Heart of the Order

This is Tim Raines. Powder blues, doubles to the gap, lightning on the base paths. First to third in a heartbeat, sb followed by runs scored all day long. Tim Raines was a glorious leadoff hitter, but the Expos placed him in the heart of the order. Didn’t matter. He killed that too.

The moment Raines arrived in MLB, it was obvious he was something special. It was the strike season of 1981, so Raines played in only 88 games. Hit .304, stole 71 bases, played in the All-Star game, got some MVP votes. Ridiculous player. A beauty. I miss him and those crazy uniforms every spring, this one just like every other one. If the Edmonton Oilers leave our town, I don’t think my heart will be going with them. You can only spend so much of your life looking back and I’ve had my fill. My Dad played solitaire later in life, maybe that’s the ticket.

For Oiler fans it’s time to do what we always do in mid-March: think about next season. Here in the second division it’s never too early to discuss next year’s lineup and I’m wondering about 2011-12. Some of these men will be together again in the fall, but I think this team is going to be bigger, stronger and meaner in the heart of the order. There are some decisions to be made and here’s an early guess on the important items:

  1. Top 6 forwards/top two skill lines: I believe the Oilers should sign Ales Hemsky to a long term deal but there’s plenty of risk with the move. A bad long term deal for 83 may mean being forced to decide between those gifted kids up front in a couple of seasons. However, the team is so low on actual NHL players Hemsky must be signed. Shawn Horcoff will return in his role as top 6 center, and of course the trio of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Pääjärvi will return for next season (with at least two of them in a feature role). That leaves one spot open, and if the team keeps Ales Hemsky then Sam Gagner is a player who might be moved over the summer. Both are going to be coming off significant injuries, so if the Oilers are unable to move them then the kid Pääjärvi probably plays on the third line. I don’t know what it would cost to acquire Martin Hanzal from PHX but he might be a nice fit for the group. I also wonder about flipping Hall to center and Gagner to the wing but that’s a flier. I think it’s a way better idea than the time Jim Fanning wanted to try Raines at second base (Raines’ agent got wind of it, called his client and told him to refuse to play the position under any circumstances. It was a terrible idea).
  2. Top 4 D/PP/PK: This season, the Oilers top 4 defensemen by ice time/game at even strength (Whitney, Gilbert, Smid and Peckham) are also the top 4 penalty killers (a callup–Jeff Petry–has emerged already as a top 4D at even strength). They are also the top 4D in terms of qual comp (source: behind the net) and I suspect along with Petry will form the heart of the 11-12 defense. Some time in the next 12 months the Oilers may decide to deal Gilbert–he’s next up for two reasons: salary and Petry’s skill set is similar–then it might be an idea to add someone like Greg Zanon who can help out on the PK and improve the overall defense. The bleeding is pretty bad when you don’t have enough people who know how to play defense and the Oilers have been outshot, outchanced, outworked and outdone since 2006 summer.
  3. Goaltending: I believe Devan Dubnyk has earned the opportunity to start 40-45 games next season, and I also believe Nikolai Khabibulin is in the "it’s over but the cheques keep coming" phase of his career. It would be nice if Steve Tambellini signed some competition for both of them–one of those Euro SEL or SML veterans might be an idea–but failing that the organization should make every effort to sign two quality goaltenders for Oklahoma City. Relying on Khabibulin is folly. Perhaps they can acquire one of the three Capitals goalers.

New candidates for the heart of the order: a big forward (likely a center) with some grit for the top 6; a shut down defender to give the organization added depth for the first time since 2006 spring and at least one contender for starting goalie.