A year ago, I picked the Edmonton Oilers to finish 4th in the NW, 11th in the conference. They finished last in the NW, last in the conference and last in the league. Their minor league team was horrible, their veterans made headlines for failures, injuries, running their mouths and worse. They were frightful. They were major league in name only a season ago. Where do they go from here?
I believe the biggest change in the organization this season came at the coaching position. Tom Renney took over from Pat Quinn, and even in the early weeks of this season there appears to be a more rational approach to the task at hand. Whereas one year ago Quinn married Horcoff-Hemsky to the unproven JF Jacques in an attempt to attach brawn to brains, this season Renney’s approach seems to center around finding people who can play.
Don’t get me wrong, this team isn’t going to be a lot better than a year ago. I don’t think they’ll score much more than they did one season ago, but better health, fewer suspect decisions in important positions, and a sense of structure and discipline (and in defined roles) should win the day. Tom Renney appears to be in charge of this team in a way Mr. Quinn could not manage a year ago. That and the new blood should be enough to get out of the basement.
FIFTH: MINNESOTA WILD (14TH IN CONFERENCE) The Wild have some issues. Among them are a lack of identity since Lemaire left, a lot of injuries in the skill positions and their defense and goaltending looks a little thin. Still, their top end talent (Koivi, Brunette, Havlat) is more proven than the Oilers group and should Backstrom return to form (he’s 32 this season, not a youngster) they should be able to compete at a higher level than I’m suggesting here. I wonder about the off-season pickups and the goaltending. This could be a tough year in Minny.
FOURTH: EDMONTON OILERS (13TH IN CONFERENCE) The Oilers should be able to score goals at a solid clip, but the blueline as it currently stands is the weakest in the division. Gilbert and Whitney are backed up by role players (Vandermeer), still developing shutdown hopefuls (Smid), men on the comeback trail (Foster) along with a dozen prospects trying to gain traction. We can take heart, as we’ll know more a year from now than we do currently about this bunch, but as it stands there are going to be a lot of saloon-door nights along the blue. I like what Renney is doing with the forwards (it looks like he’s going to run those top 9 ragged) and wish he had more options on defense. If he can push this team higher he should get some coach-of-the-year consideration.
THIRD: CALGARY FLAMES (8TH IN CONFERENCE) I’m guessing the Flames have done just enough to slide into the second season in 10-11. The Finn in goal and the sublime talent that is Iginla should be enough to get the Flames into playoff contention (and leave the Wild and Oilers choking on their fumes). I don’t like their chances in the playoff season unless they get strong performances from several of their defensemen. Bouwmeester needs to have a big year, and the Tanguay-Jokinen express could be a distraction if they can’t deliver offense.
SECOND: COLORADO AVALANCHE (5TH IN CONFERENCE) There’s a lot to like here. Four returning 20-goal scorers, their goaltender might be the best in the division and the Avs always seem to address their problems in a timely fashion. The defense isn’t spectacular, but there are a lot of useful (veteran) parts. And for a team that must have emptied the prospect cupboard last seaosn, Kevin Shattenkirk certainly has some buzz about him. Avalanche missed the rebuild time requirement but got the job done anyway.
FIRST: VANCOUVER CANUCKS (3RD IN CONFERENCE) I’m not picking them to win the Stanley, but wouldn’t be surprised if they do it. Luongo has a better defense in front of him, the piss-cutter Sedins are back and Kesler is a quality player. Vancouver also has a nice group of useful forwards waiting for their opportunity to move up the depth chart, and about 12 more in the AHL. Their GM is going to have to man up and do something major at the deadline (my guess: more defense) but they have a really nice chance this season.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Chicago Blackhawks
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Pittsburgh Penguins
STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Pittsburgh Penguins