NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Eleventh in the Western Conference, fourth in the Northwest Division (38-35-9, 85 points). It was a difficult season that cost Coach Craig MacTavish his job, but not before he bestowed upon us one of the greatest sports terms of all-time: The Vortex of Death. Otherwise known as when "you lose a game and you get so down and you come in the next day and it's tough to get out of bed the next morning."
The Oilers may have had a few of those down the stretch last season, losing eight out of 11 games in missing the playoffs for the third straight season. Offensive regressions across the board from key players, lackluster special teams play ... something had to change, and it was the name on the coaches' room door after an eight-season run for Mac T.
Enter Pat Quinn, who returns to the bench for the first time since leading the Leafs to
the Stanley Cup fourth in the Northeast in 2006. He and Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini managed to convince former New York Rangers coach Tom Renney to sign on as an associate coach; combining a 66-year-old coaching legend (fifth all-time in wins) with proven offensive credentials with a 54-year-old coach whose Rangers teams played as if "offense" wasn't a mandatory component for NHL success. Should be a blast.
The coaching moves could be a game-changer for a team that continues to look a hell of a lot better on paper than it does on the ice every year. But they're not the only change that could make or break the Oil this season.
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): When the Oilers convinced Dany Heatley(notes) to waive his no trade clause because of an Oilervision infotainment gift basket they sent him, it marked a turning point for the franchise, as a high-profile star was finally willing to play in the undesirable, Siberia-like environs of Edmonton and ...
... wait, what? Huh ... turns out Heatley stubbornly rejected the Oilers twice, leaving the entire franchise -- and especially trade-baited Andrew Cogliano(notes), Dustin Penner(notes) and Ladislav Smid(notes) -- in a state of suspended animation, from a personnel perspective, for much of the offseason. Oh well.
The signing of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) from the Chicago Blackhawks came after the Oilers refused to give UFA 39-year-old Dwayne Roloson(notes) a second contract year, which he eventually received from the New York Islanders. Edmonton reached into a thin free-agent goalie pool and scooped up Khabibulin for four years at $3.75 million on the cap per season. To say the least, it's been a controversial move.
So was Edmonton's other significant addition: Center Mike Comrie(notes), who signed a one-year deal this week and returned to a franchise he bitterly left in 2003. Perhaps the second most-loathed former Oiler next to Chris Pronger(notes) comes home again -- at least he's bringing something to the party.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Roloson's ageless goaltending heroics will be missed, as he faced an average of over 31 shots per game while playing to a .915 save percentage. Center/Class Clown/Wannabe Plumber Kyle Brodziak(notes) was traded to Minnesota, while NHL shootout legend Ales Kotalik(notes) signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Rangers.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Ales Hemsky(notes) is a delightfully enigmatic player, forever hovering near a point-per-game pace but never topping it by season's end. He scored 31 of his 66 points on the power play last season. He's always near the cusp of elite player status, even if it's linemate Shawn Horcoff(notes) (17 goals, 53 points) who's paid like one.
There's no telling how Hemsky will react to Pat Quinn's offensive schemes, or if Dustin Penner finds some modicum of consistency before his contract runs out. But a moment of silence, please, for what could have been for a Heatley/Hemsky/Horcoff line.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Spector pinpoints Sam Gagner(notes) as a breakout player in 2009-10, and it's hard to argue with his logic. He was outstanding as a rookie (49 points) but joined most of the Oilers in seeing his point totals dip last season (41 points). His renaissance will depend on Quinn's influence and the play of linemates like Robert Nilsson(notes) (9-20-29, down from 41 in the previous season). But he's going to be a huge part of the Oilers' success, whenever it occurs again.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Sheldon Souray(notes) bounced back from his injury-plagued debut season with the Oilers to post 23 goals and 53 points, although that ridiculous 48-point year on the power-play for Montreal is looking more and more like an anomaly. He saw time with Steve Staios(notes) (team-leading 157 blocked shots), Lubomir Visnovsky(notes) (23:00 TOI average) and Tom Gilbert(notes), who was one of the few young Oilers to improve year-to-year with a 45-point season.
Visnovsky was also paired with Denis Grebeshkov(notes), who avoided arbitration with a debatable one-year deal but who posted a stellar 39 points last year. Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick(notes) also return for the Oil.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Khabibulin's signing was one of the most contentious in hockey this summer, with the Oilogosphere debating the economics of the long-term contract and wondering what the former Stanley Cup champion's value really is. (Submitted for your approval: Mudcrutch's "Moneyball"-meets-Bulin essay.)
It can be argued that Nikolai Khabibulin saved the Blackhawks' bacon last season when Cristobal Huet(notes) was struggling; it can also be argued that there's nothing he'll do for the Oilers that Dwayne Roloson couldn't also do, and that Roloson may have provided more starts. So not only is Khabibulin attempting to meet the expectations of Oilers fans, he's also trying to outshine a former goalie (Roloson) and another keeper that could have come cheaper (Marty Biron), both of whom are now with the Islanders.
And Now, a Short Message From Zack "Huggy Bear" Stortini:
The Inventor (The Coach): Pat Quinn said all the right things when he was hired by the Oilers, including maudlin lines like "I'm getting an opportunity that I didn't know would come along again." So yeah, you can't help but root for the big lug a little bit.
There's a lot of talent behind the bench, and seeing how the philosophies of Quinn and Renney mesh will be interesting. The Oilers will live or die on whether Quinn can get something more out of a group of forwards with good offensive skill but, overall, a lack of size and consistency.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C- (22nd on the power play, 27th on the kill)
"This season, the young Oilers, Sam Gagner, Denis Grebeshkov, Andrew Cogliano and Ladi Smid, will finally grow up enough to compete at the NHL level. The old Oilers, Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Fernando Pisani(notes) and Nikolai Khabibulin will still be young enough to compete at the NHL level.
"So the Oilers will make the playoffs this year, then have to worry about all those old guys on massive, long-term deals in coming seasons."
"Expect a life and death struggle for the playoffs. The all-star coaching staff is going to do all they can and there are improvements that can be made with the current roster - special teams can be expected to improve, certain players can be used more effectively and the like - but the bottom line is that this is mostly the same team that disappointed last year and while they should do better there's no reason to expect massive improvements."
Don Draper Says ...
"Gentlemen, I sell products, not advertising. I can't see as far into the future as Daryl Katz, but if the world is still here on Monday, we can talk."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): The Oilers were 18th in the NHL last year in goals scored, and saw production drop for many of its big guns (such as they are). Without a Heatley (or, before him, a Hossa) to anchor a top-line scoring threat, there isn't a line foes have to game-plan around necessarily. I the goals don't materialize ... well, maybe it's good to have Tom Renney on the bench, too.
Special teams need to improve, and the kiddie corps that regressed (for the most part) last season needs to drop the freshman 15 and start making it happen.
Warranty Expires (Prediction): Quinn's hiring increased the entertainment value of this team, whether it shows in the standings or not. Realistically, there are about two playoff seeds totally up for grabs in the West; are the Oilers good enough to snag one of the them? We're going to say not likely ... but honestly, all bets are off until we see this roster under Quinn's tutelage.