THIRD TIME UNLUCKY

“Get giddy. The next few years are going to be a lot of fun in Edmonton.”

— Terry Jones, Edmonton Sun

With more gushing in Oil Country since roughnecks tapped Leduc No. 1, it’s obvious optimism abounds when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers on the eve of the 2008-09 season.

Over at The Sun, Jones and hockey writers Rob Tychkowski and Derek Van Diest were unanimous Wednesday in picking the Oilers to not only make the playoffs after two straight years out, but to win the Northwest Division outright. They’re not alone.

While I tend to agree with Large the Oilers are going to be fun to watch, I’m not convinced they’ll manage either — winning the division title or making the playoffs. But that’s just me.

Here’s how I see the Western Conference.

THE TOP TIER

1. DETROIT. In a class of their own. They have Hart Trophy candidates in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, perennial Norris Trophy winner Niklas Lidstrom and they’ve added Marian Hossa. Great special teams.

2. SAN JOSE. Is this the year? If Jonathan Cheechoo can regain his form, the Sharks will be absolutely loaded up front. I’ll take Evgeni Nabokov over Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin any day.

3. CALGARY. If the wheels don’t fall completely off Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames will be the class of the Northwest Division. Not many teams have a one-two offensive-and-shutdown punch like Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr on the back end. Nice additions in Cammalleri and Glencross.

4. ANAHEIM. Not having Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer farting around with retirement talk is a bonus. I like the addition of Brendan Morrison.

THE NEXT FOUR

5. DALLAS. Proof that the pre-season means little. A full season of Brad Richards and the grit added with Sean Avery will help, although I’m not sold on super-hyped Fabian Brunnstrom.

6. MINNESOTA. While we might see a return to more defensive hockey and a less potent transition game, the Wild will have enough offence unless Marian Gaborik comes off the rails.

7. CHICAGO. For all the talk in Edmonton about young talent, no team in the conference has more young skill than the Blackhawks with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front and Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith on the back end. A team on the rise in the Windy City.

8. COLORADO. The Avs would be a spot or two higher if it wasn’t for the goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft. Expect a bounce-back year from Ryan Smyth. When will Joe Sakic slow down?

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

9. EDMONTON. This team looks better on paper than it will in the standings, although I fully expect the Oilers to be in the thick of things and destined for another hair-on-fire stretch drive.

There’s lots to like about this edition of the Oilers . . .

— I don’t have the doubts about Mathieu Garon some people do. I think he can be the No. 1 guy for 65-70 games, and he’ll be motivated because he’s playing for a contract.

— Erik Cole for Joni Pitkanen is a big upgrade. I won’t be surprised to see Cole score 30 goals. While Cole, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky weren’t a great fit in pre-season, give it time.

— I don’t see a big drop-off, aka the sophomore jinx, for Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. I’d be more worried about Robert Nilsson, only because he’s had inconsistency in his game in the past.

— Shawn Horcoff is in his prime and those people who don’t consider him a “legit” No. 1 centre don’t get how well-rounded his overall game is. He’s in for a bounce-back year and I won’t be surprised to see 75 points.

— Hemsky. He’ll be more protected from the constant muggings he’s endured for several seasons. Those who’ve been waiting for that elusive breakout year will see it this season.

Here’s what makes me nervous . . .

— A bogus schedule. The Oilers play 12 of their first 15 games on the road and could spend the first two months of the season digging themselves out of a hole. That’s a factor in a conference where you could have six points separating seventh place from 10th.

— Trouble in the circles. Nobody has stepped up to make up for the loss of Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner on the dot. While I don’t put a lot of weight in pre-season records in terms of wins and losses, the Oilers inability to win face-offs has been alarming.

— The third-line mix. I haven’t liked the trio of Ethan Moreau, Fernando Pisani and Dustin Penner a bit. Two guys playing out of position and another who has barely played the past two seasons. Trouble.

— The power play. Good enough? With the addition of Lubomir Visnovsky and 75 games from Sheldon Souray it should be, but . . .

— The Oilers have enough offence, but they have to be way better defensively in front of Garon. Have they shown marked improvement in their own end? Well, no.

THE ALSO-RANS

10. VANCOUVER
11. COLUMBUS
12. PHOENIX
13. NASHVILLE
14. ST. LOUIS
15 LOS ANGELES

— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.

  • Chris

    Wow. Who spilled the Koolaid? The puck hasn't evem dropped on the season yet! Good People Of Oil Country… Let's see what happens when two points are on the line. Who said pre-season means nothing? It apparently means a lot to the pundits and would be profits. Everything will be alright! Really.

  • Gord

    Winning or losing means nothing in pre-season, but basic fundamentals are key. If they continue to give up the lead and depend on winning 10+ shoot outs this year they are going to be in big trouble.

    There is always room for team improvement and there is no harm discussing the holes that we, the fans, feel the team needs to address.

    I want the Oil to blow away the competition every game night in and night out and win every playoff game in 4 straight and parade down Whyte Ave, I just haven't seen anything that tells me that there is a possibility of that.

    I'm just trying to stay realistic. We have enough people pointing out all of the positive achievements in the offseason, I'm just trying to bring balance to the conversation. If we all wear rose colored glasses we will be wondering why no one saw a .500 start coming. Quite honestly with their schedule, a .500 start over the first 15 games this season would be a great accomplishment!

