No Cigar: Eight Years Out

When I picked the Edmonton Oilers to make the playoffs last season I was playing a hunch despite plenty of evidence I’d be wrong. I was, of course, as the Oilers made it seven straight years out of the post-season.

Picking the Oilers to miss the playoffs in 2013-14 is no such matter. It is, despite my sense there has been more optimism about Edmonton’s chances from pundits around the NHL, not to mention long-suffering fans in the City of Champions, going with the odds instead of against them.

No matter which way you lean, of course, it’s all crystal ball stuff. Taking hope and want – two emotions that are the very essence of fandom – out of the equation as "objective observers" should, doesn’t mean you’ll be right, as I proved last season, when I mistakenly thought the Oilers might excel in a 48-game sprint instead of an 82-game marathon.

Do I think the Oilers will push the playoff pace this season after fading down the stretch last season? Yes. Do I think the Oilers, with a new head coach in Dallas Eakins and a roster that’s seen significant turnover – for the better – are improved? Yes.

Do I see a playoff spot? No, for two reasons – a tough schedule and injuries, and how they’ll intersect at the beginning of this season. This is a team that’s been dealt some tough cards on both fronts. Close, but no cigar.

THE INJURIES

Despite a 5-2-1 pre-season, one which wrapped up with a 4-0 loss to the Dallas Stars in Oklahoma City Friday, Edmonton’s much discussed lack of depth at centre, a black hole made darker by the ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the loss of Sam Gagner to a broken jaw, can’t be overstated.

With RNH and Gagner out, Taylor Hall, making the switch from left wing as a fill-in, is the team’s top center. Behind him, Mark Arcobello, Boyd Gordon and, it appears, Will Acton. Anybody who thinks that group is good enough (assuming GM Craig MacTavish doesn’t bolster it), is leaning far too heavily on hope and want and ignoring the obvious.

While I think the Oilers have wisely been taking a pessimistic approach to the return of RNH, pegging it at the end of October, I suspect he’ll be back closer to Oct. 1 than Nov. 1. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Let’s split it right down the middle and say he’ll be back Oct. 15.

Even if that’s the case, that’ll put RNH out for the first seven games of the season. I don’t think it’s a stretch or looking for an unduly negative angle to suggest it could take him the rest of October, a total of 14 games, to get back into game shape and get his timing back.

Compound that with Gagner, the team’s No. 2 centre, being out until the end of November, which translates to 27 games (plus additional time to knock off the rust), and I don’t see Edmonton’s paper-thin collection of men in the middle being nearly good enough against real NHL line-ups – something they saw little of during the pre-season.

THE SCHEDULE

Even if the Oilers had a full line-up that wasn’t punched full of holes down the middle by injuries, the schedule-maker, as Jason Gregor has already pointed out, didn’t do them any favors.

The Oilers play at Rexall Place just six times in their first 19 games, a stretch that sees them make a six-game swing to the east in October and a four-game trip in November.

That’s 13 of 19 games where opposing coaches get the last line change and the upper hand in match-ups up front and in defensive pairings against Hall, David Perron, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. Those are match-ups, it goes without saying, already made easier by the absence of RNH and Gagner.

Take a look at the schedule and tell me how many points you see the Oilers getting out of those first 19 games, even if Nugent-Hopkins gets back after, say, seven games. Do they get 10, 12, 15? More?

MAKE IT EIGHT

What I see is a team undermanned by injuries in concert with a very tough schedule having to play from back in a re-aligned Pacific Division pack from the end of November on. How far back? I don’t know, but the start the Oilers are facing takes away much of any margin for error they have.

I expect the line-up MacTavish has assembled to improve as the season wears on, even though there’s questions about the bottom six forwards and the defense, which looks better and marginally deeper on paper, but has yet to prove it on the ice against real NHL line-ups.

That said, even if the Oilers can stay relatively healthy after they get RNH and Gagner back and after living out of a suitcase for most of those first 19 games, has this team improved enough to charge from behind and earn a playoff spot after folding with the money on the table last spring?

