JUST ASKING: 10 QUESTIONS GOING INTO CAMP

While fans could probably use all their fingers and toes when it comes to questions about the Edmonton Oilers as training camp approaches, I can think of at least 10 relating specifically to player personnel I don’t have the answers to.

As always, if you know, or think you know, the answers to any of them, feel free to pass them along.

YOU TELL ME

1. The most pressing question for me has two components. First, will Ryan Whitney’s surgically repaired right ankle be ready for the start of the season? And, if it is, how long will it hold up?

2. Will Ales Hemsky be here after the trade deadline? Assuming Hemsky can stay healthy, he’ll be a potential trading chip, and a big one, until GM Steve Tambellini gets his name on a new contract.

3. I don’t think there’s much question Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will start the season with the Oilers, but will he stay beyond nine games, which would eat up a year of his entry level contract?

4. If Nugent-Hopkins does stay beyond nine games, does it do him any good to play bottom-six minutes or should he be returned to Red Deer of the WHL if he isn’t used in a top-six role with offensive players?

5. Who will Ryan Smyth play with? No chance Smyth slots in with Shawn Horcoff and Hemsky because that’s putting too many veteran eggs in one basket. I’m wondering where his best fit is.

NEXT 5 . . .

6. I think Devan Dubnyk should play more games than Nikolai Khabibulin this season — I think 45-37 is a reasonable split — but will he? How much rope does Khabibulin get from coach Tom Renney if he doesn’t bounce back from a lousy 2010-11?

7. Will one or more of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle or Magnus Paajarvi fall victim to the dreaded sophomore jinx? For the record, I see all of them surpassing their rookie points totals, even if that’s fudging because Hall and Eberle missed a significant number of games with injuries.

8. Is former No. 3 overall pick Cam Barker on his way back or on his way out? After struggling mightily with Minnesota and having his contract bought out, this is the most important season of Barker’s career.

9. Speaking of important seasons, will Sam Gagner bounce back from back-to-back injury shortened campaigns and give management a clear indication of where he fits, and if he fits, moving forward?

10. Do Ben Eager, Eric Belanger, Andy Sutton, Darcy Hordichuk, Smyth and Barker constitute significant upgrades over departed players Steve MacIntyre, Zack Stortini, Andrew Cogliano, Colin Fraser, Kurtis Foster and Jason Strudwick?

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    This is kind of fun, my completely uninformed guesses are as follows:

    1. Whitney will be fine, maybe not available for some pre-season games but will be in the line-up for most of the season;
    2. Hemsky stays, and is signed before the trade deadline. I think he wants to be in Edmonton and is young enough to be a meaningful part of any improvement that happens over the next few seasons, heck in Calgary he’d practically be the youngest player on the team;
    3. Nugent-Hopkins staying past 9 games, that’s impossible to know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen or didn’t happen and wouldn’t be too disappointed if the best option was for him to pay another year of junior;
    4. If he stays, I see no harm in not playing on the first 2 lines, he’ll still get power play time. I agree with an earlier comment that the OIlers could well have 3 scoring lines this year;
    5. Smyth plays with Hemsky and Gagner (possibly, see comments below on Gagner) but not with Horcoff. I believe the Oilers will continue to play Horcoff between Hall and Eberle, they like to mix veterans with the younger players. If Nugent-Hopkins makes the team and is capable of playing on one of the top 2 lines (possibly I’m really dreaming here), I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play with Smyth and Hemsky;
    6. Dubnyk plays more than half the games. I think everyone realizes or at least expects that Khabibulin is likely done. I think the Oilers will give him time at the beginning of the season and if he performs beyond expectations, it’ll be an surprising bonus. I don’t expect to see him on the roster for the whole season. I have no idea how they’ll exactly deal with the contract, but it will likely be better to suck it up as a mistake, and move on;
    7. Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi should all have improved seasons;
    8. Barker, I have no idea.
    9. Gagner will not be on the Oilers for the full season, imo. I like the guy and have always pulled for him but I think Oilers will trade him in some package for a defenseman. I think the Oilers will be of the view (rightly or wrongly) that they have enough young players/prospects to take his place;
    10. I agree with the comment that overall the new players are better than the players they replaced on last year’s roster. This should lead to some degree of improvement.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I think you pretty much nailed all the essential questions heading into the season, Robin. Good work. Here’s my take:

    1. If it is merely a matter of pain and not a question of re-injury, then Whitney will play opening night. I don’t see him missing more than the first month of the season (8-10 games) in any case. As for his durability, I will bet that if he is injured this season, it is not related to a prior problem or pre-existing condition.

