What’s the most dreaded day on the calendar? Report card day.
The quarter pole is here for the Edmonton Oilers, and they sit with a decent 9-9-2 record. They’ve played 14 games on the road. The next quarter of the season will see them play 13 home games, so at the halfway point of the season they will have played 21 road games and 19 at home.
With 20 games in the books, here is my quarterly report card.
A+ Ales Hemsky. On many nights he has been a freedom fighter offensively. 17 of his 21 points have come on the road. He is currently 14th in league scoring, and 8 of the players ahead of him have a teammate in the top 13. He has more assists than any other Oiler has points. So far he has been their runaway MVP.
A Sheldon Souray. Souray has blended the defensive game he played early in his career with the offensive game he learned in Montreal , to become a solid contributor in both zones. He is currently 5th in scoring amongst defensemen and only Shea Weber has more goals than Souray’s seven. Souray is healthy and it shows with two fights so far this season.
A Ethan Moreau. The captain is on pace for 20 goals and a career best 40 points. As usual he gives a solid effort every night. He has been rewarded with good play by playing along side Hemsky for the past five games, but if the Oilers plan on having a better second quarter he needs to be on the 3rd line. Moreau’s effort and contributions don’t seem to change regardless of his linemates, something that many of his teammates need to install in their game.
A- Jason Strudwick. The journeyman rearguard has been a pleasant surprise. He has suited up in 17 games so far, which is probably 8-10 more than the organization expected. He is playing a steady 15 minutes a night, is only -1 and has been physical enough. You rarely notice him on the ice, which means for a 6th D-man he is doing his job.
B Dwayne Roloson. The 39 year-old wasn’t supposed to have appeared in nine games already, but he has and has been good. He has a respectable .913 save % and hasn’t had a noticeably bad game. I don’t expect him to play in nine of the next 20 games, but he has proven that if the team needs him he will show up and at least give his team a chance to win. All three of his loses have come in games where the Oilers got shutout, so when they score he either wins or they go to OT.
B Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. The rookie has been solid in all five of his appearances. He has shown that if called upon he can keep his team in the game. His back-to-back wins v. the Devils and Rangers were huge performances. His play should allow GM, Steve Tambellini to try and package either Roloson or Garon.
B- Andrew Cogliano. He has been the most consistent and productive of the three Kids. He is the only one of them on pace to surpass his goal total (18) from last season. Cogliano has a quiet five goals, which puts him tied for 2nd on the team, and he is producing with the fewest minutes of any of the top nine forwards, averaging 14:16 of icetime a game. The one area you would like to see him improve is by using his speed to be a bit more physical. His speed alone should allow him to rub a few more guys out, but Cogliano is the only Kid who hasn’t suffered anything resembling the sophomore Jinx.
B- Steve Staios. Staios is playing just under 19 minutes a night and since being paired with Strudwick they have been a solid #3 pairing. Staios is +1, continues to block shots, and brings a consistent effort most nights. He only struggles when he tries to do too much, and as long as he keeps it simple he is effective. You never question his willingness to compete, and he has played solid while dealing with a tough family issue.
B- Steve Macintyre. The tough guy endured eight years in the ECHL and AHL, to finally make it to the Show, and in the 10 games he played he made an impact in most of them. He understands his role, and I think surprised more people with his ability to make a big hit. He will have to realize that he doesn’t have to just stand in and take punches in every one of his fights, but it is hard to criticize him for that. Expect when he returns that he will learn to let a few punches role of off him, rather than just stick his head in on every shot. He has been the only warm and fuzzy story for the Oilers this season.
B- Lubomir Visnovsky. One of the hardest guys to grade, because his game leaves you wanting more, yet when you look at his production he has been decent. His 12 points puts him 17th amongst defencemen, and he plays 24:29 a game. He doesn’t get involved physically, but rarely do you see him manhandled by an opposing forward. He quietly puts up points, and he is on the ice for more goals scored than he is against. The big knock so far is when he looks like Boris Mironov and Roman Hamrlik by constantly missing the net.
B- Tom Gilbert. After last season and the big contract, expectations were high this season. He had a horribly slow start, but found his game in the middle of their seven game road trip. He has been much better the past eight games and is on pace for 44 points. Like Grebeshkov you would like to see him shoot a bit more. 29 shots in 20 games for a guy who plays over 21 minutes a night is not enough. He isn’t flashy, but when on his game he has a great stick in the defensive zone. At 6’3” you would like to see him lean on some forwards a bit more, but that is a disease that seems to have infected too many of his teammates as well. You wonder if playing with Souray will toughen him up a bit. I would like to see him become more noticeable in games, but his offence is decent considering there are two D-men with more points than him.