I don’t see it.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    88 point season. The second half will be the best. Olympic break will give Eakins and his boys the time they’ll need to rest and refocus for the stretch run. I just think were just in to deep to begin this season. Its like having one foot in the grave before the shovel is even in the ground.

    Way to many unknowns going into this season. I see improvement. But it will not add up to a playoff spot. We finish between 18th-20th overall.

    ill be fun though to watch this team grow together.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    Pick 4 AHLers out of a hat and I’d trade you Whitney, Petrell,Belanger and Smithson. The Jones signing was a mistake but atleast he’s not in the lineup. That’s a whole lot of addition by subtraction there.
    Joeansu looks good, Belov looks promising, and we don’t need to wait 5 years to know who won the Perron deal.
    This team is better.

  • 15w40

    A 23rd to 19th finish overall is a likely landing spot for this group. Still a soft goal here and a soft goal there……

    Hall will have to be other-worldly at centre for this thing to stay out of the ditch and #94 will have to keep sippin at the fountain of youth as well.

    They were still behind some other western conference teams will all of the regulars at centre so they are in a big hole. Hall may turn out to be an upgrade on Gagner but it may cost some of the production that would have been there with him on the wing. Hopefully the net difference will be positive.

    Maybe something pops up on the waiver wire. The rub on that is that there are 6 teams ahead of the Oilers that have 1st crack so if its anybody of substance they may be long gone.

  • I think MacT’s got to jump on the horn and pick up a centerman for the team. I don’t really feel that anyone replacing Will Acton is going to make that big of an impact to the team that it is necessary to pick up two Cs.. but I’d definitely go for another guy who can play up in the top six.

    I’d be really hesitant to give the reigns to Mark Arcobello so quickly. The Oil already have Hall and his zero NHL games experience at center, and well, Acton with zero games experience period (even though I did say he’s a small factor) and Mark Arcobello with 1 NHL gp is a recipe for disaster. I would pick someone up.

    Once all bodies are healthy, you shouldn’t be in a position where you’ve screwed yourself over if you just sign or trade for someone cheap but reliable. Jim O’Brien already passed through at a good value. The Oilers could revisit him if there are no better choices by late Monday.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    Agree with you there. The gun was jumped with both Jones and Grebs. I’m not sure if Raymond was ever an option though, but that’s off point. There was money, now there is much less. Still a good summer for getting better, but the foresight of having a few million hanging around on a cap reduction year seems pretty self explanatory.

  • pkam

    I don’t understand the reason why it is so bad that we’ll be on the road 13 of the 1st 19 games. Assume we are going to lose all the 19 games, would you rather lose 13 road games and 6 home games, or 13 home games and 6 road games. I’ll take the 13 road game and 6 home games. I think having more home games later when RNH and Gagner both in the lineup is in favor of us.

    If RNH is going to miss a month and Gagner is going to miss 2 months, I’ll rather it happens early than late.
    If we are going to miss the playoff by a few points, I’ll rather we are out in March and fight our way back and miss, rather than we are in the playoff in March but hit the injury bugs then fail to protect the spot and miss by a few point.

    Even We miss the playoff, it is more exciting and I feel better in the 1st case. And in case we make the playoff, would you rather having a healthir squad and winning into the playoff, or a depleted squad and surving to stay in the playoff?

    And with the injury to our 2 top centres now instead of later, it is more likely that MacT will do something to help our centre depth than if we are healthy. It is also easier to get help via trade or waiver now than near the trade deadline.

    It does not look good, but it can be worse.

    • The Oilers Shot Clock

      “I think having more home games later when RNH and Gagner both in the lineup is in favor of us.”

      I’ll say it again: starting the season without RNH and Gagner does not provide the Oilers some kind of immunity to future injuries.

      • pkam

        I am aware of that.

        Assume we are going to lose the majority of them, would you rather have 13 home games and 6 road games now so we will have more home games later?

          • Spydyr

            If you miss the payoffs by two points it does not matter if you lost the two points in October or March.Every game matters the same.Two points is two points.

          • Not this year it’s not, the beginning schedule might be the easiest, , there are no games in February, so the remainder have to made up in a condensed schedule both prior to and after. There are no easy games this year.

