It all starts tonight. Will 2014 bring with it the Oilers’ first trip to the playoffs since 2006? Or will this season end the same way the last seven have?
The current Oilers’ depth chart (though not their line combinations) looks something like the picture above.
Starting at left wing, Edmonton has a fantastic group of players as long as Taylor Hall stays at his natural position. This is also a testament to how much one player can make a difference, because when Hall switches to center (as he will for the time being with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner injured) that extremely strong depth chart starts looking rather shaky. With everybody healthy, though, the Oilers have seven strong options here, plus a pure heavyweight.
Center isn’t bad when everybody’s healthy. The pair of Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner give the Oilers a strong 1-2 offensive punch down the middle, while Boyd Gordon is a reasonable bet in an almost purely defensive role. It’s fair to wonder whether any of the next three players on the depth chart really belong in the NHL at this juncture – Acton’s an AHL-level defensive specialist, Mark Arcobello is an AHL-level scoring star, and Anton Lander is probably best-suited to the role of fifth center at this stage in his career. Thanks to injury, Arcobello is being handed a golden opportunity to break through on the second (or third, depending on perspective) line while Acton beat Lander for the last center job in camp.
At right wing, Edmonton has three top-six options, which gives them lots of flexibility for the top three forward lines. After that, Mike Brown and Luke Gazdic (technically a left wing, but as a pure enforcer…) add physical play and not much else. Ryan Jones was a relatively established NHL player until this year, but he’s coming off a poorer season and lost a job in camp; meanwhile Tyler Pitlick had a superb camp and if he can carry that over to regular season play he’ll be an NHL option.
Put everything together, and this is actually a very good group of forwards when everybody’s healthy. Everybody, however, isn’t healthy and with the top two centres on the team out for extended periods of time and the Oilers evidently committed to running a fourth line long on physical play and short on puck skill the actual (expected) opening-night lineup is far less intimidating than the depth chart is:
Defence and Goaltending
The defensive depth chart here actually mirrors the opening night pairings.
On the left side, the Oilers have two very decent second-pairing defencemen, an exceptional third-pairing defenceman, a total question mark in Denis Grebeshkov and two up-and-coming prospects that are legitimate call-up options and would be in most any organization. Essentially, this is a very good depth chart except that there isn’t a guy I’d consider a true top-pairing defender on it; the Oilers have tried to address that problem with strong depth and while that might have been the only possible play it’s one that leaves them weaker than they would ideally be here.
The right side is more intriguing because of the potential for it to be more, but right now it has to be considered in much the same way as the left side. Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz are two players I’d be very comfortable with as second-pairing options but neither is an established top-unit guy. Anton Belov steps in as a third-pairing guy for now but he’s huge, mobile and can move the puck so he might very well end up being a pleasant surprise in Edmonton. The rest of the chart gives the Oilers’ exceptional depth – both Potter and Larsen are strong options as reserve defencemen, while Taylor Fedun is a very good AHL’er and a respectable call-up for when injuries hit.
In net the Oilers are solid 1-3. Devan Dubnyk has a pretty good resume as a middle-third starting goalie; I have no idea why he takes the amount of flack he does. Jason LaBarbera is a good NHL backup. Richard Bachman has had NHL stints in the past and looks like a solid bet in the number three role. It’s not a stellar group, but it’s a respectable one and certainly one that should be good enough for playoff contention.
All things considered, the goaltending is just fine and general manager Craig MacTavish has done a wonderful job building a deep defence corps. The problem is the lack of proven top-pairing types on the blue line: the Oilers are employing a by-committee approach because those are hard slots to fill, but it isn’t ideal by any means.
Management and Coaching
Craig MacTavish impressed many during the summer, sounding far more suited to a top hockey operations role than his predecessor and following up the talk with lots of activity. He proved unable to make the big splash that many fans were hoping for, though there is significant evidence that he tried. How he responds to in-season needs is going to be a key point – Steve Tambellini was painfully slow to address obvious problems and while MacTavish seems a strong bet to be more active it’s a situation where there’s no way of knowing what he’ll do until he faces the situation.
New head coach Dallas Eakins is one product of MacTavish’s activity. He hasn’t acted much like a first-year NHL head coach, ruffling feathers at times and leaving no doubt that he has a clear vision and that he’s going to execute it. It’s going to be very interesting to see if he can get more out of this new group than Ralph Krueger managed with last year’s squad; the drop off in results from Tom Renney to Krueger with much the same group of players suggesting that coaching was part of the problem in 2013.
With everybody healthy, I thought this was likely a playoff team. With the combination of injuries they’ve suffered already, they should still be in contention but I have them figured for somewhere around the 9/10 spot in the West. If they can survive the early going – where the combination of injury and a tough schedule has the potential to put them in a deep hole – this will be a group to be optimistic about.
Recently around the Nation Network
Brian Sutherby explains how to play StreakCred, a Nation-sponsored game with fantastic prizes and straight-forward mechanics that also helps local charities. Here’s what the prizes look like right now:
New hockey memorabilia and prizing will be given to the champ each month. The main prize for October will be the coveted Streakcred trophy and the choice of a Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry or Jamie Benn autographed jersey along with a pre-paid gift card. Prizes will also be given to the top 20 streaker’s each month, to the person with the most wins and to a couple lucky random draw winners just for playing. Over the course of the season the cupboard of available jerseys and memorabilia will only continue to grow.
Click the link above to check it out, or feel free to check out some of my recent stuff below: