Evaluating The Roster

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 3:  Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers walks to the ice before a game between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers in an NHL game on October 3, 2009 at Rexall Arena in Edmonton, Canada. The Calgary Flames defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3. (Photo by Jimmy Jeong/Getty Images)

It’s a relatively slow time of year for the NHL, with a few free agents still looking for jobs and players still months away from any game action. It seems as good a time as any to take a look at the roster Steve Tambellini is assembling.

The Forwards

There are some things to like up front, notably two high-end wingers on reasonable contracts: Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner. Those two players will be counted on more than anyone else on the roster to outperform their opponents and to generate offence. Immediately behind those two is youngster Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, who has emerged as a solid hockey player but who has yet to turn in a high-end season.

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Behind those three veterans, who can be counted on to provide solid performances are two other players. Shawn Horcoff is coming off a miserable year, and while there were a lot of things to consider (most notably injury and who he was playing with/against) the reality is he was a massive disappointment. I’d like to peg him as a sure thing to bounce back, but he’ll be 32 when next season starts and two seasons have passed since his last really noteworthy season – and even that was shortened by injury. On the other end of the spectrum is Gilbert Brule, a disappointment in Columbus (again, injury is a consideration) who finally emerged last season as an NHL player. Many fans have him pegged to take another step forward; personally I need to see some sustain before I view him as a sure thing.

Those five players will all play in the top nine, probably all in the top six. The consensus at this point seems to be Horcoff, Hemsky and a player to be named later playing the toughs while Penner, Gagner and Brule take on Tier II, but it’s still possible the Oilers add someone who changes the dynamic or do something unexpected (such as Horcoff or Brule as third line pivot). After that, things get dicey really fast; I divide the rest of the forwards into three categories:

Youth & Uncertainty: Taylor Hall, Andrew Cogliano, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark

Depth: Colin Fraser, Ryan Jones

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Muscle: Zack Stortini, Jean-Francois Jacques, Steve MacIntyre

The thing all these players have in common (with the exception of Cogliano, coming off a tough season) is that none of them have spent any time as a top-nine forward at the NHL level.

The youth certainly has a lot of scoring skill, and a case could be made for any of those five players on a scoring line playing with veterans against second-tier opponents. Unfortunately (barring Brule or Horcoff on the third line) it looks like there might only be one spot in the top-six, with Hall the favourite to get that (and Paajarvi-Svensson the other likely possibility).

All of that makes the bottom six a bit of a mess; generally, most good teams have a third line with some veteran presence – centres who can win draws, forwards who have experience defending against talented opponents, that sort of thing. The Oilers won’t have that, barring some more action (which is certainly a possibility).

Instead, the Oilers will have to hope some of their fourth-line guys (Fraser, Jones, possibly Stortini) or Andrew Cogliano (who was trade bait at the draft and I’d guess still is) suddenly mature into quality third-liners, or that a bunch of rookies who’ve never played NHL hockey before emerge fully-formed as two-way players. I’d guess they elevate the fourth-liners, if for no other reason then they’ll need some really soft ice-time to sneak their muscle out for. It’s not the kind of risk a contending team makes, but then the Oilers are rebuilding.

It’s going to cost them points, and that tells us that Steve Tambellini isn’t too worried about a playoff spot in 2010-11.

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There are two versions of the Oilers defence right now.

In the first version, Sheldon Souray stays with the team (or is replaced by someone comparable) and a very capable group emerges: Souray, Ryan Whitney,Tom Gilbert and one of Kurtis Foster or Ladislav Smid in the top four, with the other of Foster/Smid pairing with Jim Vandermeer to finish off the top-six. This version of the defence features Jason Strudwick or Theo Peckham (hopefully the latter, given his waiver eligibility) as the seventh defenceman.

In the second version, the Oilers don’t replace Souray, both Foster and Smid play in the top four and one of Strudwick or Peckham is pressed into every day duty – which given average NHL injury rates means both would be regular defencemen for the majority of the season.