  • What were they thinking

    I don't want to be negative but it won't be a surprise if the Oil miss the playoffs another season. We're over-estimating their skill level. The new new NHL is about puck control. Puck control starts in the face-off circles, where the Oilers appear to be in trouble. Puck control moves into the corners and along the boards and is really critical in the Oilers' own end, where they once again have trouble. Losses to teams in their own division will be the Oilers downfall. They will be playing against bigger, stronger and tougher players who will move them off the puck and most of the play will be in their own end. Look out for the Canucks; with superior goaltending and big, fast forwards, they will be a contender.

  • Fiveandagame

    –3. CALGARY. If the wheels don’t fall completely off Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames will be the class of the Northwest Division–

    HEY BROWNIE! would a 6-0 loss constitute a wheel alignment problem for Kipper?

    HA! What Class that team showed….HA!

  • Nice article, Robin. I do not like Colorado, from the front office out, and I really doubt Calgary takes the division, but it is pretty hard to argue with things outside of that. (Personally, I figure Minny wins the division).

    I tend to think the Oilers have enough horses to make the playoffs, but it is a ways from being a sure thing. A couple of veteran support players, one for the front and one for the back would make me a lot more confident.

    I think a surefire prediction is that the Oilers will disappoint many fans, and that they will blame MacTavish.

  • Death Metal Gary

    I agree 100% with Brownlee, not necessarily in the standings, but in the concerns.

    if the shots against total doenst come down theyre going to be stuck in another year of goals against being higher than goals for. thats the defenses fault and from such a defensive minded system in MacTavish, youd expect that to be a little better.

    the third line is overpaid and overrated. its all feel good stories who got their dollars for it. great. a lot of those players lagged in pre-season and did no favors to young kids looking for experience when playing on lines with them when all three werent together.

    too much finesse in the forwards. yes, theres great talent but which one has the guts to go to the net and win aside from Cogliano, Cole, and during a rare anomaly Hemsky or Horcoff, when needed? there needs to be way more urgency and determination on the top 6 for putting the puck in the net and wanting it instead of tic-tac-toe fun.

    based on Vancouver's system, healthy D and Goaltending, its not time to count them out of a competitive division either.

    i dont think theyre that far from the Oilers when it comes to a total balance.

  • RobinB

    Jonathan: I always have a difficult time picking against Minnesota because Jacques Lemaire is a master of getting the most out of what he's got to work with. Minnesota plays a sounder systems game, Calgary has more depth of talent, so it's a coin flip in a lot of ways.
    Colorado won't be as bad as many people think.

  • Jason Gregor

    DMG,

    Hemsky goes into the tough areas more often that most skilled guys, which is why he gets rocked so often. The Oilers would like him to avoid crossing into the middle as often, but that is how he plays.

    Rueben, we will debate on the show today. And my pick of the Canucks looks good for one night!! But seriously Burrows won't be a 20-goal scorer this year, but he'll draw about 40 penalties.

    Colorado is bunk. I know they have Burnaby Joe, and Rueben you are from BC so you have a bit of a man crush on him, but I don't see them being anywhere but 5th in the NW.

  • Fiveandagame

    Despite some talented forward ranks, If the Colorado stays as is, they will compete but 5th place is where they'll live.

    1. Detroit – Easy competition in the central puts them at the top again and by a wide margin.
    2. San Jose – A good team with all the tools to take it all.
    3. Edmonton – by two points (98) but could easily fall to 6-8.
    4. Dallas – will challenge SJ
    5. Anehiem – will suffer from Burkitis
    6. Minnesota – every game they win will be 2-1 every game they lose will be 3-2
    7. Chicago – Ups and downs of a very young team if the kids stay mentally healthy and the veterans stay physically healthy they will move up.
    8. Phoenix/Vancouver/Calgary – toss up better goaltending in years past in Phoenix makes them an interesting team/ If Vancouver's score by committee works they will win and could move up due to a solid back end and arguably the best goaltender in the league(Luongo gets hurt Vancouver is hurting) Calgary, has the veteran leadership and game breaker Iginla, BUT I believe their bruising style will be exploited by faster more mobile teams.

  • erixon

    My question is, why does everyone have such strong opinions on something that is completely unpredictable? There is a few things that I look at which MAY be advantages when I look over the Oilers, when comparing to other teams in the conference. Watching hockey over the years, I've learned that teams which seem to have a lot of uncertainty in their lineup and spots open in pre-season have their struggles, trails, and tribulations. This is one area where I think that the Oilers are better than a lot of teams. You've got strong goaltending from Garon, who many forget or fail to notice that he has actually played 60+ games in a year before, with on of the worst clubs in the NHL, and still managed to pull off a winning record, It's not like he is a complete stranger to being the #1 guy. Remember, this is his 10th season in Professional hockey, he has experience. I am personally still worried about the defense, but I can't tell what they are going to do. Why? Because I've never seen the first pairing play one regular season NHL game together. I've never seen the first line of forwards, or the third line play a regular season game. So how the hell can you even grade it? It's for that very reason, coupled with the fact that with the cap, and how even the teams are, it's not even worth arguing over.