Watching the talent, skill, heart and grit on the Lighting, Bruins, Sharks and Canucks and it becomes even more clear that the Edmonton Oilers have a long way to go before contending for a conference title. I know the Oilers are in rebuild mode, but I hope their management staff has been keeping close tabs on the ingredients these four conference finalists have mixed together to be successful.
Any rebuild has to contain a vast amount of hope and faith when you consider that teams blessed with loads of talent like Detroit, Washington and Philly couldn’t get to the final four this year. Fans, and even management to some degree, have to hope their player decisions pan out and that in time, hopefully not too long, they will be competitive on the ice.
At first glance it is easy to see why these teams are four wins away from the finals; Elite players.
Marty St. Louis, Tim Thomas, Joe Thornton and Ryan Kesler have been great. These four teams have loads of depth, but the one ingredient that they have, that the Oilers currently lack, is a stable of reliable players. Players that will give a consistent effort, not necessarily with their point totals, but just how they go about playing the game.
The Oilers have too many wildcards on their roster right now, and moving forward Steve Tambellini needs to bring in a few players who possess the key ingredients to success; accountability and consistency.
The Oilers need to decipher the difference between a "good guy" and a "good teammate."
Dustin Penner was a good guy. He joked around with his teammates, he cared about them as people, but as a teammate I don’t think he was what the organization needed. He didn’t give his best effort often enough. Subtle things like showing up for a nine a.m meeting at 8:59:55 doesn’t make you a leader, and it sets a bad example to the young players. Not every player needs to be a perfect teammate for a team to win, but you need your leaders and veterans to be that way, and then hopefully the youngsters will pick up on it.
SHAWN HORCOFF: is a true professional. When Horcoff gets ripped it is for his salary; rarely his work ethic. Even the biggest Horcoff bashers recognize that effort isn’t his downfall. Get past his salary and he is the type of teammate the Oilers need more of. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have that internal drive to be the best, and so far they have shown they are willing to put in the extra effort necessary to improve and become differnce makers in games.
RYAN WHITNEY: has improved that element of his game the past few years. Theo Peckham looks like he has it. Ryan Jones’ game is pretty simple, and hustle is not something he lacks. Andrew Cogliano has really worked on battling and being more prepared, and if he is in your bottom six then you are okay. Ales Hemsky plays hard, and while I’d like to see him work harder at practice to improve his game, he has lots of respect in the room because of his fearless attitude during games. Magnus Paajarvi and Jeff Petry give you the impression that they are learning what it takes to be effective on a nightly basis in the NHL.
The rest of the current lineup has more wildcards than guarantees and that is a problem that needs to be rectified.
SAM GAGNER: Gagner is still very young, and with four years of NHL experience there is a good chance Gagner could have a break out season soon. Like many young players, Gagner has battled with inconsistency more than anything. You can’t always look at points or stats to judge a player’s worth, and Gagner needs to be willing to battle on a nightly basis. Gagner is the toughest player to accurately assess. Will he become a 60-point player? Can he improve his faceoffs? Is it too risky to deal him? If Gagner is here in October he needs to answer those questions and show management that he is a key piece of the rebuild.
TOM GILBERT: No player can drum up a heated debate amongst Oiler fans more than Gilbert. Some loathe him for his lack of aggressive play, while some "stats" guys feel his numbers are much better than what you see on the ice. Gilbert clearly has NHL skill. He skates well, has a decent shot, is a good passer, but he needs to be more consistent. Gilbert was 17th in the NHL in TOI/game last year, so obviously he has an opportunity to influence a game postively and negatively. I don’t see the Oilers trading him, and I don’t expect him to become a Jason Smith type defender, but he needs to battle harder for loose pucks. No current stat clearly illustrates how hard a player works, but too often we watch Gilbert losing a battle in front of the net or in the corner. If he doesn’t want to be more physical, then he needs to be better positionally. Gilbert has to become a player his teammates and coaches can rely on every shift; because he has above-average NHL skills, and if he is willing he has the ability to be a difference maker in games.