The first version is a solid group that wouldn’t look out of place on a playoff team; the second features an okay first pairing and players pushed above the places they’ve had success in pairings two and three.


Every Oilers fan knows the goaltending situation: Nikolai Khabibulin is coming off yet another serious injury and may or may not be in prison when the season starts, and his backups cannot be relied on at this point to cover for him. Devan Dubnyk is quite young but still a fairly well-regarded prospect who got hot late in the year, while Jeff Deslauriers is eight years removed from his draft and despite bursts of brilliance has yet to show he can consistently be even an above average backup.

If the Oilers end up relying on Dubnyk or Deslauriers for any length of time, that’s going to tell us that management is far more worried about development than wins and losses next season.

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Finding Silver Linings

Again, barring a sudden decision to infuse this line-up with some capable and proven NHL’ers, it seems highly likely that the 2010-11 Oilers are going to be near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Fortunately – unlike last year, where bright spots were few and far between – there are a lot of very promising rookies likely to get significant ice-time, and it seems likely we will be watching at least a few players who will be mainstays for a long, long time.

  • Librarian Mike

    Great article Jonathan. I had a little chuckle about one thing: Can you imagine if, a year ago, you had referred to Penner’s contract as ‘reasonable’?


  • I maintain that I’d be a happier person if the Oil were to pull off a trade where we sent Dustin Penner to LA for Brayden Schenn. Or to St. Louis for Alex Pietrangelo. Or Hemsky to the Caps for John Carlson and Neuvirth.

    This way I could enjoy the losing. It would all be short-term pain exchanged for eventual dominance. We could lose some midweek game 4-2 to Calgary and I’d sit back in my smoking chair like Doctor Claw and be satisfied thinking: “Enjoy this one, our dear rivals. You can have it. But we will own your sorry asses for a solid decade.”


  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I think it’s time we accept Dustin Penner as a legit top six forward. When he is on his game he is as good as almost any big forward in the game. This really is a good (reasonable) contract as long as he keeps doing what he’s good at. Never once did I feel like he should be traded….I realize that puts my in the minority.

    On another note: Holy crap do I need the season to start.

  • Lofty

    I think that’s a pretty fair assesment.

    As a fan I’m going to hold onto the chance that chemistry is found, injuries are few and far between and the rookies take this team by the balls and make it there’s.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I can endure some losing as long as the kids that were mentioned do get the significant ice time as mentioned in the article and the Oilers don’t revert back to the same old PP units from the past.

    But I’m not convinced just yet that this team is likely to be at or near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

    There just could be a surprise or two in that young lineup. Combined with solid yet still young vets (ie: Hemsky, Penner, Whitney, Gilbert, Smid, etc) and emerging players such as Gagner and Brule this team just may win more games than one might think.

  • VMR

    I’m thinking we’ll be running three scoring lines rather than much of a checking line and Renney will preach defensive responsibility to everyone. We’ve got too many bodies and not enough spots up front. I think the rookies are going to get there shots but they should all get used to the idea of spending some time in Oklahoma as well as Edmonton, everyone who can will likely get a chance for more icetime down there.

    I dont hold out much hope for Souray having a positive affect on the blueline or a trade coming along that adequately replaces him. I’m assuming he doesnt play or if he does an injury crops up pretty quick and he’s out.

    I think Dubnyk’s “hot” streak to end the season is being a little overrated in Edmonton. He had a few adequate games at the end of the season, nothing that suggests he’s a legitimate starter in the NHL yet. Personally I think we have one NHL caliber goalie who likely wont be able to play for us for large portions of next season and two guys who are adequate backups.

    Lottery pick is the most likely outcome for next season. We may jump a couple teams in the East next season and Columbus or Minnesota but we’re probably still bottom 5.

    • VMR

      You of course may or may not be right about Dubnyk’s end of the season being overrated. What I see in him makes me believe he has the tools to be a sound NHLer.

