Small-market excuses aside, missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs three years in a row is not something the Edmonton Oilers take lightly. One-time Oilers star Craig MacTavish was fired as head coach in the offseason. And while MacTavish led an eighth-place team to Game 7 of the 2006 Cup Finals, Edmonton did miss out on the postseason during five of his eight years behind the bench.
In his place, the Oilers are taking a gamble that 66-year-old Pat Quinn still has the energy for coaching's long hours and that he still has the ability to connect with players one-third his age. The oldest coach in the league will team with associate coach Tom Renney, who was shown the door by the Rangers in the offseason.
Quinn resumes an NHL coaching career that already includes stops in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto that totals more than 1,300 games behind the bench spread over 19 seasons. He last coached in the league in 2005-06.
The fact Quinn led Team Canada to the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship went a long way in convincing the Oilers he hadn't lost his touch by bringing a young group together to have success. Renney, viewed as a smart, tactical teacher in New York, was a victim of circumstances and should complement Quinn well in Edmonton.
Time will tell if the Quinn/Renney experiment will work, but what fell short in the summer was general manager Steve Tambellini's attempt to recruit Dany Heatley(notes), who in the end refused to waive his no-trade clause in order to relocate to Edmonton. The public courting was made worse when word leaked who Tambellini was reportedly dangling – Dustin Penner(notes), Andrew Cogliano(notes) and Ladislav Smid(notes) – and that didn't make the GM happy at all.
Besides the changes behind the bench and the addition of Nikolai Khabibulin to replace the departed Dwayne Roloson in goal, the Oilers look very similar to last season when they finished six points out of the final playoff spot in the West.
Last season: 38-35-9 (85 points), fourth place Northwest Division, 11th place in the Western Conference and 21st in the overall standings. Since losing Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in Carolina, the Oilers haven't had a taste of the postseason for three straight springs. Another non-playoff season would match the franchise-long drought of four straight years from 1993-96.
Exports: Coach Craig MacTavish, RW Ales Kotalik(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), G Dwayne Roloson (N.Y. Islanders), C Kyle Brodziak(notes) (Minnesota), G Mathieu Roy(notes) (Columbus), G Dany Sabourin(notes) (Boston).
Salary cap: Surprisingly, the Oilers don't have much wiggle room since they're $1.4 million within the ceiling of the cap having already committed approximately $56.3 million in salary to a roster that is very much borderline in terms of having a playoff look.
Souray, now 33, had a nice bounce-back season last year by scoring 23 goals thanks to his patented hard shot. This after injuries cut his first season in Edmonton to 26 games. He missed just one contest last year. That's more what the Oilers were expecting when they acquired the No. 1 defenseman.
Lubomir Visnovsky(notes), Jason Strudwick and Steve Staios(notes) are all as old or as much as three years older than Souray. Tom Gilbert(notes), 26, emerged last season to average 22 minutes a game, and he will be counted on heavily again. The Oilers would love to see the younger defense step up, namely Ladislav Smid and Denis Grebeshkov.
Second, the Oilers do have a nice group of talented forwards, even if the most skilled guys are somewhat undersized as a whole. The addition of Patrick O'Sullivan(notes) from Los Angeles at the trade deadline last year was a nice pickup. He didn't click in the short time that remained, but at age 24 and with his skill set, it should be an asset.
The problem the forward group had overall was they were just too patient with the puck, trying too hard to make the pretty play. Ales Hemsky(notes) is a wonderfully talented player who really needs to become more aggressive in the offensive zone. He needs to set the example by driving the net and shooting more often.
With Sam Gagner(notes), Gilbert Brule(notes), Shawn Horcoff(notes), Andrew Cogliano, Penner, Ethan Moreau(notes), O'Sullivan and even a Robert Nilsson(notes), Edmonton has a number of offensive threats that just need to attack harder. Maybe that's something the new coaching staff will recognize and emphasize.
Third, the Oilers have to do a better job of winning on home ice. Edmonton's 18-17-6 record as hosts last season was the worst home mark for teams that finished with an overall winning record. The old Edmonton barn should be a difficult place to visit. The winters are brutally cold, making it a tough place to visit, and opponents often are playing back-to-back at Edmonton and Calgary.
On the hot seat: Dustin Penner saw his production slip from 23 goals and 47 points to 17 and 37, respectively, last season, his second in Edmonton after being acquired via offer sheet following his 29-goal season with Cup champion Anaheim in 2006-07.
Dustin Penner hopes to avoid a slow start and meet expectations to fuel the Oilers' offense.
Penner didn't have any choice but to at least live up to his rookie-season numbers considering he's pulling down $4.25 million annually through 2011-12, but the 26-year-old is in steady decline while having missed only four of a possible 160 games.
Penner could go either way now, knowing he was on the trade block. He'll either be a more motivated player from the start of the season when he's otherwise been a slow starter, or he'll continue to languish and draw the ire of a fan base that can see through a sub-par effort.
Poised to blossom: Rob Schremp hasn't come close to living up to expectations since getting drafted in the first round (25th overall) by the Oilers in 2004. A dynamic scorer in junior hockey, Schremp capped an outstanding career with the London Knights of the OHL with 57 goals and 145 points in 57 games in 2005-06.
He hasn't been able to get much going in the minors and is without a goal in three call-ups and seven games with Edmonton. He heard public criticism from MacTavish, too, last season so there's no question Schremp is relieved to see a coaching change. The 23-year-old worked hard in the offseason and knows this camp is basically make or break. He says he's as hungry as he's ever been so if the center is ever going to step up this would be the time.
Time has passed: After losing Roloson and not ready to turn the goaltending over to 25-year-old Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers(notes), the Oilers went out and overpaid for what they concluded was the best available on the market – Khabibulin, who at 36 years of age, signed a four-year, $15-million deal. It's been a little backward recently with Khabibulin, however.
He seems to take his queue from teammates instead of providing the inspirational leadership through his play. When things are going well he's an asset, but if things go south there's no guarantee Khabibulin will be part of the solution instead of the problem.
Prediction: It's going to be interesting to see how much Quinn likes the hand he was dealt because if he wants to tweak the roster here or there to better fit his system, the Oilers really don't have any flexibility because of the salary cap. Edmonton is always a team that hovers around the eighth and ninth spot in the standings. We see it being no different this time, and ultimately they'll miss out again.