C+ Denis Grebeshkov. I know Wanye will think this is a Baaaaaad rating, but he is close to getting a low B in the next quarter. I gave him a C because he only has 12 SOG in 17 games. He has been on the 2nd PP unit all season, but he can’t even average a shot a game, that is unfathomable. He has eight points in 17 games, so his offence is good, but he has to start and become at least a threat to shoot the puck in the offensive zone. Once he does, his teammates should benefit, because the opposition will have to respect his shot, and that should open up some ice for the other four Oilers playing with him.
C Shawn Horcoff. Simply not good enough for a guy who made the All-Star team last season. While his effort is rarely the issue, his finish, execution and overall ice awareness has been lacking. Two even strength goals is unacceptable from your #1 centre, and he needs to get better in the draws. He is 50%, but it seems that he loses the important ones more often than he wins them. Missing the final 30 games last year seems to have hurt him a bit, but he needs to handle the puck much better in the 2nd quarter.
C Zack Stortini. At least Stortini knows his role on the team. Yes, he hasn’t improved as a fighter; in fact, it looks like he is losing confidence in his ability to chuck them. But when he plays you notice him. He yaps at the other team, and most importantly he tries to get the most out of his limited ability. It is hard to criticize a fighter, because many of us would never have the balls to do what they do. I don’t care if you won a fight outside of On The Rocks or the Barry T’s back in the day, the fact is most guys wouldn’t do it. He chooses that role, so he has to improve at it, if he wants to stay in the league. I suspect he will continue to work with Rocky Thompson on improving his fighting game. The bonus about Stortini is he has a knack of pissing off the opposition, something that few of his teammates have learned to master or even attempt.
C Ladislav Smid. Smid has only dressed for nine games, but you get pretty much the same 12 minutes from him every game. At least you notice him trying to get involved physically, which is rare on this team. He was close to a C+ just for his effort as a forward v. Detroit . He had two shots, missed the net on two chances and didn’t make any major mistakes. I’m not sure how long they will keep him there, but he showed some versatility, and more importantly, the willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team win. He went out of his comfort zone to ensure he was contributing, something that many of the forwards need to do.
C- Robert Nilsson. Nilsson has showed flashes of brilliance, but unfortunately they have been rare sightings. Consistency is still his biggest challenge, and outside of the three games where he was demoted to the 4th line, he has been in the top nine forwards. Nilsson is another forward who has to compete harder. Last year when he played his best hockey he was forechecking and laying the odd hit, and this year you can tell when he is in the game because he engages physically. When he doesn’t, he doesn’t seem to be in the game. His struggles are closely connected with his buddy Gagner, and if both can rediscover their game, the Oilers could climb the standings.
C- Fernando Pisani. I know he played centre most of the time, but outside of the faceoffs, he was adamant it wasn’t that big of a deal. Rarely did you see him make a mistake in his own zone, but rarely did you see him make a play in the offensive zone. Most game he plays his minutes, and outside of the PK, you rarely notice him. He skates well, has a good shot and a very quick release, but we don’t ever see him take advantage of those assets. He will be out until after Xmas, but when he returns he will be back on the wing and he has to prove that the 2006 playoffs weren’t the only time in his career that he can be counted on to be an impact player.
D+ Sam Gagner. I know the kid is only 19, but based strictly on icetime and production he is what he is so far. He’s had two glaring giveaways that resulted in late game losses, and it seems that he has learned from it. He still hasn’t found the confidence he had last year, but he is still getting ample opportunities to play himself out of this funk with 16:44 of icetime per game. He needs to play with the same edge he had in the final 30 games of last season. He rarely got knocked off the puck, was tenacious and you sensed he wanted the puck in key situations. The most disappointing part of his game so far is his inability to shoot the puck with any conviction. Not once has a goalie had to make a tough save of a Gagner shot, he needs to work on his shot, but you do wonder how much of that is due to his lack of offensive confidence. If Gagner ever gets going he will make his linemates better.
D+ Kyle Brodziak. The former 7th rounder has the size and strength to be more of a factor every night. In 19 games he only has nine hits. That is unacceptable for a 4th liner. He is supposed to be an energy guy, and the most frustrating part is that he has the tools to be that player. Confidence seems to be his biggest hurdle. His game changes the minute he scores a goal, but he can’t be that fragile. His role on this team is not to score goals, sure it helps, but he needs to find ways to be confident about his game regardless if he is scoring or not.
D Dustin Penner. The big man epitomizes what is wrong with this club. Too many nights he goes through the motions and you don’t even notice him. While some didn’t like how MacTavish ripped him publicly, it did spark Penner. The game in Columbus proved that if he wants to skate, go to the tough areas and be noticeable, he can. If anything, that game showed the fans that Penner has much more to offer than he has shown so far this season. I don’t expect him to have that type of game every night, but at least seven out of ten would seem realistic. He will never be mean, but at least he can show he is interested most nights.