    2. Hemsky has given every indication he wants to stay. I think that feeling is sincere, but I also think it comes with a rider: as long as the team is moving forward. Most players would be in the sweet spot of their careers right now, and I’m sure he liked to knock one out of the park while he’s still in the power centre of his wheelhouse.

    If he is gone at the deadline it is for one of two reasons: either The Braintrust don’t consider him part of when the cluster will be successful and would rather take his trade value now than at the end of the next contract, or Hemsky doesn’t feel this team can compete for a Cup soon enough in his career. Either way, right now I think Hemsky’s future is in the hands of one Mr. Steve Tambellini, gods help us all.

    3. I think RNH’s future past ten games is dependent upon his confidence. That’s the make or break deal. He’s quick enough, he’s smart enough, he passes well enough, his talent level is not really an issue. And because the talent is there, I don’t think the size is an issue. But is he old enough and strong enough to face the toughest league in the world?

    There was a lot of debate about Hall last year on the interwebs, as he struggled through his first ten games. Not in my camp though. A learning curve has to be expected. How do you know Bouwmeester’s reach, quickness, moves, until you’ve come down the wing on him a few times? You can’t. But Hall played with extreme confidence, played like he belonged, and obviously must’ve also felt like he belonged. So performance-wise, talent-wise, I don’t think will be much of an issue after 9 games for RNH, even if he has only one or two assists in that span. But will he play with fear in his eyes, a skip of a beat to his heart, a flutter in his tummy, rubber in his knees…? If any of these things afflict him, he will go back, because that is the one certain way to destroy a player’s development.

    If he plays with confidence–like he belongs, not intimidated–he will stay.

    4. Top 6, bottom 6, doesn’t matter, see the Tyler Seguin file. And as Arch pointed out, the Oil go with three scoring lines anyway. He is going to be spoonfed some sweet ‘n easy to chew powerplay time though. Injuries are going to be the deciding factor on what he sees at EVs.

    5. I think there’s every chance Smyth slots in with his old linemates. Renney could decide to go PvP with the three vets and then let Hall and Eberle take on the seconds with 5th year player Gagner between them. Or he might feed the two Swedish meatballs and Gagner the seconds.. that’s a 24/25 yr old on RW too. Will they bleed? Sure. Will Renney set it up that way? Sometimes probably. Set lines have really become a thing of the past. You can see the blender churning at the frickin Midget level these days for frick’s sake.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see the lines change in the first game.

    6. Goalie starts… I think the decision on this issue won’t be made till the end of the first month and the Oil have a better idea of what they have in Khabibulin. If he comes out of the gate hot, and can stay healthy, I think he ends up with more starts on the year. However I do think it will be close to a 50/50 split as I expect the Oil will want Dubnyk to increase his starts from year to year in any case, Hot Khabby or cold.

    If he comes out cold, the Oil will intensify their already ongoing search for a keeper (pun intended) and will likely overpay.

    7. No such thing as ghosts, demons or sophomore jinxes, except what exist in one’s noodles. I’m pretty sure all three rookies were happy with their second years in their prior leagues.

    8. Barker I think depends on Steve Serdachny and thus of course, Barker himself. Schremp hired the guru herself out in Saskabushland yet didn’t build proper new habits and always fell back into his wide load stride. The book on Barker, I believe, is that his weakness is his lateral movement, his pivots. If Serdachny can help out there, and if Barker can gain some offensive confidence back (two biggies mind you) then I think the gamble pays off. Otherwise, I agree, who cares other than the fact we will have to find a replacement who is an improvement next summer. Which never seems to be easy in Edmonton. I’m cheering for this one to pan out. It would be quite helpful if it did. Played out over a thousand universes though, I’m not sure it happens in 500 of them.

