September 11, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
The Edmonton Oilers were the worst team in the NHL last season, and it wasn't close. Their 62 points were 6 fewer than the Colorado Avalanche, the league's second-worst team, and 10 fewer than the Florida Panthers, the Eastern Conference's 15th seed.
They were so bad that two late-season victories over a Vancouver team with nothing to play for caused mass panic among Canuck fans. It was assumed that, if the Vancouver Canucks couldn't beat the Edmonton Oilers without even trying, they must be terrible. That's how bad the Oilers were.
But who cares how bad the Oilers were? What really matters is how good the Oilers are going to be.
In their debut seasons, the rookie trio of Taylor Hall(notes) (45 points), Jordan Eberle(notes) (43 points), and Magnus Paajarvi(notes) (34 points) put up a combined 112 points. Linus Omark(notes) turned heads last season as well (albeit primarily for a twirl at centre ice with no one around him). Devan Dubynk looks poised to be a number one guy. Speaking of number ones, first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes) probably knows how to play a little puck, too.
In short, the Oilers have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. But when will the future come? When will the Oilers' youth movement begin to pay dividends? If it's not this season, the Oilers will find themselves back at the bottom of the league.
Can the Edmonton Oilers' kids move out of the basement?
Penner's trade left the Oilers with a need for power on the wing, and they filled that hole by bringing Ryan Smyth(notes) home from Los Angeles in an offseason trade that sent Colin Fraser(notes) the other way.
It was a great move. Smyth may be slowing down a little, but he's a solid team guy, and his experience and veteran leadership can only benefit a young group like the Oilers. His abiding love for the city of Edmonton might be a helpful brainwashing tool, too.
The Oilers also parted ways with diminutive speedster Andrew Cogliano(notes), a move that would have made Edmonton better in the circle even if he wasn't replaced. Cogliano's 41.6 faceoff percentage was the second-lowest among NHL centres last season. Bob Dylan drew better.
Cogliano's replacement is NHL veteran Eric Belanger(notes), a guy known for his faceoff prowess. With 10 NHL seasons under his belt, Belanger, like Smyth, will be counted on to provide leadership to the kids.
And we'd be remiss if we failed to mention the additions of Darcy Hordichuk(notes) and Ben Eager(notes). Semenko and McSorley they ain't, but they should provide the Oilers with a little pushback, should anybody take liberties with their young stars.
At forward, the Oilers are led by captain Shawn Horcoff(notes) and high-scoring winger Ales Hemsky(notes), but they're really not. This team was effectively handed over to Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi last season. It will be interesting to see if both Hemsky and Horcoff remain with the team through the year.
Horcoff has a contract that's tough to move, but Hemsky is a UFA at the season's end. Unless the Oilers surprise everyone by contending, expect him to be elsewhere when the trade deadline passes.
At defense, a full season out of Ryan Whitney(notes) could be a game-changer. Through two seasons in Edmonton, Whitney's only suited up for 56 games, but he's put up 38 points in that span, and he collected 27 points in just 35 games last year before he was forced to undergo season-ending surgery on his right ankle.
Whitney had a 59-point season with Pittsburgh in 2006-07. It's not unrealistic to think he could get back there, especially the way the thin Oilers' blueline will rely on him.
And, unless the Oilers management team is completely insane, Devan Dubynk should replace Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) as the top dog in goal this season. Last year, Khabibulin posted a .890 save percentage, 45th among the 47 goaltenders with 25 or more games played, and a goals against average of 3.40, 46th. Suffice it to say, the Oilers don't have much to lose by handing the reins to Dubynk. The worst he could do is be so terrible it's a disgrace, and even that would be an improvement.
"3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain."Three kids with ridiculous skill, supported by a mulleted, old hero whose best days are clearly behind him. Also: not very good.
GM Steve Tambellini is tasked with the unenviable job of trying not to botch a total rebuild. Ask Doug Maclean how the job market dries up when you get a lot of high, first-round picks and still don't win.
Tom Renney enters his second season as coach, and priority number one is to ensure that his organization's prized prospects continue to move forward. If they stall, as Sam Gagner(notes) and Andrew Cogliano did after a promising rookie seasons, Renney could take the fall.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins! You've probably heard of him. He went first overall. He's supposed to be a player. Of course, there's a distinct possibility that he gets returned to juniors, but the Oilers are pretty eager to stack their team with young talent, and RNH is certainly that. If he plays, he's the Calder favourite.
"The Edmonton Oilers are my favourite team. Guess why? If you guessed because they're full of teenagers, you're half-right. The other reason is that I sort of resemble Jordan Eberle."
Cam Barker is 6'3 and 215 pounds. He was drafted third overall in 2004. He put up 40 points in 2008-09. There's a lot to like about the guy. But, while many have praised Steve Tambellini for the acquisition, if you ask Minnesota Wild fans, he's not gonna work out. From Hockey Wildnerness:
[Barker] is terrible positionally, he looks to have cinder blocks taped to his legs when he skates, has speed that rivals that of Andrew Brunette(notes) (no offense Andrew), has as much emotion on the ice as Johnny Five, and skated away from players that had destroyed Niklas Backstrom in the crease more times than should be allowed for an NHL defenseman.
And bear in mind that Wild fans tend to overrate their players.
One of my favourite TSN segments from last season was on Jordan Eberle's remarkable first goal. The best part is Ryan Whitney deadpanning, "Guy gets a couple lucky goals in World Juniors and first game he's looking off our captain on a two-on-one. It's pretty disappointing to see, actually."
Regressions for Hall and Eberle. The Oilers were effectively built around these guys in their rookie years, and even Calder-calibre seasons from both couldn't keep this team from last place. If they succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump, the Oilers could be the first NHL team to be relegated.
The Oilers will be better, but only marginally so. Their core isn't quite ready to lead them into the playoffs, but they're only a few years away from being a dominant force in the West.
But will anyone really mind if they're bad? Another terrible season simply means another first overall pick. For a team stocking up on young talent, even a losing season is a win-win situation.