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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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?