LADISLAV SMID: Smid is an RFA, but he won’t demand/command a big raise so he is very affordable. Entering his 6th season, Smid is another guy who needs to become a reliable player for Tom Renney. Like Gagner, he is a top-ten pick, 9th in 2004, and the time has come for him to be more consistent. Smid competes hard, but I’d like to see him put in some extra work to improve his shot. He will never be an offensive force, but if he can improve his point shot it could lead to a few more goals, or at least a few more assists on deflections. He wasn’t 100% healthy last season, after neck surgery in March of 2010, but he should be completely healthy in September, and he needs to find some consistency in his game so the coaching staff knows what to expect from him every night.
LINUS OMARK: He electrified the crowd with his shootout moves last year, but in too many games he’d make a stunning play on one shift, and then disappear for the next period. He was a rookie, so he gets some latitude for inconsistency, but with Eberle and Hemsky on the RW, Omark needs to be tenacious on every shift, not every 4th shift. He isn’t afraid to go into the tough areas, and he protects the puck very well, but he needs to become more committed in his own zone if he wants to play more five-on-five. If Omark can be consistent and productive, it will give Tambellini more trade options, while Renney could use it as a bargaining/leverage for handing out icetime on the PP and evenstrength.
KURTIS FOSTER: Foster wasn’t happy with his play last season, so I’d like to think he’ll come to camp hoping to prove something. My concern with Foster is if he the capability to compete hard on every shift. His teammates like him and he is good in the room, but the Oilers need more guys that the opposition doesn’t like on the ice, and I’m not sure Foster possesses that quality. If he isn’t contributing on the PP, then he really isn’t that effective. He should have lots to prove come October, and the fear of not getting another contract is a great motivator, but I don’t see him as a long term fit.
GILBERT BRULE: His health is the biggest question, and I wonder if the Oilers will take another chance on him or possibly buy him out? Because Brule is only 24 the Oilers could buy him out at 1/3 of his final year. He is owed $1.8 million so the Oilers could buy him out at $616,667 and spread that out over two years, so his cap hit would only around $308,333 over the next two seasons. Buyouts are the harsh side of the business, and it might look a bit heartless considering all the injuries Brule had last season, but the reality is he wasn’t reliable last season. The Oilers aren’t up against the cap, so they don’t need to make room salary wise, but I wonder if they think they will need to make room for another body? I’d roll the dice with Brule and start him as my 4th line centre. Give me a specific role and see if he accepts it.
COLIN FRASER: Fraser wasn’t effective at all last season. He only scored in two of 67 games, and he wasn’t great on the PK, but the most disappointing part of his game was that he wasn’t a shift disturber very often. After playing with guys like Adam Burish and Ben Eager, you would have thought Fraser would have seen what it takes to be an effective 4th liner, but for one year he didn’t do it. Fraser could be in a hard fought battle for the 4th line centre spot with Brule in September, and if that is the case, I don’t like his chances of making the team.
J.F JACQUES: Based on his icetime last year, I don’t see the Oilers bringing him back. Guys need to play to make an impact, and it seems the Oilers have lost faith in Jacques. He shows glimpses of being an impactful, banging fourth liner, but he also has long stretches where he doesn’t. I think they will re-sign MacIntyre over Jacques.
STEVE MACINTYRE: With the unfortunate passing of Derek Boogaard, MacIntyre is the #1 ranked heavyweight, but he doesn’t have many guys willing to fight him, so he needs to bring more than just his fists. If he is going to be a factor he has to dedicate himself to playing and understanding the game better. He needs to just go up and down his wing. He has to know his assignments and where he should be on the ice. Last year, in the limited minutes he played, too often he was in an area he wasn’t supposed to be. If he wants to play next year, he has to do a better job of understanding the whats, wheres and whens of the game.
JASON STRUDWICK: I don’t see him back in Edmonton next season. He could catch on with another team, because he is very respected around the league. The Oilers need a guy like Strudwick, who plays hard every shift and keeps the opposition honest, but is a bit younger and quicker.
LIAM REDDOX: Reddox gives you everything he has on every shift, but he doesn’t have enough to make an impact unfortunately. I will take Teemu Hartikainen over Reddox today, because Hartikainen is a load down low and he’ll wear down the opposing D-men.
2010 was the Summer of Steve, and he had more misses than hits when it came to player moves. I hope he understands he needs to acquire some players who will bring a consistent effort every night; regardless of whether they are scorers, bangers, checkers, penalty killers, puck-movers or stay-at-home defenders.
The Oilers need to shed their wildcards and pick up a few solid sixes, eights and the maybe even an Ace.