    9. Gagner’s injury was a freak accident and really on the shoulders of the good-hearted klutz that is Ryan Jones, so I don’t think we should expect injury again because of that particular past (except to Jones).

    As far as bounceback seasons go, I thought he took steps forward last year. Not strides, but certainly steps. He does that every year till he’s 26 and we will have a damn fine player. One day. I think everyone is hoping that we’re going to see an outburst of points, but I think that’s a little unfair and that right now he’s as at least as offensively accomplished a 2nd minutes C as the average NHL 2nd minutes C. That’s a pretty damn fine in a player his age.

    What I would like to see in Samwise is continued improvement in defensive play, and for him to figure out an edge, a tactic, a technique–something–that is going to help him consistently win more puck battles. He should be watching film of Radek Dvorak every night before beddy bye byes.

    I also have to think that he has been so bad in the FO circle in his four years that we have to start thinking that he is the player he is in that regard. Even an amazing 5% improvement in his numbers would leave him woefully short of below average at the dot.

    Because of that, and because his playmaking is a bit duplicated on the roster, he is definitely tradebait for the right deal. He’s going to be a decent player–he’s pretty good already–but I think we can see his ceiling. So if the right deal came along to improve the team, he shouldn’t be an untouchable.

    10. They’re an improvement, most notably Belanger over Cogliano, but as a whole I don’t think by much, especially considering the minutes some of these players are going to get. If Barker can play though, the tide swings much more heavily in favour of the present group. Foster couldn’t hit the side of a barn on perfect ice, so Barker will be some improvement for sure, but how much remains to be seen. I have hope. But right now it’s pretty damn baseless.

    Thanks, that was fun.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Whitney was damaged goods when he arrived. Any hope he’ll play something that resembles a full season isn’t realistic.

    Seen this over at Lowetide…
    There’s speculation that the posterior tibial tendon, based on media comments, and I think that is the most likely.

    A couple of notes: This is not an ankle fracture. A fracture heals more or less like new, depending on the associated ligament damage. 100% 3-4 months after an ankle fracture is a reasonable expectation (to use a Lowetidian phrase). A soft tissue injury is always more serious. Tendons and ligaments don’t heal 100% and we cannot expect 100% from Whitney ever again. I would argue he hasn’t been 100% since his days with PIT though, so I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope that he returns to the player he was last year.

    Whitney’s feet are surgically altered and all of the soft tissues are adjusting to the altered biomechanics. The dislocated post tib was almost certainly related to his pes cavus repair as it likely left the retinaculum in which the tendon resides redundant (or it became redundant over time after the pes cavus repair). These types of repeated tendon issues are likely what Whitney will face for the rest of his playing career much like Forsberg. I think this is why such a high draft pick who demonstrated tremendous early success in the NHL has seen so many teams in his career. Everyone who owns him sees an asset diminishing in value.

    As far as timelines, it is not unusual for the pain related to reconstructive foot surgery to take 12 months or longer to become manageable. Morning stiffness is a certainty for the rest of his life. Many never become pain free, but adjust their lifestyles to manage the pain. That may sound depressing, but feet are complex requiring fairly precise function to handle the stresses put on them by even a relative sedentary patient, not to mention a professional athlete and are uncomparable to musculoskeletal injuries in any other part of the body.

    We’ll have to wait and see what he can do on the ice. More difficult for him may be the psychological component. A professional hockey career takes a tremendous toll on their body. His feet have been bandaided and would probably do well for most of his life if he was Joe citizen, but may not stand up to the rigours of NHL duty. He probably realizes that this is a possibility, and may lack the confidence to be the kind of NHL player he has been in the past knowing he is just one ice rut away from more pain and and more surgery.

