The Edmonton Oilers have reason to feel good about themselves for the 2008-09 season. A hot streak late last year helped ease the pain of a season otherwise filled with injuries and frustration, and their busy offseason has set them up to start off on a positive note.
If there was a silver lining to Edmonton's second straight non-playoff finish, it was the progress made by a number of young players who now know what it's like to fight for two points on a nightly basis in the NHL, and who the organization feels it can count on going forward.
Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Robert Nilsson, Denis Grebeshkov and Kyle Brodziak – all 25 years old or younger – appeared in at least 71 games apiece last season thanks in part to their fast-track development and because the Oilers were besieged by significant time lost due to injury and illness by regulars Sheldon Souray, Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani and Ethan Moreau.
On top of that, general manager Kevin Lowe decided to change the mix, too, and made a number of summertime deals that captured the imagination. In one, he exchanged a couple of players in their prime – center Jarret Stoll, 26, and defenseman Matt Greene, 25 – for veteran hard-nosed defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, 32.
The Oilers still have not recovered from honoring a request by Chris Pronger, who after just one season in Edmonton where he helped the Oilers get to Game 7 of the Cup finals, demanded a trade. With Visnovsky and depth defenseman Jason Struckwick coming aboard, Lowe hopes to have solved his blueline inconsistencies.
Of maybe greater intrigue, however, is the acquisition of forwards Erik Cole from Carolina and Gilbert Brule from Columbus. Cole was the Hurricanes' third-leading scorer last season, and he should fit nicely on the top line alongside Horcoff and Ales Hemsky. Brule, only 21, was chosen sixth overall in 2005 by Columbus, which could look back and wonder if it didn't give up too early on the undersized-yet-skilled right wing. The Oil parted respectably with Joni Pitkanen, a talented defenseman who struggled last year, and with energy forward Raffi Torres, who was injured for a good portion of last season.
Basically, Lowe is hoping to complement what he has identified as the team's homegrown core with the right support at the right time. Time will soon tell whether all of Edmonton's offseason giddiness is justified.
Last season: 41-35-6, 88 points, fourth place Northwest Division, ninth place Western Conference. Despite a furious late-season run, the Oilers missed out on the playoffs for the second straight season after advancing to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals against eventual champ Carolina.
Imports: D Lubomir Visnovsky (2007-08 team: Los Angeles Kings), C Gilbert Brule (Columbus Blue Jackets), LW Erik Cole (Carolina Hurricanes), D Jason Strudwick (New York Rangers), C Ryan Potulny (Philadelphia Flyers), RW Carl Corazzini (Detroit Red Wings).
Exports: C Jarret Stoll (Los Angeles Kings), D Matt Greene (Los Angeles Kings), LW Raffi Torres (Columbus Blue Jackets), D Joni Pitkanen (Carolina Hurricanes), LW Curtis Glencross (Calgary Flames), C Marty Reasoner (Atlanta Thrashers), LW Geoff Sanderson (available free agent), D Danny Syvret (Philadelphia Flyers).
Three keys to the season: First, the Oilers need solid goaltending, and they need to find out if everyone can get along. Mathieu Garon surpassed Dwayne Roloson as the team's No. 1 goalie, and Roloson let enough people know he's not in the mood to play back-up. The problem is Roloson makes a lot of money ($3.6 million) for what he showed last year, so he's not exactly a movable commodity. Garon, 30, has to prove he didn't just have a career year, because he was always labeled as a back-up in the past. It wouldn't be the worst thing if Roloson passes Garon again on the depth chart on merit. Either way, this situation can not turn into a distraction, which is something Edmonton's front office will have to monitor.
Second, the defense is going to have to come together. The unit was hit hard by injury last season, but the mix was a little off, too. Edmonton surrendered the second-most number of goals in the conference (251), yet it boasted the fifth-best penalty killers. Health will play a major part, but young vets including Ladislav Smid, Grebeshkov and Gilbert will need to continue to trend up to enable the Oilers to compete in the rugged West.
Third, Edmonton has had a good group of forwards on paper for the last three or four seasons, and although some of the names are different heading into this season, that same thing can be said. Coach Craig MacTavish has a lot of options in terms of being able to move people around on nights they are or aren't going. It's a speedy, skilled group that will have to wear down teams to make up for their overall lack of physical size.
On the hot seat: Souray signed a fat five-year deal last summer to become an Oiler, and Edmonton expected more than 26 games from the defenseman with a booming shot from the point. His separated shoulder repaired, Souray will be expected to boost a power play that ranked 21st last year, and possibly team with Visnovsky to give Edmonton a decent look at the 1-2 spots on the blue line.
Poised to blossom: Left wing Dustin Penner has found controversy early in his NHL career even though he's basically been an innocent bystander. Penner made an impact with Anaheim during his rookie season two years ago, especially providing the Ducks with a big contribution during a postseason they capped with the Stanley Cup, then he was signed to an offer sheet from Edmonton and was making a lot more money than he ever anticipated. That, along with Edmonton's tough season, may have played on Penner's mind a bit last year, but he rebounded to have a decent statistical year overall. Now, with a lot of the attention and anticipation behind him, Penner may finally be able to go about his business and post career numbers.
Analysis and prediction: We applaud the enthusiasm by the fans, the optimism that a number of moves have created, but we also warn that the Oilers play in a very balanced and competition division. A team can be in first place one week, then be battling just to get into the playoffs the following week. Traditionally, at least lately, Edmonton has hovered either just above or just below that magical eighth-place spot in the conference standings. If they don't win the division, that's exactly where they'll be again in the spring.