Time is perspective: one year later

It’s startling how performances and perceptions can change in the span of just 12 months. That holds especially true for Dustin Penner, Gilbert Brule, Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert of the Edmonton Oilers.

Before the Oilers managed back-to-back wins for the first time in over a month against Detroit and Dallas to open a five-game road trip, fans prone to panic were calling for GM Steve Tambellini to dump contracts, tear down the roster and take the pipe for a lottery pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

When proponents of that misguided strategy talked about what names they’d keep as building blocks moving forward at the height of the angst as the Oilers hit the road, Penner, Smid and Brule were mentioned as often as anybody. Gilbert? Not so much.

Buried, belittled and benched by Craig MacTavish a year ago, Penner has been the poster boy for patience by any measure with his re-emergence under Pat Quinn through the Oilers first 29 games. Relatively speaking, Brule and Smid aren’t far behind. Gilbert, meanwhile, has gone the other way with fickle fans.

Is there a lesson here?

NOW AND THEN

More fit and focused, Penner has provided the most jarring contrast to last season through 29 games, whether you go by the numbers or simply with two eyes and a brain.

In the third-year of the $21.25-million offer sheet he signed after a 29-goal campaign with Anaheim, Penner leads the Oilers in scoring with 15-15-30. He’s a plus-8 and has averaged 19:55 of ice time per game.

He has been Quinn’s best forward in all but a handful of games. He’s just two goals short of the 17 goals he scored all of last season after getting 23 in 2007-08.

With MacTavish casting a wary and impatient eye Penner’s way a year ago, he was a healthy scratch in two of the first 29 games and scored 8-6-14 with a plus-8 rating. The consensus of fans, not to mention yours truly, was the Oilers could’ve, and should’ve, dumped his contract for a ham sandwich and future considerations.

Tambellini, of course, tried to move Penner. He had him packaged up with Smid and Cogliano and bound for Ottawa before Dany Heatley queered the deal by refusing to lift his no-movement clause. Some fans, taking salary into consideration, insist they wouldn’t move Penner for Heatley straight up now. How big a swing in public opinion is that?

LADDY AND THE GILBERTS

As for Smid, his first 29 games this season compared to last are also like night and day, and not just because he scored his first goal in 113 years (151 games, actually) in Dallas.

Smid has played in 27 of 29 games so far this season and is a team-leading plus 12 with 1-7-8. He’s averaging 19:33 of ice time per night and looks like a match alongside Lubomir Visnovsky.

A year ago, Smid played in just 15 of 29 games, including some shifts as a forward with MacTavish dumbfounded as to what to do with him, and had scored just 0-2-2 with an even rating. The most ice time he got in those 15 games was 16:22. There was talk, and it was widely reported, Smid and his agent were considering asking for a trade — if he wasn’t in the plans.

While I’ll try not to get carried away, it looks to me like Smid, who doesn’t turn 24 until Feb. 1, could become the kind of shutdown defenceman who can take over the minutes Steve Staios is playing now.

Brule, meanwhile, wasn’t even in the picture last season despite having a decent camp and pre-season. Destined for Springfield no matter what he did at camp — I was told that was the plan going in — Brule played in just two of the Oilers first 29 games and didn’t have a point.

Brule’s been a revelation so far under Quinn, tallying 7-10-17 with a minus-3 rating while averaging 14:18 ice time per game. He’s shown top-six skills and enough grit to fit on the third line. He can play on the wing or in the middle.

In the minds of many, Brule, who turns 23 New Year’s Day, has bumped Cogliano as one of the small forwards the Oilers should keep through any significant rebuild. Who can argue that right now?

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Gilbert, but it’s safe to say his stock has dropped significantly — at least for the many fans who over-valued it in the first place after he put up 45 points last season.

A year ago, Gilbert scored 2-13-15 and was minus-1 through 29 games. This time around, he’s managed just 1-4-5 and is minus-3. When Denis Grebeshkov returns from injury, I believe Gilbert and his $4 million cap hit is a good bet to be moved at or before the trade deadline.

SO WHAT?

I’m not advocating Tambellini sit idly by without making moves while months and seasons tick away. Not many people, fans or media, are interested in watching the Oilers perpetually finish just above or below the playoff cutline.

Clearly, Tambellini needs to do more than tweak and tinker, even if it’s a challenge moving players who have no chance of covering their contracts — Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Staios, to name just three. But a full-scale rebuild? A blow-it-up tank job?

I wonder if the call for that will be nearly as strident as it was when this road trip started if the Oilers rattle off a couple more wins in the next three games before they return home. I’m guessing not.