    At the end of the day, he will have a long life as a retired NHL player, and consideration must be given to his need to ambulate with minimal use of aids before his elderly years. Being an NHL player is probably fun and of primary importance in his life right now, but as hard as it may be to believe, there are some things that are far more important. I hope he and his doctors are taking this seriously.

  • misfit

    1. He’ll start the season but miss about 25 games due to foot injuries throughout the season.

    2. I hope he stays, but as one of the few non-Tambellini aquisitions still on the team, he’s on borrowed time IMO and will be gone if/when the team is out of the playoff hunt on deadline day. The worst part is, we’ll probably get a similar collection of picks and prospects that Penner brought back.

    3. 82 games in the NHL if he stays healthy. I don’t see them sending him back.

    4. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad idea for him to get bottom 6 minutes, but if he does, he’ll get plenty of powerplay time to even it out, I’d think. That said, I could see him getting Gagner’s minutes with Gagner getting the Cogliano role.

    5. I think we’ll see the Smyth-Horcoff-Hemsky line a few times this year, but I’d like to see Gagner get lots of time with Smyth on his line. It’d be nice for Gagner to not be the most experienced player on his line for a change.

    6. Khabby will get a second chance, and he’ll be better than last year, but I do think Dubnyk will get more starts (as he should).

    7. I think they’ll all improve on last year’s totals, but Eberle is my guess to be the least improved of the 3. Mainly because I see Omark and Hemsky getting a lot more offensive opportunities at RW and Eberle on a pseudo checking line with Smyth and Gagner.

    8. Barker will improve on last year’s point totals from powerplay opportunities alone, but I don’t expect to be wrong about saying the signing was a mistake. I doubt he’s re-signed after this year.

    9. Gagner will have a pretty good year, but a more defensive role will probably result in poor offensive stats and a poor +/-. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he’s not an Oiler this time next year.

    10. All will be better than the players they replaced, but because the upgrades were made so far down the depth chart (Belanger excluded), it’ll have very little affect on the team’s fortunes as a whole.

  • jitesh13

    Great article…. I expect nothing less from the nation….

    Great comments and interesting to see everyone’s thoughts…. here’s my take.

    1. Whitney’s a stud…. he’ll have a solid year. How could he not…. his comments on the Canucks in the playoffs were the best thing I’ve heard all year.

    2. Hemmer is in it for the long haul…. longish haul anyways… still young enough and will be around for a few more…. then get traded. Hard not to like the guy though.

    3. RNH will get more than 9…. maybe 30 or so…. there will likely be an injury at C so he could see some solid minutes. I would love to see a “who would you draft #1 overall…. RNH or Seguin debate”. Seriously who would you draft?… what a tough call.

    4. Tough call…. a stud in the whl or bottom six? I say both (if possible) is 30 then a return to the WHL a possibility? I don’t know the rules on that one…. If I have to decide, I lean towards the WHL… lots of great coaching and quality player coming out of juniors….confidence goes a long way.

    5. Yup I think the Smyth Horc Hemmer line could see some action. Yup they would make a decent and experienced number 1 line to take some pressure off of the Hall Gagner Eberle line. Yup there will be some vet shuffling for fun and chemistry but I think if Gagner stays healthy they’ll want to know…. could this work as a future top line (as we wait for RNH)? I bet Gagner is licking his chops for a crack at that line. Yup lickin em good.

    6.Khabby is done. Tambellini is pushing that one and hoping he bounces back…. what an aweful mess if he is through and the contract lasts another two seasons. Mistake… Big one. I vote fix it now and pick up another goalie for insurance…. or call Aflac.

    7. No Sophmore Jinx…. don’t even say it. It can’t happen to Hall (come on Taylor 35 and 35 isn’t too much to ask for a young buck like yourself is it?). Eberle…. no way… too good at too much. MPS (oh wait he dropped the S) is the second coming of Glen Anderson ….right? There’s no way Glen had a crappy sophmore year….. I’m not looking it up and neither should you.

    8. Is it just me or does Cam seem a little jiggly? If I was a pro athlete I’d be ripped…. Evander Holyfield ripped. Jiggles won’t last. We need him to be great but I refuse to vote on jiggly.

