A Competitive Advantage

If the NHL starts up again in January, the Edmonton Oilers might be one of the league’s most improved teams. The shorter season means that low probability events – things like Nikolai Khabibulin’s red hot start to 2011-12 or Jeff Deslauriers’ five consecutive road wins back in 2009-10 – will have more impact than they would over an 82-game schedule. More than that, however, the Oilers have a competitive advantage.

That advantage is the Oklahoma City Barons. Robin Brownlee wrote briefly yesterday about the impact guys hitting the ground running could have and I’m in complete agreement on that score.

The fact that three of the Oilers’ top-six players – Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – will have 20+ games under their belt by the time the league is back in session is almost certainly a good thing. This isn’t the 1970’s, so “mid-season shape” doesn’t mean what it used to, but it seems entirely reasonable that a 20-year old who has been skating regularly in game situations is going to outperform a 30-year old who has not been playing competitive hockey all year.

For Hall in particular, starting in the minors is a positive. It was obvious that he was at less than 100 percent coming off shoulder surgery; he did not excel in his first few games with the Barons. He’s been exceptional since, though, rivaling Jordan Eberle as the team’s best forward.

The advantage goes beyond that, however.

On defence, Justin Schultz has been a revelation. I had high expectations, given what scouts and hockey men I respect have had to say about him over the years, but he’s blown those expectations out of the water. This summer, I posited that the Oilers needed a backup plan on the blue line just in case Schultz had difficulty adjusting to the majors. I still think the team could use some help on the back end but those concerns are gone: Justin Schultz is and was NHL-ready.

There is some fear that Schultz – as with many college players before him – hits a wall at the mid-season mark. But this is a guy who has been the AHL’s best player in the early going, a guy who on playmaking ability alone is probably the Oilers best offensive rearguard already. He should get top-four minutes in the first NHL game he plays.

Other Barons players either should or could play a key role in Edmonton.

Teemu Hartikainen appears to have won a job; he fit well on a line with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins but at least as importantly has continued to be a factor when separated from the elite talent. I am still dubious about his offensive upside, but he looks to me like a guy who can be a decent complementary player on a skill line and given his size and willingness to play a physical game he is a good fit for team need. He is particularly adept at the cycle game in the offensive zone, something valuable regardless of which line he ends up on.

Magnus Paajarvi may or may not get a job immediately once hockey starts up, but there’s virtually no chance he isn’t on the Oilers’ roster at some point this year if hockey is played. He lacks the finishing ability of an elite player, but what he has a real knack for is puck possession – he is both a capable distributer and a great option for skating the puck up ice. Combine that with his penchant to cheat for defense, and he’s a guy who can fill in anywhere.

Yann Danis is the other guy who might crack the Oilers’ roster relatively early in the year. Nikolai Khabibulin was hurt this fall, and though it seems like he’s ready to go he also turns 40 in January; maybe the time off helps him, but there should be no tolerance for early season struggles. Danis has been excellent for the Barons after a lousy October, he has NHL experience, and he’s a capable backup if Khabibulin falters and/or is hurt again.

If the season starts in January, these guys – along with players who have played in Europe, like Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Ladislav Smid – will give the Oilers an advantage other teams don’t have: a strong core of players who don’t need to adjust to playing hockey again. It’s the exact sort of advantage that could propel the Oilers up the Western Conference standings, and cause individual players to surpass expectations.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

    • I appreciate your posts. It’s good to hear another voice. If you hear all the positive, it makes the negative a lot harder to swallow when it inevitably shows up.

      Life ain’t thorns, but life ain’t roses, either.

      *slowly bows out of discussion*

      Yeah! Start of season! Good luck Oilers!! Yak’s gonna be something.

      • DSF

        It happens every off season.

        The fanboys think the Oilers are a powerhouse and then they start to play hockey.

        While there’s a lot to look forward to regarding the Oilers, they still have smoking holes in the lineup.

