Report card time again. Like last season we will have a quarterly report card, at games 20, 41, 62 and then a final season ranking. The rankings will be based specifically on the respective quarter.
A+ Dustin Penner. Penner’s play during the first 20 games this season, could equal the biggest 20-game turn around we’ve seen from any Oiler player in years. He was a force in every game during this stretch. He carried the puck in the zone with confidence, forced D-men to back in, he beat guys one-on-one, he back checked. He did everything that we didn’t see in his first two years as an Oiler. Some wondered that he might just be on a hot streak, but his game didn’t falter once during this stretch, in fact, you could argue his game has gotten stronger each game out. Twelve goals and 23 points in 20 games, top-ten in league scoring and +/-, means there isn’t much more you could ask from Penner, except maybe a GW goal; but that is just being picky.
A- Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin got off to a horrendous start with the gaffe v. Calgary in his first game, but since then he has been very steady. I would have given him an A if he’d stolen a game or two. He faced more shots, 33.75 than any starter except Tomas Vokoun (35.2), so it might sound strange to say he didn’t. He was very solid, but I can’t recall a game where he wore a balaclava. His numbers aren’t exceptional, 3.11 GAA and a .907 SV%, but I think it’s a case where the numbers aren’t a true reflection of his play. He also played 17 games during this stretch, putting him on pace for 68, which is more than anyone expects him to play. If he has to play close to 70 games this season, the Oilers will be in trouble.
B+ Ladislav Smid. Not only did Smid battle through H1N1 and another flu bug, he is becoming a shut down D-man that Tom Renney can use against the opposition’s top players. The game v. Columbus where he battled Rick Nash all night was his best of the season. Smid Still hasn’t scored, stretching his goal-less drought to 153 games, but when he does you can expect a huge celebration amongst his teammates. His four assists during this stretch have him on pace for career highs in both points and assists.
B+ Jeff Deslauriers. The back up’s main job is to ensure the team has a chance to win, and in every start Deslauriers has done that. His 1.96 GAA and sparkling .937 SV% reflect how well he has played. I liked his fire in the Ottawa game, when he was pissed at Neil for being in the crease. He looks more comfortable than last year, and I’d expect Quinn to use him a bit more as the season progresses. They need to find out if he can play 30 consistent games.
B Ales Hemsky. He might be the most contested grade on the team. His 18 points in 17 games have him tied for 30th in the league, but he only has four goals, and if is going to be a team leader he needs to score more. He has only had three games where he was clearly their best forward, and that isn’t consistent enough. He has played with a bum shoulder, and for a guy who handles the puck as often as he does that hampers his play. If he can get healthy, and inspired by Penner’s play Hemksy has the ability to carry his team for a ten or twenty game stretch, and considering where the Oilers are in the standings he will need to do that if they want to be in the playoffs.
B Lubomir Visnovsky. He has been spectacular at times, but it is clear he needs to shoot more often. Twenty-seven shots in 18 games aren’t enough, considering he has been on the number one PP due to Souray’s injury. He moves the puck very well, has great vision and outside of the Ottawa game, rarely makes bad turnovers. He has to be a leader on this team, and he needs to get a bit more selfish and shoot the puck. He is the best passer on the team, so I understand why he looks for the pass often, but it’s imperative that he starts to shoot more frequently.
B Gilbert Brule. Despite missing three games due to the flu, Brule still finished second in goals this term. Five goals, ten points in 17 games while playing 13:08 per game, which is fourth fewest minutes out of forwards who played ten or more games, just re-enforces how good he has been. None of his points have come on the PP, and he is 3rd on the team in hits, 31, and he is their best regular faceoff man at 51.7%. Before the flu bug slowed him down, Brule was their second best forward behind Penner, and at some point Quinn needs to start using him more.
