As a sportswriter, I’ve been guilty of letting my gut overrule my head more than once, with decidedly mixed results. I find myself rolling the dice again as I contemplate the possibility of the Edmonton Oilers making the playoffs this season – assuming the NHL gets around to playing one in January.
Such a prediction flies in the face of common sense and the odds, of course, but as the lockout has dragged on I’ve become more convinced the Oilers will put an end to six straight years out of the post-season if the NHLPA and Gary Bettman can come to their senses in time to squeeze in a 48-game schedule.
Having finished 21 points out of a playoff spot in 2011-12 with a 32-40-10 record for 74 points, it’s a sucker’s prediction, but it’s one I made live on the air with Jason Gregor during his show at On The Rocks Wednesday — without having sampled a single beverage. I feel the same way today.
Reasons why? A few, aside from that gut-feeling thing – the same gut that had me convinced Jeff Deslauriers would one day be a regular NHL starter. There is, in other words, considerable margin for error when ignoring one’s brain. It goes something like this.
NO REST FOR THE BEST
Much of my optimism hinges on Edmonton’s best forwards hitting the ground running if Bettman and Donald Fehr sort things out after ringing the New Year because they’ve been playing at a relatively high level as opposed to sitting around or taking a casual twirl in their local beer league to stay busy.
As everybody knows, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been tearing it up in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons. RNH is taking a break to captain Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
Ales Hemsky, as Gregor noted earlier today, is having his way with the opposition while playing with Pardubice in the Czech Republic. So far, no signs of the shoulder and confidence issues that plagued him last season.
Sam Gagner, who will slot in behind Nugent-Hopkins at centre in Ralph Krueger’s line-up if there is a season, has also stayed busy and productive. Gagner is playing in Austria with Klagenfurt, where he’s scored 10-8-18 in 18 games. He’s also been added to the Team Canada roster for the Spengler Cup.
Factor in rookie Nail Yakupov playing in the KHL and Ryan Smyth about to join Gagner for the Spengler Cup in Switzerland, and Edmonton’s offensive top-end should be primed and ready to go.
I have no way of accurately measuring what that’ll in terms of wins and losses to start the season, but if it contributes to a reasonable facsimile of the start the Oilers put together a year ago, it’ll weigh heavily with a shortened schedule.
THE SCHULTZ FACTOR
Free agent snag Justin Schultz has had gums flapping during his pro debut with the OKC Barons, and with good reason. The former Anaheim prospect is tied atop AHL scoring with Eberle at 38 points on 14-24-38.
Schultz, who has drawn favorable comparisons to everybody from Paul Coffey to Scott Niedermayer – even if that seems overly optimistic at this early stage of his career – looks like the puck-moving defenseman and power play catalyst the Oilers have been lacking. What will he do at the NHL level? I don’t know, but a lot of people can’t wait to find out.
The other key component impacting Edmonton’s blue line is the other Schultz, Nick Schultz, who came over from Minnesota in the Tom Gilbert trade last season. Lost in all the fuss over his namesake, I’m convinced Oilers fans will soon understand just how quietly good Nick Schultz is, and what he means to the group as a whole, the longer they see him play.
The most important wildcard for me is the extra time the lockout has given Ryan Whitney to heal and rehab after two very difficult seasons battling foot and ankle injuries. While there’s no guarantee Whitney will ever be as good as he looked before his ankle came apart, the time away has provided him time to recoup. We’ll see what he’s got left.
With all the uncertainty, and rightfully so, about Edmonton’s goaltending, fans have to be happy with Devan Dubnyk’s inclusion on the Team Canada roster for the Spengler Cup. It’s not the NHL or the World Championships, but the tournament gives Dubnyk the chance to knock off the rust.
The other wildcard for me is impact of a shortened season. My sense, and again, I can’t put a finger on anything to prove it, is a shortened season will favor the youth and energy of a young roster while helping to mitigate questions of depth and experience that might be more glaring in a long haul.
Add it up, and the gut says playoffs in 2013.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.