Every year, fans starved for high quality hockey flock to the NHL preseason. Coaches and managers watch the games, and the performance of individual players can have a big impact on whether or not they start in the minors or on the big league roster.
And to be fair, it’s a fun exercise. The reality, though, is that a handful of games against competition that varies from wildly underpowered to nearly NHL calibre is a very poor gauge of player performance. We don’t need to do much more than look at last season’s Oilers to see that.
Last season, the Oilers actually boasted three of the NHL’s preseason stars.
Mike Comrie, who found tremendous chemistry with Patrick O’Sullivan in last year’s warm-up campaign, led the NHL in points, with 10 in five games. He also led the league in assists, with seven. The player he was setting up, Patrick O’Sullivan, finished tied for fourth in preseason goal- scoring, with four, and tied for seventh in the league for overall points, with seven. On the back end, Tom Gilbert led all NHL defencemen in scoring, with seven points.
The regular season turned out far different for these preseason stars. Comrie fought injury, was publicly criticized by his coach, and ended the year with 21 points in 43 games – although that really wasn’t bad, considering Quinn’s penchant for sticking him on the fourth line, along with the fact he spent much of the year at way less than 100%. Patrick O’Sullivan, meanwhile, stayed healthy but quickly turned into one of the most disliked players on the roster, finishing last in plus/minus and scoring only 11 goals before being bought out this summer. Tom Gilbert had the most successful season of the three, but suffered through a brutal year before turning it on after the NHL trade deadline.
Elsewhere on the roster, Jean-Francois Jacques’ strong preseason play (three goals in five games) earned him an unlikely role as a first-line left wing to start the season, although the deficiencies in both his offensive and defensive game quickly put an end to that. Shawn Horcoff scored three goals in four games, a surprising start to a season that was certainly his worst since the NHL lockout. Robert Nilsson, another eventual buyout candidate, finished at the point-per-game mark.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lubomir Visnovsky finished last among Oilers defencemen with a minus-2 rating through preseason play. Gilbert Brule dressed for five games but was held without a goal prior to a breakout campaign. All three goaltenders appeared in at least three games, but while Nikolai Khabibulin struggled, the best of the bunch in the preseason was clearly Jeff Deslauriers, whose 0.918 SV% was the only one above the 0.900 mark.
The preseason is a lot of fun, and every year I look forward to the chance to see players I’ve missed over the summer. But it’s a really, really, bad idea to look at any player’s preseason results and imagine that they’re indicative of the kind of season he is going to have.