Edmonton Oilers 12-13 Preview: Improvement is Inevitable. Right?

Oilers select first overall at the 2011 Draft (Bri Weldon/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

The model was clear enough when the Oilers first decided they were going to make the best of a bad situation midway through 2009-10: having found themselves rather good at losing, the team would keep right on doing it, earning a bunch of top draft picks. With that nucleus of young talent, some patience, and some shrewd rebuilding, the Oilers core would be good enough when the team finally rebounded that they could contend for years.

2011-12 – judging by the statements of Oilers executives, the shift in tactics by (and end of season departure of) head coach Tom Renney – was supposed to be the start of the return to respectability. Instead, the Oilers picked first overall again. Is 2012-13 the year the team starts putting some distance between themselves and the NHL basement?

For readers at Oilers Nation: this preview is part of a continuing series looking at all 30 teams at NHL Numbers.

The Forwards

Nail Yakupov (Resolute/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Oilers enter 2012-13 with mostly the same group up front from 2011-12, albeit with the young guns one year more experienced. First overall selection Nail Yakupov is the most significant addition, and other young players – Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen in particular – undoubtedly hope to play more significant roles.

With a new head coach, lines are uncertain, but we do have some information and so I’m going to put forward my best guess about the lineup. Earlier in the summer Ralph Krueger told CBC’s Elliotte Friedman that he prefers to run with forward pairs and a rotating winger, and he named two of those pairs – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins/Jordan Eberle and Ales Hemsky/Sam Gagner. Krueger also suggested that left-shooting right wing Nail Yakupov would likely start the year on the port side.

As it stands, that likely means that Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Hall will be the team’s top line the majority of the time. It’s a unit that played together often last year, and that played against decent opposition and spent a lot of time in the offensive zone. All of those things should continue, with the caveat that now that Nugent-Hopkins isn’t a rookie defensive zone work and the other team’s top forward lines should be more common sights for the group.

The likely second group is Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and Nail Yakupov. With the top line taking on more defensive responsibility and a third line (more on them in a moment) dedicated to defence, this line should get offensive minutes. Yakupov, a willing and able shooter, would seem to be a natural partner for Hemsky and Gagner, and could offer Hemsky the best puck-carrying compatriot he’s had since playing with Sergei Samsonov in 2005-06. If they end up spending a lot of time together, both the easier minutes and the fact that there’s another player who carries the puck a ton should give Hemsky the opportunity to have a great season.

That leaves Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and likely Ryan Jones as the third group. Last year Renney often used the trio as a shutdown unit; I’d expect to see that again with a reduction in minutes as the top line takes on some of that work (in particular – offensive zone starts against top competition and defensive zone starts against capable competition).

The rest of the forwards – veteran centre Eric Belanger, rugged wingers Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk and Lennart Petrell, as well as young forwards Hartikainen and Paajarvi will fight for fourth line work with my expectation being that the veterans win the day but end up getting leap-frogged by the kids in event of injury.

There are a myriad of other possibilities, but that’s my best guess at opening night given what we know right now. Naturally, there’s going to be shifts in the lineup given that Krueger highlighted “flexibility” to Friedman, so we might expect to see things like Yakupov on the top line for a post-penalty kill offensive zone shift, or Hall shifting down with Gagner and Hemsky and that line getting tough minutes for a night, or Eager shifting up during a game when he’s on to add some beef to the top six.

One interesting idea that Friedman mentioned was playing Horcoff on the wing at times. There are a number of possibilities there – my guess would be that for critical offensive faceoffs he might get time on Nugent-Hopkins’ line, for one – but the one that stands out to me is the possibility of Eric Belanger moving into a third line role and Horcoff taking to the wing in that situation. That sort of thing might (theoretically) happen to bolster the third unit’s shutdown capabilities, and also to free Horcoff to cover for Nugent-Hopkins in the faceoff circle at times. The reason I bring this up is because Krueger has spoken positively about Belanger and getting him back on track, and Belanger has had success with top-nine work in the past.

The Defence

It’s the same story as up front here: much the same group of players returning, with one young addition in Justin Schultz and one underachieving subtraction in Cam Barker. If everything goes right, it should be a capable group, though if things go wrong the overall picture could go sideways in a hurry.

Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry were an effective top pairing last season, and should start 2012-13 together as well. Petry boasts superb physical tools and proved last season that he could do just about everything at the NHL level – offence is still questionable, but there’s enough there for a “two-way” label and he does tremendous work both rushing and passing the puck. Smid’s big, tough and defensively capable, and has underrated puck skills when called upon in that capacity.

Right now, the second pairing is anyone’s guess. Ryan Whitney could be the team’s best defenceman if he’s healthy; right now the off-season comments are all positive but he certainly struggled with reduced mobility last season so it would be foolish to assume recovery until we actually see it. Nick Schultz is a solid veteran who struggled at times in Minnesota but looked great after being dealt to the Oilers; he’s a smart, safe defensive defender. Justin Schultz is the third candidate – he plays a complete game at the college level but it’s probably a bit much to expect him to hit the ground running in the NHL (though he should contribute offensively in the early going).