      I disagree though that his last 8 games last year would be classified as just adequate…his last 8 were as good as any goaltender in the game.

      You can’t get much better than a .923 sv%

      Young goaltenders just suddenly emerge all the time in this league…Why is everyone so quick to just write off Dubnyk as a possibility of being very good?

  • VMR

    What about Jordan Eberle? Why is everybody so high on Taylor Hall, Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi, but keep questioning whether Eberle has the goods to deliver? Eberle has starred at every level – major junior, world jr championships, world championship and AHL – and it’s a good bet he will deliver this season at the NHL level. I will bet $100 right now that Eberle takes the Calder Trophy, outscores Hall, Paajarvi and Omark, and lastly makes Hemsky expendable by the trade deadline or next offseason.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      I prefer instead of making Hemsky expendable, signing him to a 5 yr extension and making our team very solid going forward….he’s just the type of guy that we’d love to be able to add to this team so why should we trade him if we can sign him?

    • I will take your bet of $100 that Eberle (1)wins the Calder, (2)outscores Hall, Paajarvi AND Omark, and (3)makes Hemsky expendable by either the trade deadline or the start of next offseason.

      Do I have all the terms correct?

    • Enigma

      I agree with you that it seems lots of people aren’t giving Eberle the credit he deserves, but I will also say your expectations are rediculas.
      I will accept that $100 bet lol

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Great article, JW. It kind of surprises me that we’ve already forgotten Eberle, though. He’s always shown he is the best player on the ice and when I watched him in the development camp he was CLEARLY the best prospect we have. Hall will be decent… But Eberle should be the reason we are so excited for next year.

    I hate hockey limbo…

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    @ Falco:

    They tried three scoring lines last year, remember? The problem is that they weren’t out-scoring lines, and I think that will be the case this year as well.

    @ Everyone else RE: Eberle

    Eberle’s got a role and normally I’d be talking him up a fair bit. The problem, as I see it, is that he’s probably behind both Hall and Paajarvi-Svensson, and might not get the same opportunity as those two players.

    Omark’s even worse off, and I expect him to start in OKC.

    • VMR

      I agree, they probably wont outscore other teams with their third line but is that really a problem? This team is trying to develop players not win a championship this season. We need to get ice time for these kids and unless a trade comes along we have too many bodies and not enough of the right skill set to ice a checking line so I think our options are limited.

      Eberle and Omark and to a lesser extent MPS will have to spend some time in the AHL. There’s no way around it. With injuries and some players just not performing they’ll be called up and get their chances but I think people are focused to much on all these rookies staying with the big club. They’ll be there but we wont have 5+ rookies playing in each and every game. I’d say Eberle gets into 45+ games MPS a bit more Omark probably at least a dozen games maybe more and of course Hall will get in 70+ as long as he’s healthy.

      At this point I’m writing off Dubnyk as a serious possibility because of the dozen games he had before he went on his hot streak and his career in the minors. He wasnt a great goalie then and it’s hard to believe he has suddenly become one now. Some goalies do spring up overnight and turn into legitimate goales, a whole lot more show up and have a decent half dozen or so games then regress to career backup status.

      • Actaully that’s not correct. If you want proof of how good Dubnyk really was in the minors this year all you need to do is compare the Falcons W/L and the replacements sv%s.

        If you look you’ll find that DD blew even his closest comp out of the water. The kid is legit.

        • VMR

          His closest competition on the Falcons maybe but not on other minor league teams. He’s played adequate on some poor teams but he’s never managed to take a team to any kind of championship or had any success in the playoffs at any serious level.

          He still has a lot to prove to suggest he’s anything but a career backup/ahl netminder.

          A couple posters suggested that if Hall has a Tavares like rookie season we stand a chance of being in the playoffs. Where did the Islanders finish while Tavares was having that season? How well did Tampa do with Stamkos? Pittsburgh with Crosby? Washington with Ovechkin?