            Not to sound like a downer here but next to a lock out shorten season this is about the worst year for the Oilers to have any injuries, the compressed schedule will only make it that much harder for the Oilers to compete.

            Management should have figured that injuries during an Olympic year would be death, not having centers in place prior to camp is a Tambellini style fail.

          • pkam

            So all the coaches are BS when they say the goal is to make .500 on the road and .700 at home?

            So home ice advantage is also BS since a win on the road game and at home are the same 2 points?

          • Spydyr

            There is a home ice advantage.The last change putting your stick down last on draws and your fans. That does not change the fact every game is worth two point home or away.

          • pkam

            Did I ever question that a win is 2 points? My argument is 2 points in some cases are easier than the other 2 points. And 2 points in some cases are more important than the other 2 points. Does it make some difference losing 2 points to a cup contender like the Hawks and Bruins, than a bottom feeder like the Flames or Sabres?

          • Spydyr

            “And 2 points in some cases are more important than the other 2 points.”

            Are you talking divisional games so called four point games?This year with the cross over it would be conference games being four point games also.

            If you miss the playoffs by two points does it matter what two points it was?

          • pkam

            No, I am talking about losing to weaker teams like the Flames and Buffalo this year. Those are the points you can’t afford to lose. It hurts more when we lose points in those games than in games against top teams like the Hawks, the Pens and the Bruins.

          • pkam

            I think the past does not dictate the future, does it? And if we are discussing whether the Oilers will make the playoff, is it more reasonable to assume this has to be changed, or the Oilers is going to make 800 on the road?

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    @ David S

    Kevin Lowe once called you a second tier fan. There is no public relations.
    Souray
    The Krueger firing.

    This team isn’t afraid to cut ties the hard way. Ryan Jones was a mistake plane and simple. There was no other motivation.

  • beloch

    I agree with your assessment on injuries impacting the organization negatively…….tough luck for the past three or four years on this front after years of mostly injury free seasons.

    What can’t be understated is our management of the situations. An example would be RNH and how his injury was managed. In stead of pulling the plug early on him, we kept him on last year with the hopes of making the playoffs. Fast forward and his injury will now impact this year. Management could have traded Hemsky last year when there was a deal on the table, but because management was so blinded by making the playoffs they chose to keep him. Now we all know what will happen with Hemsky………give him 20 games and he will be injured again. Tough luck may have played a part here but how it was mismanaged is squarely on the shoulders of the GM and President.

    I for one am so glad that Mr. Dithers is gone and Mac T is in place……..no more moronic decisions that lead to nothing. Now if he can replace some of the pro-scouts and get some fresh blood into the organization we can be successful in landing some quality supporting cast players.

    This year should tell the tale………..no more excuses for management.

  • Spydyr

    I would dearly love to argue against Robin’s assessment, but I can’t. Losing your top two centers and kicking off the season with the schedule from Hell is almost guaranteed to put this fragile squad behind the eight-ball.

    I was enraged last year when Tambellini postponed RNH’s surgery so long that it ended up effecting this season, reason number 1001 to fire him. Now, with the addition of Kassian’s idiotic goonery and the cruelty of the schedule makers, we face an enormous challenge.

    I think making MacT GM and Eakins head coach were very good moves, and there is no doubt that in my mind the Oilers are an improved team with a very promising future, but Eakins is really going to have to pull off a coaching and motivational miracle to keep them in the hunt until mid-November.

  • O.C.

    Enough of the negativity.

    Who else is going to the opener?

    (time to begin hype)

    I need to make some kind of bet with DSF. Our bet last year was screwed by the lockout.

    Oil will still be the next Canadian team to win the cup.

      • O.C.

        (a little amazed no one caught this)

        DSF – owch. Not drinking the Canuck-oolaid either then?

        FYI I’m an Oiler season ticket holder who lives in the lower mainland. I’ve watched the tide shift after the ‘Nucks lost to the Kings. People are walking zombies again, resigned to the fact the ‘Nucks were one goal short of their cup.

        I feel their pain. But I don’t own it. Nor do I dwell in it.

