Puck Daddy - NHL

Surreal times for the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Oilers Coach Pat Quinn returns behind the bench in Toronto for the first time since he was canned in the 2005-06 season, as Edmonton visits the Leafs on Saturday night in a Hockey Night in Canada on Y! Sports Canada game (watch it here at 7 p.m. EST). Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe and throwing dirt on top of their hatchet. Finally, two teams that showed some promise in the preseason now find themselves bruised, battered and in their divisional basements -- the Leafs' top draft pick belonging to the Boston Bruins.

We asked a few of the best Toronto and Edmonton bloggers to assess what went wrong for their teams this season as well as the most vital question for these franchises: Should the Oilers or the Leafs have more optimism about becoming a contender again soon?

Our round-tablers: For the Edmonton Oilers, it's Jonathan Willis of Hockey or Die! and the venerable David Staples of Cult of Hockey; for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's Julian from Pension Plan Puppets; the bitter Michael from the aptly named Bitter Leaf Fan; and king of Toronto hockey comedy, Down Goes Brown.

1. What's the most disappointing aspect of your team this season, in a 'damn, I really thought we'd be good here' sort of way?


Willis: The total collapse of key veterans. The loss of some players to injury as hurt, but a number of core players have disappointed as well. Shawn Horcoff(notes) might not be the flashiest player in the league, but he's been a solid two-way guy for the majority of his career and his performance this season has been very poor.  Other players -- Patrick O'Sullivan(notes), Tom Gilbert(notes), and Denis Grebeshkov(notes) -- have all performed below expectations as well.

Staples: In Edmonton, the single most disappointing thing about being an Oilers fan is management's sweet tooth for fading, aging, injury prone stars. Oilers hockey boss Kevin Lowe (and his assistant Steve Tambellini) has never stopped chasing that high that he got when he traded for Chris Pronger(notes) in 2005 and almost won a Stanley Cup.

Pronger's rejection of Edmonton should have been Lowe's first hint that this might not be the best way to build in this market, but he's gone after free agents like Michael Nylander(notes) and Scott Gomez(notes), thankfully failing to land them on massively inflated deals. But Lowe did land Sheldon Souray(notes) and Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) this year, only to see them get injured, no surprise to any fan paying close attention, but disastrous to the fortunes of the Oilers, both now and going forward.

The single lowest moment of the year came when Souray, trying to avenge a nasty concussion handed out to him by Jarome Iginla(notes), decided to fight Iginla, only to injury his hand and thwart the hope that some other team might actually agree to take Souray and his massive pricetag off of the Oilers' hands at the trading deadline.


PPP: Hands down it's the defensive play of the team. Over $20M committed including to two big ticket UFAs in Francois Beauchemin(notes) and Mike Komisarek(notes) and the Leafs were just as bad defensively as ever. Toss in Luke Schenn's(notes) early regression and the continued erosion of Tomas Kaberle's(notes) defensive abilities and you get a lottery team in the first year that it's not going to help.

Obviously, playing in front of one of the worst goalies in the league in Vesa Toskala(notes) didn't help the cause. The disappointing part is that it was obvious that he was the weakest link before the season started.

Bitter: I'm not surprised that this team has struggled on the PK, between the pipes and in the standings. By Game 10 it was pretty clear the highlight of the season was going to be the trade deadline. The surprise to me was how little was recouped at the trade deadline. I thought Burke would do a better job re-stocking the cupboard and I'm still having a hard time believing Dominic Moore(notes) was worth more than Lee Stempniak(notes).

DGB: I'm tempted to say "Vesa Toskala's goaltending". I didn't think it would be good, but I never imagined it would be historically, epically, generationally bad.

But instead I'll go with the defensive play, which on paper really should be good. The individual defencemen are almost all good players, and Ron Wilson is supposed to be a good defensive coach. And yet somehow, as a whole, they've been awful from day one. Late-game breakdowns seem inevitable, somebody is always out of position, the penalty killing is challenging all-time records for incompetence. They're just awful.

Every other team seems to have a system in place to get the puck out of their own zone.

The Leafs' version is called "faceoff at center ice".

2. Which team should be more optimistic about becoming a contender again soon: Toronto or Edmonton?  


Willis: Toronto, because they have a lot of good pieces already: a competent defence corps, a solid goaltender, and some good pieces up front. The forwards will need rebuilding but Burke's work in Vancouver makes me confident that he can get the job done. 

