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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.