        (thinking about that now though, if I had 40 years of virginity and was almost there but foiled at the bedroom door, I might burn a few vehicles as well.)

        The question of whether we bet who wins first, Ottawa vs Edmonton, is kind of a sucker bet for me given Ottawa is close.

        And it is more likely that neither will win it this year. Then it’s a nothing bet.

        Let’s come up with something that we can bet on for this year – hell it’s for charity.

  • Dawn

    Wow.

    On the basis of one nothing game, no points or roster spots up for grabs, played while on a 3 day staff retreat in the sun, the oiler faithful turn into chicken little. “The sky is falling!”

    I’m in no position to make predictions, being both biased and hopeful. But by the end of the season, if we make as much progress this year as last, I will be satisfied. 19th two years removed from 29th is not too bad.

    That said, won’t complain if Dallas can pull off a miracle.

    • otter2233

      If you’ve been paying attention, which seems unlikely given your Chicken Little comment, you know there have been misgivings about this line-up for some time.

      Do you actually think what’s been written here by myself and others is based on one game or are you just funning us while shooting selfies in your room wearing a Jamie Benn jersey?

  • pkam

    The problem or the cure ? The onus is on the incumbent players to carry this team to another level , more so than the newbies are . Are they up to it and vast improvement , or are they all overrated and thus holding us back ? Big improvement needed from incumbent core including particularly , our first round picks , Eberle and J.Schultz .

  • otter2233

    Hey Kool-Aid drinkers, it is called REALISM NOT NEGATIVITY!!! The Oilers were a long-shot for the playoffs with RNH and Gagner, how on earth can they make it to the playoffs with those two key guys either in the press box or on the ice but knocking the rust off for at least the 1st 25% of the year? How many teams that are actually deep at center, nevermind as thin as the Oil, could survive without their top 2 players at that position? Virtually none.

    Believe me, I crave a playoff game as much as the rest of you but this year just isn’t the year… not quite yet anyway.

    And @ Oilcruzer I will also be there opening night! >

  • YFC Prez

    All I ever drink is Kool- Aid.

    Hall looks way better than I expected at C. If he excels there this team could have the best 1-2 punch down the middle they have seen in a very long time once RNH returns. Move gags to the wing and they have a reliable “just in case” skilled C .

    I doubt this season is as bad as the last 5 ,but I get the pessimism . Oilers are not looking at overwhelmingly stellar odds to see playoffs.

    That being said. When the talk shifts to trading away Eberle or Yakupov for a top nine gritty forward, that is a major knee jerk reaction to a problem we don’t know the full severity of yet. I would be more interested in watching the waiver wire the next couple of days now that teams are finalizing their rosters.

    If the day ever comes when Eberle, Yakupov or any of the young stars are traded the oilers better be getting a stellar return.

    For now I just really want to see what the oilers have. Pre-season doesn’t always make for the most accurate predictions. I’m just not ready to write off the post season yet.

    • Except Hall is not going to be a full-time C. He’s said over and over and OVER that this is a part time gig and he much prefers to be on the wing.

      I’d bet a serious amount of cash he’s back to where he belongs as soon as humanly possible.

  • beloch

    Boyd Gordon is a decent shut-down player who can drive possession against tough competition. He performed well while playing some of the toughest minutes on the team last season in Phoenix. He will be a big help if he stays healthy. Acton and Arcobello, on the other hand, are career AHL’ers and will likely be eaten alive. They’re of an age where you can’t really expect them to take any significant steps forward either. It could happen, but it’s improbable.

    This Monday all manner of players are going to be hitting waivers as teams desperately try to get cap-compliant. The Oilers have $2M in cap-space. That’s not very much, and arguably spending it all robs them of flexibility down the road. However, picking up just one more NHL replacement-level center could really help the team. Ideally, it should be somebody who can play on a quality fourth-line and move up when needed, as he will be at the start of the season. That should be doable for under $1M.

  • BorjeSalming-IanTurnbull

    My three questions entering the season

    1. Can Ryan Smyth keep up with the play of the 2013 game? Playing him with two of the fastest Hall and Hemsky seems counterproductive.