        • Wax Man Riley

          Wait wait wait. Do you realize what you just said DSF? You said, and I quote, “there’s a lot to look forward to regarding the Oilers…” It’s a Festivus miracle! 🙂

          But in all seriousness, yes, the Oilers have some holes. I mean, I think that’s obvious. Only the most biased of fans would argue that.

          If I could pick only one hole to fill before the season starts in October, my wish would be an experienced D-man who can play twenty reliable minutes a night, kill penalties, and chip in on the powerplay when called upon. I think that would be a reasonable expectation, though I won’t hold my breath- yes, even I, a huge Oilers fan and believer, can admit that management doesn’t always seem to like addressing need. That Schultz kid looks pretty good though.

          So now it’s your turn. If the Oilers fill only one hole before October, what would you like it to be? And be reasonable. This isn’t NHL 13.(My first year controlling the Oilers we won the Cup, so yeah…)

          • DSF

            While reliable veteran D who can play 20 minutes a night would be nice…adding another Nick Shultz to the mix won’t make much difference.

            The Oilers TWO top pairing D, a big capable second line centre and a goaltender.

            If I had one hole to fill that would likely make the most difference, it would be #2C since top pairing D are very hard to acquire.

            That said, teams also tend to hang on to their centres so filling that hole wouldn’t be easy.

          • Oilertown

            Here we go again way to generate some comments ppl. Where to start ok what is wrong with having Smid Petry as 1 and 2 Whitney if he is back to health is more then capable of #1 Justin Schultz who is absolutely destroying the Ahl for q defenseman can play in there somewhere.

            So while we may not have a true # 1 we have enough very good pieces to make it work. Canucks don’t have a true #1 either yet they seem to make it work well enough.

            Gagner as a number 2 centerman while not “big” is capable of putting up 50-60 points with a healthy Hemsky and Hall or Yakupov flanking him.

            The only thing I will give you is yes the Oil need a capable backup for Dubs. And I would also add they may need a cpl good vets for bottom 6 but 1 would pass

          • DSF

            1) Smid and Petry are not top pairing defensemen on any good hockey team.

            2) Relying on a rookie to play top pairing minutes in the best league in the world is a recipe for disaster.

            3) The Canucks do have a legit #1D. His name is Dan Hamhuis and he is the best shutdown defenseman in the league.

            James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail does annual lists of the best players at their position.

            Take a look and please note the second best defensive defenseman is Jason Garrison who also now plays for the Canucks as does Alex Edler who also appears on the top 30 list.

            http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/globe-on-hockey/the-nhls-top-defensive-defencemen/article576301/

            3) Gagner has played with a variety of wingers including Hall, Hemsky, Penner and Cole but has yet to crack the 50 point mark despite playing soft competition. On a good team, you want to see your second line centre handle the toughs so the first line can outscore.

            Gagner can not handle the toughs without getting his ass handed to him.

          • I’m sure he wouldn’t. He is probably just as ignorant and stuck in his ways and stats as you are.

            I’d like to see his calculations and yours also seeing as you agree with him. I’d like to see how much Schneiders, Loungos and the rest of the overpaid Stanley Cupless defense of Vancouver factors into Hamhuis numbers. Or do they?

            Would Hamhuis be the best playing in front of Khabi? Is he that “best”?

          • DSF

            Hockey is a team game.

            If your defense sucks, your goalie is in tough.

            On the one hand you would argue Luongo sucks and then you would try and argue Hamhuis sucks but in the end, it’s results that matter and you can’t have it both ways.

            Mirtle’s calculations are right there in his article.

            You can choose to believe the facts or not but they’re still the facts.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    DSF’s article makes the case that it seems the mass exodus from one team may indicate CBA talk movement… but also adds this non-trivial nugget:

    “It would seem logical that they’re coming back to see if there will be an NHL season. Should that wind up being canceled, you have to think they’ll have a spot waiting for them in Pardubice.”

    Looks like these 3 may simply be leaving in the hopes (rather than the expectation) that a deal gets done early in the new year, with an agreement (of sorts) that a job is available without any trouble back in CZ whenever.

