September 12, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Ninth in the Western Conference (41 35 6, 88 points). A flop in the first half turned into a second-half rally fueled by young standouts like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert. (And despite the absence of Shawn Horcoff and Sheldon Souray, the team's big-ticket free agent form the previous summer.)
During those rare moments when he zipped up from his pissing match with Anaheim GM Brian Burke, Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe traded for Los Angeles Kings defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky and turned Joni Pitkanen into human firecracker Erik Cole from Carolina. New owner Daryl Katz has helped usher in an era of optimism in Edmonton, two years removed from a crippling post-finals hangover.
Homecoming King (Top Player): The Oilers have three players at the forward position, in three different phases of their careers, that all qualify for consideration. Center Shawn Horcoff is about to turn 30 and gets a $3.4 million raise after this season. He was a 70-point center before having a disastrous 2006-07 season (what Oiler didn't?), and rebounded to nearly a point per game last season despite missing a good portion of it to injury.
Ales Hemsky is 25 and entering his prime production years. He scored 20 goals for the first time last season; that number should rise significantly this year, and he could land between 80-90 points. Here's a fun game: Will Hemsky be the source of more goals or asinine trade rumors?
Finally, there's Sam Gagner, the 19-year-old forward who quieted critics that claimed he wasn't ready for the NHL by posting 49 points in 79 games last season. We'd usually expect a sophomore slump here, but that would ignore the fact that Gagner is obviously a magical Hobbit-like creature. And a young player of enormous potential.
Twist our arm on who the team's top player is, and we'll obviously say Zack Stortini.
Kidding: Hemsky gets the nod.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): One of the obvious choices here is defenseman Tom Gilbert, who posted a dazzling 33 points and played great hockey for the Oilers last season. But with changes to the Edmonton defense -- both in trades and in the return of Souray from injury -- will Gilbert's ice time (22:12 on average per game) and his role change dramatically?
We're keeping an eye on Andrew Cogliano, who had 18 goals and 45 points in 82 games as a rookie last season. Best known for an incredible streak of scoring three consecutive overtime game-winning goals, Cogliano had a torrid conclusion to the season. What's amazing about the kid is his versatility: How many other players have earned comparisons to such a diversity of former players like Ken Linseman, Butch Goring and Glenn Anderson? He'll improve his stats across the board this season if he shoots the puck more often (98 shots last season, tied with Joni Pitkanen).
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): NEWSFLASH! MUST CREDIT PUCK DADDY! There's a difference between having potential and living up to it.
Jarret Stoll, Pitkanen and Raffi Torres were never the players they should have been for Edmonton, and all three were shipped off in the off-season: Stoll to Rachel Hunter's bedroom, Pitkanen to Carolina and Torres to Columbus for the enigmatic Gilbert Brule.
There are depth players you wish you didn't have to lose, like Marty Reasoner. But the Oilers are a better team for having cleared out the middle management and let the interns take over the office.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): With the financial backing of Katz, Kevin Lowe was aggressive this off-season in targeting the biggest free-agent prize: Marian Hossa, who it was rumored had been offered upwards of $90 million by the Oilers. He chose elsewhere, and that's quite alright for some Edmonton fans.
What Lowe did bring in during a very effective off-season helps this team in several areas. Erik Cole is as good an energy player as any in the NHL, able to shift the momentum of a game on one shift. Best of all, he's playing for his next contract.
A lot of attention has been given to Lubomir Visnovsky's contract, but with less pressure on him to play a major role (like there was with the Los Angeles Kings), his numbers could certainly rise back to the 60-point neighborhood they resided in a few years back.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The franchise that gave the world Esa Tikkanen certainly has a reputation to uphold. Cole and Cogliano are both pests who can also hurt you offensively. Zack Stortini (201) and Steve Staios (121) were the team's most penalized players last season, with Stortini cementing his reputation as one of the league's top pugilists. But we all know who the real brawler on the Oilers is: 190-pound Sam Gagner. Ask Vancouver:
Teacher of the Year: Looking back at Craig MacTavish's tenure as head coach, you get a sense of where the Oilers might finish in the standings: 36-41 wins, 88-95 points. If Edmonton hits the averages in that range, they make the postseason.
Here's how life has changed for MacT. Steve Tambellini was named the new GM of the Oilers, as Lowe moved up to ruler of all he surveys (i.e. Brian Burke's management level). This would seem to buck the line of succession many assumed MacTavish was destined for, which would seem to indicate he'll be behind this bench for quite a while longer. But the influx of effective young talent last season has also created a rather compelling situation for the coach: Where, exactly, will Ethan Moreau fit on the Sam Gagner Oilers? Or Fernando Pisani? Or Dustin Penner, for that matter? How does one juggle ice time for players like Steve Staios, Ladislav Smid and Denis Grebeshkov? It's a blessing of riches, but quite a challenge.
Bottom line for MacTavish: No other coach in the NHL can claim to be the inspiration for a sexual euphemism. And that's no doubt a point of pride.
The Custodians (Goalies): You'll notice this is the first time we've touched on the goaltending, and there's a good reason for that: It's the biggest question mark of the season. Dwayne's Roloson's numbers since signing with the Oilers have been inconsistent and uninspiring. Goalie Mathieu Garon, who wrestled the starting job away from Rolo last season, made some believers out of fans for winning games even if his numbers weren't exactly Vezina-worthy. Both keepers are playing for a contract, which is a good thing (especially in Roloson's case). Garon has the added pressure of trying to prove last season wasn't a fluke. This is a very combustible situation for the Oilers.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): A full season of Sheldon Sourary would certainly be a welcome development, considering he's a power-play specialist and the team had the 19th best unit in the NHL last season. Visnovsky adds a veteran presence and is, at the very least, an upgrade over Pitkanen. My colleague Ross McKeon notes that the Oilers "surrendered the second-most number of goals in the conference (251)" last season. Figuring out the pairings and how much ice time this group deserves is a primary challenge in bringing that number down.
(ED NOTE: We have Lubomir Visnovsky as being from Slovenia, rather than Slovakia, here. The lame joke, however, remains.)
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Garon. He was a diamond in the rough last season, but the Oilers were smart not to sign the guy long-term until he proves himself. His only season playing more than 60 games was a flop. Here's saying we see more Roloson than Garon for the Oilers this campaign.
AV Club (Media): The great David Staples of the Edmonton Journal aside, the Oilers are blessed with perhaps the deepest and most analytical collection of non-MSM blogs on the Web. Check out Battle of Alberta, Covered in Oil, Lowetide, MC97 Hockey, The Copper and Blue, Hot Oil, and then click through their blog rolls to read the 10,000 other blogs we haven't listed. Seriously, they're great.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Sophomore jinxes. So many good young players came into their own last year, one can only assume a few of them may take a step back. But after that, goaltending has to be the other primary concern.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B+
Prom Theme: "That Old Feeling" by Frank Sinatra. Despite that Stanley Cup finals thing two years ago, it has to feel good to be an Oilers fan right now. The last time the team had a collection young talent come up together like this, the franchise couldn't stop winning Stanley Cups.
OK, that's a lie: There was also the Ryan Smyth/Tom Poti/Mike Comrie group, but they all left and didn't win a Cup. So really this whole youth movement thing could either be the dawn of a new dynasty or a giant tease before all the players go elsewhere. Say, there's a needle for your balloon ...
Expected Graduation: Assuming the goaltending is there, it's hard not to see the Oilers as a contender for the division title and one of those non-playoff teams that makes the cut this season. Again, playing the averages for MacTavish, this team is in the seventh or eighth seed, and will be a pain in the ass in the postseason for one of the Cup contenders.