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.
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.