As for Edmonton, I'm divided between optimism and pessimism because while I have little or no faith in management there are some very significant young players on the way and they seem determined to do a scorched earth style rebuild. I think they will contend, just not in the immediate future and possibly not under the same people.

Staples: The only bright spot is that the Oilers have a partner at the bottom of the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and not only are the Leafs bad, but in a moment of impatience. Brian Burke traded off the Leafs top pick this year, meaning Edmonton is going to pick up a budding superstar in the coming entry draft, while all Toronto will get is massive heartburn.

Burke was only to fast to jolly in the Oilers being in the sewer at the bottom of the standings, but he just learned that when you're floating in the much, you become desperate to get out, and might even do some rash and stupid thing, like the Kessel trade.


PPP: I think that both teams be optimistic about the team's future but I think that Toronto will get back to being a contender before Edmonton.

One of the biggest reasons that I think Toronto has the edge is in the team's management. You can check out Jonathan Willis' writings on Oilers Nation or MC79 for the litany of reasons why Oilers fans should fear the continued work of Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini.

This is where the anti-Leaf chuckleheads will go on about the Phil Kessel(notes) trade. The book is far from being written on it but for all of Seguin and Hall's potential Kessel's already proven himself in the NHL.

Burke hasn't been twiddling his thumbs in endless 'assessment' of his team. He's brought in highly sought after college and European UFAs in Tyler Bozak(notes), Jonas Gustavsson(notes) and Christian Hanson(notes). They haven't lit up the league but they have shown that they belong in the league. Burke made a deal for Dion Phaneuf(notes) that would have been considered laughable if proposed by a fan. Most importantly, he's worked to rid the club of the self-satisfied attitude that had become epidemic post-lockout.

Obviously, there's a lot of debate about whether the Leafs are better positioned going forward than they were before Burke turned over almost the entire roster (Only Kaberle remains from before November 2008) but I think that the last 15 games of the season will go a long way towards justifying the nascent sense of hope in Leafland.

Bitter: This is like trying to guess who's going to be the skinniest kid when fat camp ends. Edmonton might have the edge in terms of younger talent, but the Oil have less cap flexibility than Toronto, fewer resources than MLSE, and a senior management team that makes Richard Peddie look good (well, maybe not good, is "good-ish" a word?). I'm not exactly optimistic about the Leafs, but I'll take Brian Burke's ego and MLSE's billions over Steve Tambellini's paralysis and Daryl Katz's no-money-down arena dreams in this one.

DGB: Edmonton has better prospects right now. They're going to have far better prospects after the June draft. And history suggests that they'll do a better job of developing those prospects into NHL players.

So I'm going to say Toronto.

Here's why: Edmonton can't keep star players. And they certainly can't attract new ones. It's a combination of financial reality and geography, and we've seen it over and over again. Today's NHL gives players more control over where they play than ever before, and star players just don't like playing in Edmonton.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have deep pockets, a GM who excels at recruiting, and play in a market that many - not all, but many - players find attractive. Toronto didn't earn any of that. It's not fair. But it's the reality, and it's why the Leafs will be a contender someday soon, even though Edmonton deserves it more.

• • •

From our perspective, the Oilers are locked into so many big contracts that it's going to be hard to reconfigure this team but swapping out key veteran players for fresh faces. But the current regime is nothing if not aggressive: Hunting Dany Heatley(notes) last summer, signing Nikolai Khabibulin to that now-regrettable contract. Whether or not these moves panned out, it's hard to imagine the Oilers not being active in some regard this summer to reshape their roster.

As for the Leafs, we somewhat agree with the last sentiment from Down Goes Brown: Toronto has the treasure and the talent in the GM's box, but are they as attractive a destination for a free agent as some would believe? They need a ton of help up front; which offensive free agent is willing to go for the money if it means potentially getting the Jason Blake(notes) treatment in Toronto?

In the end, the Leafs appear to have fewer cap headaches than the Oilers, even if the Oilers have the edge in young talent to build on. Plus Toronto's in the East and ... well, the Thrashers still have a legit claim to being in contention at this point in the season over there, if you smell what we're cooking. 

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