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.

  • Good assessment RB. The only thing missing is the likelihood other teams will too taste the injury bug. I know it’s hopeful but I think we can assume most teams will lose some of their key players over a season to injury and hopefully balance the scales a little bit. It’s rare a team stays healthy all year. Losing your top 2 C is very tough, but Hall’s move to C compensates for some of that.

    With a 40% turnover in players, a new coach & systems, and the young talent a year older I think it is almost impossible to predict how the Oilers will perform. I am more optimistic, though.

    I like the defense immeasurably more. Belov in a handful of pre-season games improved dramatically throughout and I am convinced he will be one of the best defenders the Oilers have. J. Schultz a year older. Adding Ference. This year N. Schultz could drop right out of the line-up, where he played top 4 minutes last year. This defense is very solid now. Petry has (aside from a few glitches) has looked excellent. Smid is Smid.

    Eakins preaches compete and brought guys in who he knows will do that consistently. Acton & Hamilton will, if nothing else, be aggressive on the puck.

    I say they perform reasonably well without RNH & Gags and with a full line-up should be among the best in the west.

    The biggest question, as always, is Dubnyk. The strengthened defense should by itself lower the goals against. He consistently has had a pretty solid sv% so he’s a capable goalie. This leads me to believe his numbers will improve, and more wins should be the result. Will it be enough? I think so.

        • Given how busy MacT was this summer, who’s to say he didn’t pitch Grabovski and he declined? There’s alot of good players that won’t touch Edmonton because of things like the brutal travel schedule and living in a fishbowl.

          • Maverick007

            Until we know for sure that MacT pitched Grabs then we have to assume he didnt. I didnt hear no rumor that they did either.

            And i dont think a public relations had anything to do with the Jones signing. The GM is running the show not the media or fans, and if he thinks that way then thats a bad, bad mentality.

        • Well from what I’ve seen so far Grebs is a decent puck moving D-man, which is what we certainly needed and was identified as a need by the team – which BTW I agree with.

          Jones? I dunno. Perhaps there was a thought he would be able to recover his game, but whoo boy does he look like a lost case now.

          • Maverick007

            Grebeshkov was always a disaster in his own zone. Why not offer him a PTO since his numbers sucked in the K. Why not offer Jones a tryout also since he sucked last year and had the eye injury? But nope, he signed them without any due diligence.
            Why not offer Raymond a PTO or so some other options?

          • Because guys like Grebs wouldn’t come on a PTO knowing full well they are something the team needs. And don’t forget he was making pretty good coin in the KHL.

            As far as Jones goes, all I can think of is the team didn’t want to look bad in front of fans by giving Jones a PTO. You cannot underestimate how much public relations factors into what teams like the Oilers do sometimes.

  • SimmerDownBoys

    Bring on the challenges of the first month. Oilers always do well in the first month then fade. As eakins said it’s always better for a team to face adversity. Will it be too much though? No idea but I think this will bring the team together.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    I think they will miss

    Too much hurts to overcome

    Close but no cigar*

    * I see them giving us fans a hell of a run in April, only to finish 9th and miss by 2 points.