I’m not sure if the Oilers have the best PR team in the league or if they’re just blessed with fans capable of extremely blind devotion, but somehow a 2009-10 campaign that saw the Oilers finish the season as the worst team in the league has become a positive. The goaltending imploded, the defensive corps either struggled, got hurt, or was traded away, and with the exception of Dustin Penner the forward group was underwhelming. A 6-2-1 start vanished, injuries were flagged as the problem early, and somewhere along the way the brain trust decided to turn the season into a rebuilding year.
That said, as far as single-season teardowns go, 2009-10 was rather successful.
The Oilers were relatively quiet when it came to adding players, bringing in checking forward Colin Fraser in a trade with Chicago, and adding defencemen Kurtis Foster and Jim Vandermeer through free agency and trade, respectively. Steve MacIntyre was brought in to give the team a fighter, Martin Gerber was brought in on a two-way deal to shore up the goaltending, and the Oilers new farm team in Oklahoma City added a bunch of guys who may get call-ups at some point over the course of 2010-11.
Eight regular forwards were either bought out, traded or just plain let go in the off-season. Mike Comrie, Ethan Moreau, Robert Nilsson, Patrick O’Sullivan, Fernando Pisani, Ryan Potulny, Marc Pouliot and Ryan Stone were all regulars when healthy, and none will be back. Additionally, the Oilers let deadline acquisition Aaron Johnson go (preferring Jason Strudwick) and dealt prospect Riley Nash to Carolina.
Last year’s team struggled offensively, but somehow managed a decent power play. However, with the changing of the coaching staff, it is unclear if that will continue or not.
There is some talent up front. Dustin Penner had a career season and was the most compelling reason to watch the team last year; the Oilers need for him not to regress. Ales Hemsky, by his own estimation, is about 90% healthy entering training camp and will provide a major boost if he can stay in the line-up. Shawn Horcoff, coming off a miserable season, rounds out the veteran scorers. Those three will be joined by the improving Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule (fresh off a career season), and likely a trio of top prospects in Magnus Paajarvi, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
There’s plenty of talent up front, and between Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney and Kurtis Foster there should be significant firepower from the defence.
The worst defensive team in the league last season should be a little better this year, but they really aren’t built for keeping the puck out of the net. The penalty kill has been a festering sore for four seasons now, and while Colin Fraser may help the Oilers dumped a bunch of their experienced players, meaning that they’ll be breaking in forwards to play 4-on-5. Shawn Horcoff had a brutal season last year, and beyond him the team doesn’t have a defensive centre; Sam Gagner’s okay and Gilbert Brule can win face-offs but neither should be taking third period defensive zone draws against Henrik Sedin. Overall, the forwards are inexperienced and will make mistakes.
On the blue-line, Whitney and Gilbert might be a serviceable top pairing, and some combination of Foster, Vandermeer and Smid might be able to round out a serviceable top four. It isn’t a strong defensive group as it stands, and unless Sheldon Souray can be dealt for someone capable it will remain a weak spot.
Nikolai Khabibulin is a question mark, but if he is (and can stay) healthy he should represent a major upgrade over last year’s tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk. He should be able to provide at least serviceable tending. Both of last year’s youngsters will compete for the backup position, as will Martin Gerber.
While Khabibulin should represent an upgrade, even if he is healthy and untroubled by the extreme DUI charges against him he will remain a question mark. His performance in Chicago was up and down, and while his 18 game stint with the Oilers was enough to have him proclaimed the team’s MVP by G.M. Steve Tambellini, it wasn’t exceptional.
Best Case Scenario
Nikolai Khabibulin is healthy and in vintage form, the rookies not only live up to but surpass the hype, veterans rebound and players coming off career seasons (Penner, Brule, and um, well, Penner and Brule) don’t regress. The combination of all of those things might actually be enough to propel the Oilers into eighth in the West, but even as a “Best Case Scenario” might be unrealistic. The Oilers could finish around 10th place in the West, although ironically that might be the worst case scenario.
Worst Case Scenario
It wouldn’t even take everything going wrong for the Oilers to finish last in the West again this season. That’s the floor, but as with the previous paragraph might represent the best outcome for the Oilers: another high draft pick, and possibly even the departure of the men who put this team together in the first place.
2010-11 should be the year of the prospect for the Oilers. The big three (Hall, Paajarvi, Eberle) are almost guaranteed spots on the team, and each is a blue chip prospect in his own right; Hall was the first overall pick in last year’s draft, Paajarvi has had two very strong campaings in Sweden and was a top-10 pick himself, and Eberle is another first rounder whose accomplishments in the World Juniors is already the stuff of legend. Beyond those three, there is a decent chance that Theo Peckham and Linus Omark will see NHL action – Peckham’s a gritty defenceman who has put in his time in the AHL, while Omark’s a diminutive scorer who spent last year in the KHL. Ryan O’Marra, Taylor Chorney, Jeff Petry and Alex Plante all could see NHL action as well.
All Eyes On…
While veterans Nikolai Khabibulin and Sheldon Souray have both done a lot to earn a spot on this list, it is the three star rookies who will be the focus of fans and likely management this season. Hall, Paajarvi and Eberle represent the future of the franchise, the players that the Oilers forward corps could be built around for the next decade. Excitement in Edmonton for the arrival of these players is very, very high.
There’s a seat on the corner
I keep every night
wait til the evening begins
I feel like a stranger
from another world
but at least I’m living again
- ‘Til I am Myself Again, Blue Rodeo