D- Marc Pouliot. I still don’t see what the organization likes so much about this guy. He has no PIM, only eight hits and one goal. Please tell me what he brings every night. Please I beg you. He epitomizes the safe player, and there are way too many of them. How many times will the captain have to say, “Guys have to realize they aren’t going to be 30-goal scorers in this league, so they have to find other ways to contribute.” You know he is talking about Pouliot, Brodziak, Nilsson etc with those comments. This team has too many guys like Pouliot, so he should try to re-invent himself to make himself more valuable. But I doubt that will happen.
F Erik Cole. Don’t give me the excuse he started camp and the regular season on the wrong wing. He was playing with their best player, Hemsky, and he still didn’t produce. The last 15 games he has been on the right side, and seeing him use his size and speed has been about as rare as watching the Oilers play a complete game. So far Cole has been a bust. The only area of his game that is even noticeable on the score sheet is hits, and none of those 38 was a bone-rattler. He needs to regroup during this five day lay off and come back with some spice in his game. He is averaging the 5th most amount of PP time on the team, so he can’t really complain about opportunities. While others who struggles early, Cogliano, Nilsson, Horcoff, have gotten a bit better, Cole seems to be going in the opposite direction. You wonder if Eric Staal made him that much better or if Cole just isn’t comfortable yet in Edmonton . They need him to wake up soon and start making an impact.
F Mathieu Garon. He started well in his first three games, but since then he has been below average. Sitting out the game in Chicago should not have affected him that much. You can argue all you want that MacTavish should have played him, but it was one extra day or rest. Since missing that start, he just hasn’t looked comfortable. This is his chance to be a proven #1 goalie. Pete Peeters said you can’t declare a goalie a true #1 until he does it for two consecutive seasons, and that will be Garon’s challenge for the next 60 games. He will get the start against the Kings on Wednesday and if he plays well, expect the team to ride him. He can easily erase a disappointing start, with a string of solid efforts.
Note: Reddox, Boulerice and Peckham didn’t play enough to garner a ranking.
C is for COACHING. The coaching has been average. Playing players out of position hurt some guys, but MacTavish’s willingness to give the kids a long leash could pay dividends down the road. I applauded his calling out of Penner, but I doubt you will see that become the norm. He has double-shifted Hemsky at times to try to spark the offence, and he has sent subtle messages to guys like Brodziak, Nilsson and Stortini that they have to find their role on the team. We will see how he does in the next 20 games with so many of them at home, and if he can get better matchups for this team.
Grade as a team: B-. Playing 14 of 20 on the road, and 20 games in 39 days and coming away .500 seems pretty decent. The major problem is that their home games have been some of their worst. They need to find a home identity soon, especially with 13 of their next 20 at Rexall. This team is still too soft. Outside of Moreau, Stortini, MacIntyre and Hemsky none of their other forwards are hard to play against right now. They have too many players who seem comfortable playing just hard enough so it looks like they are trying, but not hard enough to piss off the opposition. They have to become a harder team to play against.
Some other first quarter rankings
A for the girl who flashed at Rexall. Her assets were bigger than A’s, but most importantly, they were worthy of a pick-me-up to the crowd.
D for Rexall management. A six month ban? Come on, that is a bit harsh for a two second flash that most people didn’t see. I could understand two months, but six was over the top.
F for Pensblog. The lamest attempt at cheap shots I’ve ever read. My 12-year-old nephew has carved me better than a Mr. Clean reference. The fact they got their nose out of joint because one of their blogging brethren had been slapped on the wrist was comedy.
E for effort, but D- for trying, Bagged milk and Jean Shorts. While myself and Brownlee appreciated you having our backs, it made us look like the guy who would yap at a guy across the bar, and then when confronted would hide behind their big buddy. Trust me, getting chirped by some closet Crosby lover, who has to have one picture for every ten words written to spice up his article, didn’t bother me. In fact it was comical. All-for-one-and-one-for-all is a great concept and it is nice to know that you have our back, but next time let us at least get in the first shot.
A+ to the NATION readers and contributors. While I rarely engage in the game day threads, the comments make me howl, well, except Wanye’s, because I’ve met him and frankly there isn’t much substance. He does work hard, and is kind of like the Sean Avery of the Internet world. Some hate him, most of his verbal attacks are way offside, yet you respect his ability. The only thing is he went to Phoenix and LA and didn’t even get a phone number from some aspiring actress who was his waitress. At least Avery gets with the ladies!
—Listen to Gregor weekdays from 3 to 6pm on TEAM 1260 or online at www.justagame.ca.