    2. Can Mr. Dubnyk steal 10 or so games for a young and fragile team going on the road for much of Oct. and Nov?

    3. Why has the management of the Oilers refused to address the centerman and functional toughness in the bottom 6? Can’t wait to see a tired Acton-Brown-Big Mac take on Thorton-Marleau-Pavelski

    • Re: Ryan Smyth – my recollection of the last couple of years is that he starts strong but runs out of gas after a month or two.

      Assuming that he is the same this season, my hope is that they ride him hard in October while we are undermanned. Once we get healthy, he can rest up.

  • TeddyTurnbuckle

    Strange feeling going into this season. I feel there is a chance to make the playoffs if the team gets heathy and addresses toughness but on the other hand I could see us picking in the lottery again if a couple more key guys go down.

    • 15w40

      Yes – especially when they are not flush with centres and have none of his stature.

      I know he doesn’t play really heavy but they could have used him in the system.

      That being said, Eakins has coached him a lot and you gotta think that MacT would have talked to him about it and maybe got the thumbs down.

      That or there was some serious sleeping at the switch going on……..

      • Crackenbury

        Good point about Eakins. He must think Acton is the better option. I’d be putting my money on the 6’5″ former first rounder with offensive upside. The Oilers either have another deal in the works or Eakins sees some warts on Colborne from the time he spent coaching him. The Flames sure didn’t give up much to get a former first rounder.

        • Flames have about $13M in cap space and they get first choice over us on waiver wire . Expect Burke and Feaster to be busy adding pieces to Flames . That’s something Tams and MacT. seem to have missed over the years , being so tight to the cap and contract numbers .

          • Crackenbury

            The waiver list has nothing to do with trading for Colborne and Colborne’s cap hit is $600,000. It was also common knowledge Toronto was open to moving him.

          • Crackenbury

            On the contrary . Burke and Feaster realized if he hit waivers , he’d likely get taken by one of the five that could snap him up before the Flames . Thus , an astute move that benefitted both Flames and Leafs .That’s what you get with seasoned GMs .

          • Crackenbury

            I’d go with the Eakins angle. Hell, even I knew he was potentially available yesterday morning. The leafs were going to be over the cap if they didn’t make some moves.

          • Crackenbury

            No kidding! Burke, Feaster and 28 other teams. The point is he was available. Every team in the league would rather trade a player than put them on waivers. I’m guessing that even includes Toronto! There’s nothing astute about it. Toronto made it known he was available and the Oilers either neglected or failed in an attempt to get him.

    • 24% body fat

      Or why didnt we just claim Luke Adam, A 6’2″ Center who has actually done more than Colbourn at the NHL level. Either would have been smart.

      Because Actons dad is the number 2. Might as well make him captain while your at it.

  • Crackenbury

    There better be another deal for a center in the works, because Colburne is exactly what the Oilers could have used on the fourth line. I would have easily given up an unconditional 3rd round pick for him and beat the Flames offer.

  • Did anyone see Cogliano’s sweet goal tonight?

    Hey, you know what? We do need a center/winger…who can play….who has decent hands…who has speed…oh wait….yea about that…

    well done tambo! Getting rid of useful players. Lets just hope that Cog does not come back and haunt us.

    the hockey god always favours the team that gets rid of useful players for cute little magic beans in various flavours right? RIGHT???

    I mean surely….the past 7….

    *triple facepalm*

    • The Oilers Shot Clock

      He was run out of town by media and fans atleast a year before he was sent packing. A second rounder was great value ( Marc Roy). If your going to go that far back don’t stop there. Brodziak and Glencross are just as irrelevant to this regime and much better players.

  • Without injuries, if you squinted right you could see the Oilers making the playoffs. With these two injuries to start?

    When frogs grow beards. Not the chance of a flying fig in a flamethrower.

    Odds are beaten all the time. I just wouldn’t bet on it.

  • 15w40

    Colborne could’ve been a back door deal between Burke & Nonis too. Might not have been common knowledge he was available.

    Story from maple leafs is he needs to be in the top 6 & it wasn’t going to happen there. Oilers could have really used him in their current situation