    9. Of course Sam fits….. #2 center all the way…. he put up those numbers on the worst team in the league last year. If the Oil were trading for another #2 with Sam’s numbers fans would rubbing each other in Oil. He’s here and he’s qu….. ite young.

    10. Yup, yup, yup, yup ,and yup…. all upgrades.

    Good night y’all.

  • 1) I give Whitney 50 games. Good guy but Tambi exchanged Lubo for a lemon. (at least he’s funny)

    2) Hemsky will go. There appears to be depth up front and Tambi will need a defenseman/pick. (helps to sandbag another lotto pick.)

    3) RNH will stay, it’s just what #1’s do.

    4) Edmonton doesn’t have a bottom 6, they have a Top9. (PP,soft 5-5, even some PK)

    5) Smyth will play everywhere it’s what the mullet does. (Smyth/Hall/Eberle for a few games?)

    6) Dubnyk/Khabi aren’t & won’t be #1’s when the kids get nice. (Stop the 1st and last shot of each period and we’ll go from there)

    7) Paajarvi has the potential to slump. (Love his speed not sure what his niche is with the Oil)

    8) Barker’s a gamble worth taking, it’s not my money.

    9) If Gagner can spend more time on his skates than his ass this year 55points is realistic. Breakout? Not really, but enough to keep Tambi confused.

    10) Belanger is a wildcard. Why would a guy so gifted on faceoffs end up on a 30th place team?

  • Ned Braden

    I think Hemsky gets traded because of $$. If anyone thinks he is signing for close to what his current contract is worth, that is not going to happen. The salary cap has gone up $20 million since his last contract. His points/game and career high point totals are similar to Martin Havlat who had his own injury issues and Havlat got 6years/$30 million when the cap was at $56.8 million.

    He is probably going to be looking for $6 million/year on a 5-7 year contract and somebody will give it to him this summer. That is a lot of $$$ for a player with injury issues and with the recent JVR contract in Philly how much cash are the Oilers going to have to spend on Hall, Ebs and RNH in a couple of years?

    • D-Man

      Alot of what Hemsky gets is contingent on whether he stays healthy… If he plays like he’s capable and stays healthy for more than 70 games – he’s going to be worth a $5.5 million cap hit contract… I don’t think he’ll get anyone to sign him to a 7 year deal, but a 5 year deal seems about right… He’d be about 33 at the end of that contract and would be an excellent complimentary player for when we’re a playoff team… You might forget that when Hall and Eberle are RFA’s – Smyth won’t be getting $6.25 mil, Khabby won’t be getting $3.75, Souray’s $2.4 mil buyout will be off the books, and Horcoff’s contract will have only one year left…

      Assuming Tambo avoids bad signings like Khabby or the Horcoff contract Lowe signed – we’ll have a ton of cap space available…

  • D-Man

    I believe this is Hemsky’s year.

    I doubt Tambo will trade him, considering he’s had issues staying healthy for a full season which may have affected his trade value, keeping in mind the guy will be a UFA at the end of the year.

    He has been better than any other player in the lineup when he’s healthy, and it is my belief Tambo wants to lock him up long term. Other teams may not focus in so much on Hemsky when guys like Hall, RNH or Eberle demand attention in the years to come.

  • Ned Braden

    …I forgot to say, if Tambo trades Hemsky, I just know he’d burn the Oilers every opportunity he gets.

    I wouldn’t be suprised if that’s the case with Cogliano, like OT game winners.

  • Ned Braden

    @D-man

    I disagree about the $5.5 million. People get stupid on July 1.

    V. Lieno 6 years/$27 million – career high 53 points

    E. Cole 4 years/$18 million – last sesaon 52 points in 80 games. 2009-2010 16 points in 40 games

    T. Connolly 2 years/$9.5 million – last season – 42 points in 68 games. Career injury prone player.

    I know that there will be a lot of salary coming off the books but if he is looking for a 6 – 7 year deal the Oilers will also have a lot of contracts to sign and at some point they will need a competent goalie and a #1 D-man.