I’d suggest that Whitney/N. Schultz (assuming good health) would offer the Oilers’ two very strong pairings, and that Justin Schultz’s game makes him a good fit for work on the third unit with veteran Andy Sutton. Theo Peckham and Corey Potter are also in the mix.

In Net

There’s a trend here… the Oilers’ top-three goalies from last season will all be back, and all in basically the same role they were in to start 2011-12.

Devan Dubnyk, who has been a league-average starter when he’s played over the last two seasons, has a new contract and looks more solidly entrenched as starter than he was a year ago, when he lost the job to Nikolai Khabibulin in the early going. The Oilers have financially committed to Dubnyk, which suggests they’re sold on him as their number one for the time being.

Khabibulin, who crashed and burned after a hot start last year, has put in sub-NHL performances for most of his time in Edmonton. The hope is that with a lighter workload that he can put in better showings when called upon. Given that Khabibulin has been significantly better at the start of seasons the last two years, that’s a possibility, though at this point average-ish goaltending is all that can be expected.

Yann Danis was the AHL’s goalie of the year last season; he’ll be back as the team’s third-string option and in the event of injury or spectacular flameout he should be able to handle NHL work without too much difficulty.

Numbers

At even-strength, the Oilers improved from minus-42 in 2010-11 to minus-18 in 2011-12. That’s a big jump, and one the team should be able to improve upon to some degree. They didn’t get much help from either a ridiculous shooting percentage or save percentage last season, and the club’s shots-for and shots-against totals should continue to move in the right direction as the young players continue to mature. I wouldn’t expect a big jump at this point, but even an improvement half as big as last year’s would put the Oilers close to the break-even point.

The power play was much better but only improved its goal differential by five thanks to a) fewer opportunities and b) more shorthanded goals against. Given that the unit rode a high shooting percentage and that this is historically unsustainable, a slight drop makes sense – though this may be offset in part if the league’s latest enforcement initiative halts the decline in penalties called.

The penalty kill was worlds better one season ago than it has been in the past – the Oilers went from minus-68 in 2010-11 to minus-47 in 2011-12. There’s room to be better still if Krueger can succeed in implementing the disciplined game he wants to see: the Oilers were the fifth most-penalized team in hockey last year. Even a reduction by 10% in the number of penalties taken would save the Oilers an additional five goals against.

One other thing to keep in mind: the Oilers posted a minus-27 goal differential last season. Calgary, in ninth, was minus-24. Despite finishing 14th in the West, the gap between the bottom and the playoff bubble isn’t as wide as point totals alone make it seem.

Outlook

The Oilers are one of the most difficult teams in the league to project simply because there are so many question marks. Will Devan Dubnyk provide capable goaltending? Will Ryan Whitney be in peak condition? Will any members of the young core take a big step forward? Will Schultz and Yakupov hit the ground running?

If the answer to these questions is ‘no’ then the Oilers are going to be in for a long year. If it’s ‘yes’ across the board, the playoffs are legitimately possibility. The most likely scenario is a mixed answer to those questions – and if that’s the case, then an improved team but not a vastly improved team is the probable outcome. My guess: the Oilers finish without a top-five pick for the first time since the summer of 2009.

Previously by Jonathan Willis

  • Good read JW.

    I’m going with the to many unknowns at this point, hopefully by December I will have changed my mind but I doubt it.

    If the Oilers come crashing around December, does the Managment allow it this time?

    I hope all the kids have a great year despite all the unknowns.

    • Good question. A better one would be:

      If the Oilers come crashing down in December or January, would the GM “braintrust” make moves to improve the bottom six, defense or goaltending that they’re been loath to do so far this offseason?

  • The Soup Fascist

    Here is an interesting experiment:

    It seems to me when Taylor Hall has been healthy he has been able to improve the game of his linemates. Granted this is somewhat anecdotal, but it just seems to me that players playing with him “up their games”. (Cue DSF feverishly putting together stats to refute my, admittedly subjective statement)

    On the flip side the effects of the “Black Hole of Belanger” are more pronounced. Belanger was the hockey equivalent of a “cooler” in a Las Vegas casino, who was planted by concerned pit bosses, in the hopes that their aura of bad luck, rubbed off on a particularly hot patron at a craps table.

    So, as an experiment play these two entities together and see whether Belanger suddenly returns to his historic average of scoring or Hall suddenly can’t get to the net and is unable to hit water from a boat. Which is the dominant “force of hockey nature” – Hall’s drive and competitiveness or Belanger’s ability to kill any sniff of offensive opportunity?

    Sadly, I know where all three of my dollars would be wagered.

    • paul wodehouse

      …gawd Q our Eskimos are in a solid second place in the league…y’gotta enjoy it man …by the third weekend of November we could be watching the Presidents Choice Grey Cup game without even sniffing an NHL game if the owners have their debaucherous way…