Fans of the Northwest division and residents of its cities are fortunate to have some of the most heated rivalries in the league.
The most prominent of which is probably the battle of Alberta.
Geographic rivalries are always the best: the teams are close enough that they can play each other frequently, the fans get in on it with barbs back and forth about which city is more likely to have cockroaches or Chaka Khan turn down an invitation (You didn't think we'd forget the NHL awards THAT quickly, did you?), and sometimes friendly bets are made.
Sidenote: To those of you offended by the Chaka Khan barbs: I get that she can sing, it's not about that. It's about why she was at the NHL awards. THAT I don't get.
2008/09 Record: 38-35-9, 85 points, 11 in West
Additions: Nikolai Khabibulin—G (4 years/FA),
Subtractions: Kyle Brodziak—F (Trade w/Minnesota), Dwayne Roloson—G (FA), Dany Sabourin—G (FA), Ales Kotalik—F (FA)
The Edmonton Oilers are going to try something completely different.
Gone is long-time head coach Craig MacTavish. In his place is one of the best in the business, Pat Quinn.
Quinn, who was blessed with a very talented Canadian World Junior Squad last year, has a big job ahead of him: Not only is he going to have to motivate some of the underachievers left on this Oilers roster, but he’ll have to prove the doubters wrong once again, and show them that he can work with kids.
FOUR MORE YEARS!! FOUR MORE YEARS!!
I understand the logic in bringing in Nikolai Khabibulin. You have a goalie in Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers who is still green to the NHL game, but (given a few years) could be the stalwart for this team. Due to the fact he’s not ready, you go and bring in a veteran presence to help show him the ropes and keep the seat warm for him.
But four years worth of him?
Last year, the ‘Bulin wall was outstanding. He only lost eight games in regulation, meaning that he earned the Chicago Blackhawks at least a point in 32 others. He also posted his finest season goals-against and save-percentage wise (2.33/.919) since he was with Tampa Bay in 2001/02.
Signing a 36-year-old who has been bothered by various lower body injuries as well as a wonky back over the past few years to a four-year deal worth an annual $3.75 million cap hit is troubling.
If Deslauriers can take the next step in his game over the next few years, the Oilers may simply be worried about making sure Khabi gets playing time so that money doesn’t just take up space in the books.
Although he’s just a veteran of ten NHL games, Deslauriers has shown a flair for the dramatic, going 2-1-0 in games where he’s faced 35 shots or more. Although he had great moments and not-so-great moments in his first NHL season last year, Deslauriers is in a position to finally lay the foundation of a career in Edmonton.
This year, the Oilers are set with Khabibulin between the pipes (Ensuring he stays healthy). If he performs anywhere near the way he did in Chicago, the Oilers are set.
If not, Deslauriers will be learning on the fly.
A good defense provides lots of offense…
The Edmonton Oilers have a surprisingly offensive core on their back end.
While many will know the names of Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky—Souray, of course, carries a cannon from the point and a big frame that’s useful in the defensive zone while Visnovsky is a great all-around power play quarterback—Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov get lost in the shuffle.
Both Souray and Visnovsky are capable of 50-point seasons (we've seen 23 goals from Souray), but Gilbert and Grebeshkov are no slouches either, raking in 45 and 39 points respectively last year. The trick is to keep them healthy so they can reach their potential.
Gilbert found the back of the net fewer times this past season (five goals compared to 13 the year before). It wasn’t for lack of trying, as he took more shots. What fans did see develop out of Gilbert’s game, though, was his puck-moving ability. He ranked ninth out of defensemen league-wide, with 40 assists.
Grebeshkov, meanwhile, finally found an NHL home in Edmonton. He has bettered his all-around play the past two years in the City of Champions. Offensively, his ceiling may fall to the 33-37 point plateau (and he is smaller, so he’ll have a little bit of trouble handling the bigger forwards), but a healthy Visnovsky may help push his point total a little more.
Along with the four offensive dynamos on the back end, the Oilers have a great physical presence in long-time Oiler Steve Staios. Although Staios’ numbers have slipped a little bit his past few years in Edmonton, he still provides that tough defenseman that each team needs. The 36-year old’s ice time took a step backwards last year, so it’ll be interesting to see if his role reduces a little with the younger faces stepping in.