    @JW

    “But I’d argue that a short season benefits the less talented teams by emphasizing chance to a greater degree.”

    I think that is right about emphasizing chance… but I’m not certain that equals a clear benefit.

    If there are three basic scenarios:

    1) chance fails to deviate;

    2) chance deviates at a benefit (health, streaky play, catching under-performing teams, etc); and

    3) chance deviates at a cost (health, streaky play, catching over-performing teams, etc)

    than it is still unclear to me that 2 is a lock (assuming an ideal, original position scenario).

    that said, there are some structural signs the Oil may out-perform opponents (mostly having a large core playing competitively together already)

    I’d be loath to call those structural advantages “chance” though.

    • B S

      Willis’ point is that chance aside, the Oilers are not a playoff team, i.e. most other teams are better than them, by this token, catching over-performing teams, bad health (a staple of Oilers hockey), and losing streaks is the norm for the Oilers. basically the results from 1) and 3) are incredibly similar, so that the the only two options remaining when chance becomes a significant factor are the norm and winning streaks, vs just the norm during a full season.

      This is why JW and Brownlee only see upside to a shortened season. Anything is better than the status quo.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    The Oilers always start off hot, and than goaltending starts to cost them tight games, the vets become useless and the team loses all confidence.

    The best thing that could happen for this team is a short season, we will come flying out the gates, and Eberle will make big plays and carry us to the playoffs. Yakupov, Shultz, Hall, Hopkins, Whitney, and Hemsky will need to be healthy as well.

    Im predicting a Presidents trophy start with a 7th-8th seed finish. Wow would Rexall place ever be rocking in the Playoffs, this is Oil Country and im getting chills just thinking about the playoffs – its been too long.

  • Oilertown

    Have too see if others start leaving the swiss and KHL leagues soon. Hope so, does anyone else think the Caps are gonna have a real hard time getting Ovi back?

    • Wax Man Riley

      your point is moot as usual DSF

      Did you know that in old England, a moot was a meeting of kings and heads of state in order to discuss and debate laws and legal proceedings.

      So a moot point is actually a point that is up to be discussed or debated. It does not actually mean a meaningless point.

      So most of DSF’s points are moot. And he moots them well. ;p

  • DSF

    Finally we seem to have a team……but no hockey?

    Scrooge came and visited me last night and told me that there will be no hockey this year! Yes the NHLPA will reduce itself to playing outdoor games for free! This joke of a union is going to self-mutilate itself to death.

    That is the best we can hope for. I pray that all of the champions of this union get what they deserve……..eternal damnation! If we never get to see Horcoff play again, this will all be worth it.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    JW,

    While I completely agree with you and Brownlee that the Oil have some structural advantages over other teams (esp. having the forward core already playing together in a competitive league)…

    I just want to re-iterate my question from yesterday regarding what you call “low probability events”:

    Isn’t it just as likely that such events unfold in the opposite manner?

    i.e., that a small sample size comes out at a cost rather than a benefit?

  • Oilertown

    I agree with your points but still feel the lack of experience and lack of defenseman with experience and/or enough ability will trump having the motor running.

    Perhaps we might see another hot start, but the better teams will pick up speed fast as there will be no time to waste.

    I also think after players get their legs back the older players may have advantage in not being as worn down. The quality vets will have more gas in the tank than they typically would.

    That could make the playoffs pretty good.

    I don’t see the Oilers moving forward much yet. Not until the younger skill players can play better without being sheltered as much (Hall is already there of course) and they find or develop an at least stable group of defenders.

    I think they are still too green and there are too many holes left in the roster despite the talent.

    Besides, I want Jones or one of those quality centres coming up. Too soon, especially with the season messed up.

  • DSF

    The flip side of the coin is that more mature teams with very skilled players will be more rested for a stretch drive.

    In a 48 game season, the first and last 10 games will be hugely important.

    While I agree there is an early advantage, it would disappear at around the 20 game mark and the teams with elite skill will start to take over.