With the preseason opening tonight for the Edmonton Oilers with a pair of split-squad games, it is worth noting that the tournament can give fans a misleading view of specific players.
Over the years, many a columnist has complained about the length and grind of the NHL season. After all, the focus should be on the Stanley Cup playoffs, many argue, and requiring an 82-game tournament which essentially just determines the seeding for the really important games is an exercise in greed by team owners. Including a lengthy preseason, the argument goes, is just another demonstration of this avarice.
Yet, at the end of a long and hockey-free summer, the preseason games (at least as far as the Oilers and other Canadian teams are concerned) never lack for attention. Every year, fans show up to watch the games in person, online, or on television for those few games blessed with the attention of one of the networks. This first chance to see new players – whether freshly added prospects or veteran additions – is simply too good to pass up.
One of the things that this welcome attention does is shine a spotlight on players – both those that struggle, and those that stand out in a positive way. As it turns out, however, a strong preseason performance generally doesn’t mean that a player will show well in the regular season.
2010-11 offers us a few examples of this (Magnus Paajarvi, for instance, looked all-world in the lead-up to last season) but the scoring numbers from the season before are particularly compelling. Under Pat Quinn, the Oilers tried new line combinations, and certain players were given opportunities that they had never before experienced, and the reviews were glowing.
The pre-season combination of Patrick O’Sullivan and Mike Comrie was particularly stellar. Over five games, Mike Comrie led the entire league in scoring, with three goals and seven assists. Patrick O’Sullivan and Tom Gilbert each added seven points, finishing in a tie for seventh league-wide. Fans raved about the chemistry between O’Sullivan and Comrie, and projected the duo providing the Oilers with the kind of supplementary scoring that has been a rare treat over the club’s recent history.
Those weren’t the only players to stand out. A quick glance at the Oilers’ scoring leaders shows that Shawn Horcoff and Jean-Francois Jacques both scored three goals (the former in four games, the latter in five), while Robert Nilsson and Sheldon Souray both reached the point-per-game mark.
These results are particularly surprising given what happened later in the season. Comrie suffered through an injury-plagued campaign and earned the ire of Quinn at various points in the season; he finished the year with 21 points over 43 games. O’Sullivan’s performance was disappointing at every possible level; his career has never recovered and he spent large portions of last season with Minnesota’s farm team. Sheldon Souray was hurt and played poorly even when healthy. Robert Nilsson was a frequent healthy scratch and ended the year the same way O’Sullivan did – with a buyout. Horcoff had easily one of the worst seasons of his career. Jean-Francois Jacques – who earned a top-line berth on the opposite wing to Ales Hemsky, largely based on his training camp/preseason performance – proved entirely unsuitable to the role and ended up way down the depth chart. The golden boys of the 2009-10 preseason all ultimately faltered.
In fact, the standout performances the Oilers did get came from players that didn’t show well in training camp. Dustin Penner and Gilbert Brule put up a combined six points in 10 games; the former was easily team MVP while the latter put in the finest season of his career. Sam Gagner started 2009-10 on the fourth line after Quinn’s disappointment in his training camp performance; he finished the year as the Oilers second-leading scorer. Lubomir Visnovsky went goalless and minus-2 over four preseason games; he was the Oilers’ best blue-liner – and went just minus-4 over 57 games logging heavy minutes with the NHL’s worst club.
The preseason is a great exercise – it gives young kids a chance to make an impression, and veterans a chance to warm up prior to the main event. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously, though, because it simply has not had much predictive power in the past.