          This team needs more than just a little bit of offense added to the team to turn things around. Adding rookies who dont understand the defensive side of the game at the NHL level isnt going to make a huge change to this team. They need time to develop. Expecting them to compete for a playoff spot this season is setting them up for failure. If they finish better than 10th in the west they’ve seriously overachieved.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Oilers have to be the hardest team to rank this year.

    A healthy Hemsky/Bulin, a Tavares type rookie sason out of Hall and a Cogliano type rookie season out of MSP or Eberle and we should be in the mix for the PO.

    A couple disapointing rookies (or young vetrans) and even 80% of last years injuries ane we’re likely back in the lottery.

  • Crackenbury

    It is hard to excited about the upcoming season.you guys are already pegging us at the botttom.We had enough negativity last year time to think good thoughts like calder trophies and such.GGGGGGGGOOOOOO OILERS!!!

  • Lofty

    I don’t see the Oilers being in a position for a lottery pick this year. I’m thinking 8 or 9 in the west. The subtraction of Moreau and his penalties in the last 5 minutes when the team is down by a goal has got to be good for a few more games. Hopefully less injuries and it should at least be a respectable team. Looking at the rest of the west several other teams have some serious question marks (Flames,Minni,Columbus,Dallas and Anaheim) IMO.

    I also think the Oils team make-up is gonna allow the defense to play defense and the forwards to play offense. For the last two years the team was forced to rely on Souray and Viz for too much offense and it turned games into a Chinese fire drill. This is why Whitney looked so good late last season. The game should be a little simpler and managable for a young team.

  • Ender

    @ Jonathan Willis

    Since I know you’ve got to be using cut/paste to write ‘Paajarvi-Svensson’ all the time, come over to the dark side; if he’s calling himself just ‘Pääjärvi’ now, I guess we can too. And rock-dots; don’t forget his rock-dots.


  • VMR

    Good analysis Willis . Probably the way management also sees it . However , thats not the way a lot of Oiler fans want to see it .

    RESPECT ! RESPECT ! Loyal Oiler fans do not want reminders of last 3 seasons failures with a bunch of old faces not performing well again . They don’t want reminders of the poor team play and lack of support for one another .

    Fans don’t want reminders of upper management allowing things to get so far out of control and landing up in last place again . Loyal Oiler fans think of Tams pretty close to what Dunnigan had to say about Maciocia not being an Oiler .

    Oiler fans want positive results immediately this season with the new faces in abundance , and if they don’t get it they’ll be screaming from rafters to get new management in here that can . Loyal Oilers fans patience with Lowe and Tams at a boiling point already .

    Oiler fans want respect this season early and often . They can put up with the mistakes of new faces in lineup , but will not be tolerant , patient, or put up very long with old faces underperforming again .

    We want to put last 3 seasons reminders behind us, not have to put up with that sort of crap hockey , with expectations to be patient for several more years to come with equally poor hockey !! In a nutshell, we’ll grow with the youth far easier than reminders of the unglorious old faces of the past . If management cannot deliver with the new faces
    then let them be gone . You went outside the pride we all hold as proud and loyal Oiler fans still holding onto to memories of the past . Now you’ve got a team being handled by outsiders that have firmly entrenched us in the abyss of the NHL . That does not digest very well in a lot of our stomachs to begin with .

    Loyal Oiler fans want results talk not rehashed patience talk .

  • VMR

    This is still Hemmers team, he still is the most skilled player and go to guy. I dont think he wants to leave especially now with all of these talented rookie we have now.
    I guarrentee as long as he’s still scoring, the team starts winning a little more, a funner more positive atmosphere in the locker room he’ll be an Oiler for a long time.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I’m not saying that I disagree with anything that’s been written here. That said, given that people are always talking about how the Oilers aren’t a playoff team or that they’ll be at the bottom of the conference it’d be nice to see what you think constitutes a playoff team.