B Ryan Stone. No one, outside of Stone, thought he’d make this team going into training camp, but he not only made it, he found his niche and became an impact player. He had 19 hits in eight games, and chipped in with three assists. His 19 hits are fifth on the team, which illustrates how valuable his consistent grit and energy are to this team. Stone’s injured knee started the Oilers downward spiral towards becoming a soft team again. He isn’t a one-man wrecking crew, but it has become clear the Oilers lack a player with his tenacity, and when he returns, he will need to play with the same fire and determination with the hope it jumpstarts this team.
B- Steve Staios. Like Stone, Staios’ value was more noticeable when he was out of the lineup. He isn’t flashy, but when he was out for 12 games they missed his shot blocking and consistent compete level. He isn’t a great passer, and at gets himself in trouble when he tries to do too much, but many of the young players should try to compete as hard as he does on most shifts. Throw in four points in eight games from Staios, and that is pretty good production from a stay-at-home D-man.
B- J.F Jacques. Even though Jacques started the season on the first line, he didn’t try to be a skill player; rather, he maintained a consistent physical presence. Jacques’ 53 hits in only 15 games has him top-ten in the league, and he has 19 more hits than any other Oiler. They’d like him to be a bit more assertive with the puck, but until his back injury it looked like he finally realized the style of game he needs to play to stay in the NHL. He might be ready to return Saturday against the Blackhawks.
C Zack Stortini. Stortini is always working on improving his game, and Quinn clearly likes his work ethic. But Stortini has been as much of a pain-in-the-ass this year as he was last year. He works hard, and you never question his commitment, and while it might not be fair to ask him to be more physical, I think he has to be. He has to get under the opposition’s skin a bit more, because his teammates see that and it seems to energize them. He has missed some glorious chances this year, and while you don’t expect him to be a 15-goal man, I think he is capable of getting ten goals and he needs to at least create more chances.
C Taylor Chorney. The rookie has been a pleasant surprise considering he wasn’t expected to play this much. He started out really strong, making few mistakes, but in the final five games before he got hurt, those usual rookie mistakes started to creep into his game.
C Sam Gagner. He is still too inconsistent, and his eleven points in 20 games illustrate this perfectly. He started strong on the fourth line, earned a promotion to the top line, but once he got there, he wasn’t able to maintain the same consistency. I like his willingness to mix it up, but eight hits in 20 games isn’t enough. He needs to limit the peaks and valleys in his game. Some nights he has been very good, but he’s had just as many, if not more, nights where you didn’t notice him.
C Mike Comrie. You wonder how much better he would have produced if the flu didn’t affect his breathing as much as it did. He is tied with Brule for second in goals, and he is an opportunistic scorer. His vision and ability to read the play in the offensive zone is the best on the team, and he always seems to find an open seam. He also isn’t afraid to mix it up and most importantly, as a small guy he understands he needs to go into the tough areas to score. The small kids, Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson better should try and mirror that.
C Andrew Cogliano. He is averaging the 6th most minutes of any forward, but he doesn’t get much PP time. He has played mostly with Moreau and Stortini so you could argue that he isn’t playing with offensive players. His biggest issue is still his faceoffs, 39.4%, really limits Quinn’s ability to put Cogliano on the ice in certain situations. I think it is becoming clear that he might have to move to the wing if he wants to play in more offensive situations.
C Jason Strudwick. The veteran has played more than he expected due to all of the injuries, and he has been okay. He doesn’t take any penalties, but he hasn’t been as physical as he was last year. He never tries to play outside of his skill set, so he rarely gets into serious trouble. I was a bit surprised that during the stretch where this team wasn’t very physical, that he didn’t drop the mitts at least once. Last year, he did well in his fights and it seemed to energize the team, they could use a bit more of that from Strudwick. His biggest asset is his leadership and presence in the locker room, which will never translate onto the ice.