Be it one year for players like Penner, Brule, Smid and Gilbert, or a week or two when it comes to what fans insist is needed with the Oilers as a whole, time tends to change perspective and perception. Knowing that, pencil me in for a longer look when it comes to turning the roster upside down — let’s say 50-55 games.

Only fools rush in.

— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on TEAM 1260.

  • Chris.

    I wasted my summer playing armchair GM. I foolishly believed a shakeup was immenent; so I followed all the rumors, exhaustively debated proposed trades… and in the end: Tambellini did nothing with his forward core except add yet another smallish skilled forward coming off a poor season. Lunacy.

  • Chaz

    "Only fools rush in."

    Very true Robin. No need for Tambo et al to rush into anything. I think the only chance we can dump some of the veteran contracts you mentioned (Moreau, Staois, etc.) is to a team making a playoff push near the deadline with specific needs that these players might fill. I don't see us getting much value back, if any, until then.

    Do you think there will actually be any takers for these players at the deadline or are we stuck with these contracts until they run out?

  • Chris.

    Book this right now Gilbert Brule will be a star in this league. He's got right coaches, gaining more and more confidence every game. Its just a matter of time until he's putting 70-80 pts a season. He was drafted 6th over all for a reason.

    • Chaz

      Please. You're a bit late to the dance to attach that hideous "book this" phrase to Brule. A lot of people have over-reacted to his current short-term success, just as you are now. I like him, too, but just a matter of time until he's an 80-point player? No.

      Brule will never be a star. What he will be is a good player who brings scoring touch that will land him in and out of the Oilers top six and get him some PP time. He's got enough grit to play third line, even if he's not producing. His top end is 55-60 points a season.

      • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

        Not sure I would say he will never be a star. I mean he had the potential at one time and is starting to show why he was drafted where he was back in 05. With that being said I also wouldn't claim the other way.

        Going into the year he was to be fighting Pouilot for that 4th line center job. Many thought maybe he squeaks into line 3, but now it seems that too many people are basing their opinion on him based on 26 games this year.

        I still will hold my judgement on him until I see some more of him, but I do like what he is showing.

        • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

          What you are is clearly on the fence. That makes a lot more sense than suggesting it's just a matter of time until he's an 80-point player.

          I've seen many variations of Brule in terms of talent and pedigree in other players for 25 years, including four covering the Blazers in Kamloops 1985-89, and I'll stick with what I said: Brule projects to being a good player who slots into the 55-60 point range.

          • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

            I'm on the fence with about 3/4 of our team, including proven veterans that are starting to become unproven veterans.

            I was hoping that close to x-mas I would have some sort of accurate assesment on this team and many of the young players, but between injuries and such it has been pretty hard.

  • Perhaps it's opportunity that's separating the two rather than skill?

    Bravo, sir, bravo.
    One could also point out that Gilbert has also begun playing his best hockey of the season when not tethered to the human giveaway machine known as Grebeshkov.
    Co-incidence?
    I think not.

    In fact, I am not sure exactly how Grebeshkov fits on this roster going forward, given that he will be asking for more than Gilbert & wants to get to UFA asap… and that noone on our roster actually has decent proven results playing with the Russian Minus Machine.

  • I'll open the gap a bit more and say Brule turns into a quality 50-65 point guy. A 4F-7F over the course of his career (on a quality team). Guys like Darcy Tucker, Daymond Langkow, Jamie Langenbrunner come to mind as comparable types. I wouldn't be moving him if I were in charge.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I dont understand why anyone is advocating "blow it up"… how many MORE rookies do we need on the roster…

    There are bad contracts that need to be flushed – yes..

    There is a distinct lack of balance, as well as numerous players with similar skill sets – yes..

    But making these *required* moves is not Blowing up the Whole team.. the oilers were already blown up when smytty got sent out.. making these moves is, simply put, the GM's job.. If wait-and-see-Tammy cant/wont do it than someone else has to be brought in to do it.. that or Lowe needs to shut up and let tammy can drive the bus…

    • In fairness, I think people are misusing the term 'blow-it-up'. All that is really meant is get Moreau, Staios & Nilsson of the books, perhaps move one of Souray/Visnovsky, swapping Gilbert or Grebeshkov with another team for a more suitable piece and swapping Cogliano for a better suited forward. Not really a full scale blow up… just a clearance of some cap space & a reshuffling of the deck to achieve a better balance.

      • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

        Or to make it simple, balance the type of players that we have on the team.

        Ideally if you moved Moreau, Staios and Nilsson for younger cheaper version. In two years we would be better off.

        If you move Gilbert/Grebeskov for a defensive d-man and you move Cogliano for a bigger top 6 forward you are a better team next year.

        Now the problem becomes finding those dance partners.