    I mean, removing ourselves from last year, the roster isn’t bad. Sure, there are question marks, but I personally don’t think goaltending was to blame as much as defence last season. When you take into consideration the injuries and illness (particularly Hemsky, Souray, Khabibulin, Horcoff) and the coaching (rolling the D) it isn’t tough to imagine that last years’ team wasn’t exactly destined for a lottery pick. And this year’s team isn’t super different and probably has a higher watermark.

    And outside of the clear-cut favorites in the West (let’s say the top 4), who has a markedly better roster? Is there really a reason to think that Edmonton will finish worse than 10th, given the makeup of rosters this year? Is it a given that the Flames will have a bounce-back year with questionable offense, no cap space and Staios? Are La, Nashville, and Colorado *really* better on paper than these Oilers?

    Sure, they might crash and burn. And I get managing expectations. But really, I don’t think it means much to tout how much of a playoff team they are without establishing what a playoff team is and why Edmonton is not one relative to the other teams in the West. Maybe to an Ideal of a playoff team, but compared to the West? I see 5 teams that *should/will* make the playoffs, and everyone else. Well, besides Anaheim who apparently don’t have defensemen this year.

    • Ender


      You left for what . . . 2 years? Out of respect, I went by ‘Ender the Dragon’ the whole time, just in case you came back. I finally decided that enough was enough and went with my real nickname just last month. Even then, I checked on SNN first just to see if there were toes to step on, but you were nowhere to be found.

      And now look who comes back . . .

      Where you been, buddy?

      • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

        Naw man, it’s all good. You should be warned though, that name evokes some strong emotions on other Oil blogs.

        I pop in now and again, but mostly just to read when I’m bored. The “playoff team” thing comes up every year though, and I don’t think I’ve seen it really explained outside of hand-waving, so I thought I’d pop in for a few.

        • Ender

          Well, nice to see you make an appearance anyway. Good thing you kept the avatar, or I wouldn’t have recognized you.

          You have a good take on most things, my friend, so if I encounter rage on the forums, I’ll know it’s probably of the uninformed variety.

          Don’t be a stranger; the Nation can always use more informed opinions.

    • VMR

      LA and Nashville are definitely head and shoulders above us, especially when you look at their defence. Seven teams had 100 point seasons in the west last season and I dont see any reason why you would conclude our team has improved enough or they’ve fallen enough for us to overtake any of them. That leaves us fighting with 7 teams for that last spot.

      I could easily see Colorado slipping and Anaheim, maybe Dallas but I still think Calgary and St. Louis will be charging hard for that last spot. I think our goaltending is a huge question mark and if Khabibulin plays less than 45 games we dont stand a chance. Our defence is at best pretty poor and their problems will be amplified by the number of rookies in our lineup.

      If everything went absolutely right we might be able to fight it out for an 8-10 spot. That’s a huge longshot though and it will only take a few problems along the way to make us a lottery team once again.

      • Ender

        You might be right. All I see is that Nashville lost one of their best defensemen and the a large chunk of the bottom 4 of either team was in the red on teams that got over 100 points. Nashville got their offense by committee with nobody getting more than 51pts, which I think it’s fairly safe to assume that healthy seasons by Penner, Hemsky, Horcoff and Gagner surpass.

        LA had beauty offense for sure, but a good chunk of that was Doughty and Johnson and Johnson got 36pts with a -15. The SV% of the Kings was also approximately what we can expect from JDD and DD given that they have a year of experience (0.907).

        I said it the year after the cup run — it doesn’t matter how good your goalie is, if there’s nobody to clear the crease, you’re screwed. That was why Roloson appeared to suck that year, but he was actually playing how he always did. Can you honestly tell me that the Oilers had good enough defense to keep the crease clear last year? You think it’s a coincidence that DD’s surge came after Whitney/Gilbert got comfortable and Staios got shipped out?