C-Denis Grebeshkov. His offensive numbers, three goals and ten points, should give him a better grade, but he six points in the first six games. Since the great start, he has stopped shooting and reverted back to turning over the puck as often as he did in his first season. He didn’t register a shot in eight of the previous ten games, and considering he averages the most minutes, 23, on the team, that is unacceptable. He isn’t ready to be a top-two D-man, and with the return of Souray, he probably would have played better because his role would have diminished a bit. Even with this grade, the Oilers will miss him during the next quarter.
C- Ethan Moreau. Moreau is averaging 12:49 a game, only Nilsson, Stortini, Stone and Reddox play less than him. It is clear he has become a 4th line player on this team, and with reduced minutes it is harder to make an impact. But Moreau hasn’t had only a few games where every shift he is making life difficult for the opposition. Moreau has always been honest about his game, and he doesn’t vary from that style too often. His work ethic is still high, but he has very few shifts where he changes the momentum of the game. That was one of his strengths in the past, and he needs to find that game again.
C- Patrick O’Sullivan. It might be strange to grade a guy this low, despite being third on the team in scoring, but O’Sullivan hasn’t impressed me at all so far. While he is tied with Penner for most shots at 61, he has missed way too many good opportunities. He has 23 missed shots, and I’d probably twice as many blocked shots. His shot selection hasn’t been good, and he must find a way to get more shots through. He is their best shoot out guy though, having scored three out of four attempts this season.
D Tom Gilbert. He is playing 21:31 minutes a night, 2:48 or that on the PP and yet he only has four points. He needs to be better offensively, and it seems clear that he is struggling with his puck handling confidence. It is surprising how unproductive he has been considering he had three goals in five preseason games and had loads of confidence when the season started. Gilbert has 28 shots in 20 games, and is the poster boy for a team that doesn’t shoot enough. His only goal came on seeing-eye shot from the blueline, and if that isn’t proof enough that he and his teammates should just put pucks on net, then I don’t know what is. He also needs to be start winning more one-on-one battles in his own zone.
D Robert Nilsson. He is minus 12 in twelve games, has one empty net goal, has six hits and he isn’t an offensive of defensive contributor. It is obvious that he won’t produce in Edmonton, and it seems he will only stick around if the injury bug continues to infect the locker room.
D- Shawn Horcoff. Horcoff truly cares and this grade isn’t a reflection of his effort, more so it is a barometer of his execution. He plays the most minutes, 19:49, of any forward, yet he only has six points in 16 games. He needs to produce more, regardless of his salary. His shoulder had bothered him for a few weeks leading up to the Andy Sutton hit, but if he is going to play that many minutes he needs to produce. Quinn doesn’t have a better option to eat up the minutes that Horcoff plays, but if Horcoff doesn’t start to produce Quinn will have no choice but to give Brule, Gagner or Cogliano more time, even if they struggle.
***Souray, Pisani, Reddox, Potulny, Peckham and O’Marra didn’t play enough to garner a grade.
C TEAM GRADE: This team has been incredibly banged up during the first quarters, and injuries and flu bug can’t be overlooked. However, they are in 12th in the West, and two games under .500. They are great at home and awful on the road. Their special teams are both in the top half of the league, and outside of the past three games, they were continually out-shot. Funny thing is they are 0-3-1 when they out shoot the opposition, so maybe they should keep getting out shot. I gave them a C, rather than a C- because of the injury factor, but with Staios, Souray and Horcoff back playing they have to be better.
C+ Coaching grade. Some think Penner’s success is all on the coaches, and Quinn does get some credit for giving him a clean slate, but I still say most goes to Penner. While Penner has made huge strides, many others haven’t and that has to be partly on the coaches. Quinn has been a great quote, and has been very honest regarding his teams play. He has said on countless occasions they needs to be smarter, tougher and more energetic. But coaches are still based on their record, and they can’t get a higher grade when their team only has eight wins in 20 games. I’m very curious to see how the team reacts this quarter to their coaches. The honeymoon stage is over, and now we will see how the two groups interact.