar return.

For now I just really want to see what the oilers have. Pre-season doesn't always make for the most accurate predictions. I'm just not ready to write off the post season yet.

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#105 beloch
September 28 2013, 07:01PM
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Boyd Gordon is a decent shut-down player who can drive possession against tough competition. He performed well while playing some of the toughest minutes on the team last season in Phoenix. He will be a big help if he stays healthy. Acton and Arcobello, on the other hand, are career AHL'ers and will likely be eaten alive. They're of an age where you can't really expect them to take any significant steps forward either. It could happen, but it's improbable.

This Monday all manner of players are going to be hitting waivers as teams desperately try to get cap-compliant. The Oilers have $2M in cap-space. That's not very much, and arguably spending it all robs them of flexibility down the road. However, picking up just one more NHL replacement-level center could really help the team. Ideally, it should be somebody who can play on a quality fourth-line and move up when needed, as he will be at the start of the season. That should be doable for under $1M.

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#106 pkam
September 28 2013, 07:02PM
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Spydyr wrote:

"And 2 points in some cases are more important than the other 2 points."

Are you talking divisional games so called four point games?This year with the cross over it would be conference games being four point games also.

If you miss the playoffs by two points does it matter what two points it was?

No, I am talking about losing to weaker teams like the Flames and Buffalo this year. Those are the points you can't afford to lose. It hurts more when we lose points in those games than in games against top teams like the Hawks, the Pens and the Bruins.

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#107 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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#108 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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#109 TeddyTurnbuckle
September 28 2013, 08:07PM
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Strange feeling going into this season. I feel there is a chance to make the playoffs if the team gets heathy and addresses toughness but on the other hand I could see us picking in the lottery again if a couple more key guys go down.

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#110 Zamboni Driver
September 28 2013, 08:40PM
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@nunyour

No.

Also neither would Boston.

In a hundred years.

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#111 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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#112 Crackenbury
September 28 2013, 11:35PM
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@15w40

Good point about Eakins. He must think Acton is the better option. I'd be putting my money on the 6'5" former first rounder with offensive upside. The Oilers either have another deal in the works or Eakins sees some warts on Colborne from the time he spent coaching him. The Flames sure didn't give up much to get a former first rounder.

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#113 @Oilanderp
September 29 2013, 02:46AM
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Without injuries, if you squinted right you could see the Oilers making the playoffs. With these two injuries to start?

When frogs grow beards. Not the chance of a flying fig in a flamethrower.

Odds are beaten all the time. I just wouldn't bet on it.

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#114 madjam
September 29 2013, 07:43AM
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Crackenbury wrote:

The waiver list has nothing to do with trading for Colborne and Colborne's cap hit is $600,000. It was also common knowledge Toronto was open to moving him.

On the contrary . Burke and Feaster realized if he hit waivers , he'd likely get taken by one of the five that could snap him up before the Flames . Thus , an astute move that benefitted both Flames and Leafs .That's what you get with seasoned GMs .

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#115 15w40
September 29 2013, 08:05AM
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@madjam

The only way the Oilers don't take a run at Colborne is either they didn't know about it or Eakins flat out said "don't bother".

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#116 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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#117 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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#118 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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#119 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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#120 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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#121 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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#122 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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#123 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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#124 madjam
September 29 2013, 06:35AM
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Crackenbury wrote:

Good point about Eakins. He must think Acton is the better option. I'd be putting my money on the 6'5" former first rounder with offensive upside. The Oilers either have another deal in the works or Eakins sees some warts on Colborne from the time he spent coaching him. The Flames sure didn't give up much to get a former first rounder.

Flames have about $13M in cap space and they get first choice over us on waiver wire . Expect Burke and Feaster to be busy adding pieces to Flames . That's something Tams and MacT. seem to have missed over the years , being so tight to the cap and contract numbers .

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#125 15w40
September 29 2013, 06:42AM
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Colborne could've been a back door deal between Burke & Nonis too. Might not have been common knowledge he was available.

Story from maple leafs is he needs to be in the top 6 & it wasn't going to happen there. Oilers could have really used him in their current situation

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#126 Crackenbury
September 29 2013, 07:13AM
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@madjam

The waiver list has nothing to do with trading for Colborne and Colborne's cap hit is $600,000. It was also common knowledge Toronto was open to moving him.

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#127 Crackenbury
September 29 2013, 08:12AM
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@madjam

No kidding! Burke, Feaster and 28 other teams. The point is he was available. Every team in the league would rather trade a player than put them on waivers. I'm guessing that even includes Toronto! There's nothing astute about it. Toronto made it known he was available and the Oilers either neglected or failed in an attempt to get him.

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#128 Crackenbury
September 29 2013, 08:15AM
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@15w40

I'd go with the Eakins angle. Hell, even I knew he was potentially available yesterday morning. The leafs were going to be over the cap if they didn't make some moves.

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#129 Avatarget
September 29 2013, 11:03AM
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Bucknuck wrote:

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.

The problem is that you are comparing this years Oilers to last years Oilers. The Oilers don't have to beat the Oilers. They have to beat the other teams in the conference and their division. Comparing them to LA, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim etc leaves me more pessimistic about their chances to qualify for the post season. Are they better than last year? Probably but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee come playoff time.

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#130 Mike
September 29 2013, 07:34PM
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BorjeSalming-IanTurnbull wrote:

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

Re: Ryan Smyth - my recollection of the last couple of years is that he starts strong but runs out of gas after a month or two.

Assuming that he is the same this season, my hope is that they ride him hard in October while we are undermanned. Once we get healthy, he can rest up.

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