Ladislav Smid is one of those younger faces. Instead of being shipped off to Ottawa in a potential trade for Dany Heatley, Smid has a chance to take the next step in his development in Edmonton. He'll try to put all of his tools together at the NHL level, while Jason Strudwick will provide that insurance from the seven-hole.
There are a few youngsters who could get some looks from the Oilers this year on the back end.
Theo Peckham played 15 games at the NHL level last year and seemed to thrive once he got his feet under him as well as a little more responsibility (Peckham was a +2 and had eight penalty minutes in games he played 14:00 or more).
Before Matt Nickerson headed over to the Finnish league for three seasons, he seemed to have a bit of offensive flair in that big frame. Now, Nickerson will have to prove he can readjust to the North American speed and style, but he’s probably off to Springfield first.
Taylor Chorney is another fresh face to watch. His combined -33 (68 games in the AHL, two in the NHL) is an eyesore, so Taylor’s defensive game is going to have to catch up in Springfield.
Stortini, Linguini, Bikini…Nope, I’m not Vince the Slap-Chop guy….
There are a lot of forwards who are getting a fresh start with the introduction of Pat Quinn as head coach, one of them being Rob Schremp.
Schremp, who has all of the talent in the world, had to work himself out of Mac-T’s dog house ever since the moment he was drafted by Edmonton it seemed. After a near point-per-game season in the AHL with Springfield, and three assists in four games for the Oilers last year (which boosted Schremp’s confidence), he may finally be in a situation to get a legitimate shot.
Why shouldn’t he be? Looking up and down the roster, the Oilers are more over-priced than they are talented.
Dustin Penner’s production dropped by six goals and 10 points last year, making his $4-million-plus contract even that more immobile. While there are many people (not just Oilers fans) hoping that Penner can turn it around, unless the power forward can get back to the 27-goal plateau he once reached in Anaheim, the Oilers are going to be saddled with the hard-to-move contract for its duration.
Then there’s Shawn Horcoff, who is due to make $7-million in salary this season. Horcoff has been wrongfully cast as a No. 1 center in Edmonton, but does provide solid point production in the 50-point neighborhood.
That definitely won’t be good enough for the long haul, however, so the Oilers are going to need one of Sam Gagner or Andrew Cogliano to step up to the first line sooner rather than later.
Two of the shiftiest Edmonton forwards are newly-acquired Patrick O’Sullivan and Ales Hemsky. O’Sullivan, who was brought in at the trade deadline last year, has a ton of potential. He'd begun to scratch the surface of it with the Kings the past few years. Once he got to Edmonton last year, he struggled with six points in 19 games.
Paired opposite Hemsky, O’Sullivan could revamp his production. Hemsky has led the Oilers in scoring three of the past four years, and has totaled 192 assists in that time. If O’Sullivan can rediscover his goal-scoring touch from the OHL, then this pair could be dangerous with Gagner or Cogliano lining up between them.
Speaking of those two, early last season, both were victims of sophomore slumps. Although they picked up their performances by the end of the season, it was too little too late. While the growing pains will continue, both players should bounce back this season and approach the 50-point plateau, while being paired with creative line mates could boost that production a little more.
While the Oilers have plenty of depth with heart-and-soul captain Ethan Moreau, Fernando Pisani, Robert Nilsson and Zach Stortini, there are still a handful of youngsters that are going to make the Oilers fun to watch.
Jordan Eberle is the name that keeps getting thrown around the most, and with good reason. The 19-year old may be small but he brings a ton of energy to the ice, along with the willingness to dig for the puck and work hard. As it stands he could make this team on attitude alone but the talent is undoubtedly there.
Ryan Potulny has some potential as well, especially with the way he’s produced in the AHL as of late, while Gilbert Brule has the talent, but it’s figuring out what happened to the once highly touted center. Once he comes over from Sweden, recent draftee Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson is going to be fun to watch on this Oilers team as well.
So what’s it all mean…
The defense is there for the Oilers, and now it’s just waiting on the other areas.
Khabibulin may not be the long-term answer for this team, but if he can stay healthy, he’ll help them stay competitive for the immediate future, while the offense may just take a little while to mesh.
The Oilers are relying on a lot of young forwards, as well as some underachievers, so there are going to be growing pains, but they’ll be able to capitalize on some weaker division opponents, while also playing the Vancouver's and Calgary's tough.
3rd in Northwest
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also email him at email@example.com. Also, be sure to check out all of his previous work in his archives!