        Regardless of what happened last year, if we assume all teams not called Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit (and probably Chicago & Phoenix) stay at the same level of healthiness, you don’t think these teams are more or less on par with each other?

        I mean, pretty much everyone thinks that Edmonton will score more this year than last. For most of the team it would be pretty hard not to. It would also be surprising if a defensive corps sans Strudwick & Staios wouldn’t be a substantial upgrade on last year.

        I’m fairly confident that barring major injuries this team will not be in lottery talks and is likely to be between 6th and 10th for the season (if things go mostly right), though 8th to 12th isn’t out of the question if things go mostly wrong. I think people are forgetting how much of a perfect storm there was last year.

        But no, I don’t think that Nashville and LA are head and shoulders above Edmonton at this time, and honestly I’m not sure about Chicago with a good chunk of their secondary scoring leaving town. Or whether Phoenix will drop immediately back to the basement.

        I would, however, be surprised if San Jose, Detroit, and Vancouver don’t make the playoffs (and win their respective divisions). I would also be surprised if Anaheim comes anywhere near the playoffs.

        Nothing else in the WC would surprise me. The rosters, the numbers associated with them, and the reasonable potential for sweeping the field of RotY nominations makes me unwilling to say that most teams are “playoff teams” or not.

        • VMR

          I think the question about our defense hasnt really been cleared up. We have a first pairing that played well for a good section last year but each of them have had up and down careers so far and Whitney is coming back from off season surgery which might hold him back. Is Souray going to play? If he does why should we expect him to remain uninjured for any significant length? How well has Smid recovered from his injury and has he really turned a corner yet? Vandermeer couldn’t hold onto a spot in Phoenix why is he going to be a solid addition to ours? Strudwick is still lurking and will probably show up on our blueline, thankfully we have enough depth that Chorney shouldnt find a regular spot.

          We should score more this season but I think it will come with a price. If we’re trying to develop the kids they are going to make mistakes and cost us goals against.

          Which teams are you certain the Oilers will be better than? Your worst case scenario is 12th spot that leaves three for sure they will be better than. Which three?

          • VMR

            I had a long, well-thought out reply, but it got eaten and not posted. Long story short, if this team hadn’t had so many injuries to key players last year, it likely would have been an 8-10th place team. The team hasn’t gotten worse as we’ve replaced people like Nilsson and Patty O’Lanterns with people who are likely to score. We’ve replaced Moreau and Pisani with younger players who cannot possibly do worse defensively than they did last year. We’ve removed an anchor in Staios, and as many concussions as Smid has, he seems to come back stronger/better (Maybe he was just over-thinking the game 😉 Gagner has improved defensively, if not by counting numbers, and Cogliano cannot possibly play worse. Vandermeer is at least as good as Staois, and we do have some defensive prospects in the pipe in Vande Velde and Reddox if things are looking that unbalanced. Yes, it’d be nice to have another top 4 defenseman and yes, it’d be nice to have another defensive veteran, but in this rebuilding year the team is better than they were last year (with or without Souray).

            If Katz is serious about the team losing money, they’re not going to buy out Souray, so the options are trade, waive, or use. If nobody picks him up on the waiver wire and he honours his contract (because at that salary, why wouldn’t you?) Katz still needs to pay him. I say if they don’t find a trade partner he’ll be playing.

            And regarding who I think they’ll be better than, it’s not a matter of being better than team X. The only team that I can think of that’s improved in the WC this offseason has been Vancouver and I think that the WC is going to be worse, in general this season. I think they would have been in 10th last season (at worst) if Hemsky or Khabibulin had played more than 25 games, and possibly up to 8th had Souray been there. Yes, Lubo is gone and that sucks, but Whitney looks close enough (plus brought up Gilbert’s game) and I personally think that no Grebs is a net win.

            There was also a long rank about how the goalie stats don’t matter and why D lost games last year and not G (excepting, of course, JDD’s short-side goals), but that’s a story for another day.