As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
First up out West, the Edmonton Oilers.
Key Additions: D Jim Vandermeer, D Kurtis Foster, LW Alexandre Giroux, C Brad Moran, G Martin Gerber, C Colin Fraser.
Key Subtractions: C Patrick O’Sullivan, LW Robert Nilsson, C Marc Pouliot, RW Fernando Pisani, C Ryan Potulny, C Mike Comrie, LW Ethan Moreau.
Things certainly haven’t gone according to plan in recent years for the Edmonton Oilers. Foolish, high-priced signings (Sheldon Souray) combined with even more ridiculous raises (Shawn Horcoff) put the Oilers in a bind when the team took a nosedive each year following their Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2006. To say that the offseason was far from kind to the cash-strapped Oilers would be an understatement.
In an intelligent move, the team hired Tom Renney to be the new bench boss, replacing Pat Quinn permanently for the upcoming season. Renney already has much experience in coaching a ragtag crew of misfits, as he was the first coach in nearly a decade to inspire a playoff performance out of the New York Rangers. But Renney is also a stubborn figure that has often been criticized for lacking intensity when a team hits dire straits. This team figures to be in that phase all season.
The Oilers are without any true identity up front, but hope to change that rapidly thanks to some depth acquisitions and the emergence of No. 1 overall draft pick, Taylor Hall. Hall’s incredible numbers in the Ontario Hockey League won’t go without notice, as he’ll be heavily hyped all year and will need to make an immediate impact on the main roster.
Though Hall is expected to shoulder much of the load for the Oilers scoring this season, he’ll be joined by some familiar faces on the prowl. Dustin Penner looks to be finally living up to the ludicrous RFA contract he signed during the Kevin Lowe era, averaging almost a point a game last year as one bright spot in Edmonton’s lineup.
Other forwards, like speedster Ales Hemsky and the aforementioned Horcoff will look to shake poor 2009-10 campaigns due to injury and ineptitude, respectively. The microscope is heavily on Horcoff, who stands to make $5.5 million for the next five years despite only scoring 17 goals last season. Hemsky, meanwhile, saw limited action with only 22 games under his belt last year, but he was a point-a-game player.
Then there’s Sam Gagner, 21, who will be entering his fourth full season with high expectations to finally climb over the 50-point hill this year. The only player from his draft class who has as much experience as Gagner does is Patrick Kane, and the comparison between the two ends there. He’s still young and will make plenty of mistakes, but sooner or later you have to anticipate that Gagner will find magic on the ice, perhaps even with Taylor Hall or his previous linemate, Andrew Cogliano.
A common theme, at least as it comes to Oilers defense in the past few years, is an overage of high-priced talent with a mismatched premium. Sheldon Souray’s antics on and off the ice have been a $5.4-million headache seeming forever, leaving the Oilers to scramble for other veterans to fill the void. Fans shouldn’t expect to see Sheldon wearing an Oilers jersey anytime soon, and with injuries always playing a factor, he’s a shoe-in to be in a hospital gown more often anyway.
The Oilers beefed up their already lumbering D this offseason by trading for Jim Vandermeer and signing Kurtis Foster. Foster’s contract is relatively low considering that Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert, two other underachievers on the blue line, stand to make twice as much this season.
Gilbert impressed many in his rookie season, but his sophomore and junior years have been quite forgettable by comparison. Whitney, meanwhile, is on his third team in as many years and is struggling to recapture the career-high 59 points he head in 2006-07.
Between the pipes, the Oilers sport four possible options for starting goalie, yet never seem to carry faith in any of them. Nikolai Khabibulin was signed last season specifically for the purpose of being a leader, but fizzled greatly behind youngsters Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers.
And despite the strong play of both Dubnyk and Deslauriers at different points in the season, the Oilers are showing little confidence in them by signing Martin Gerber to a one-year deal. Khabibulin is on the books for three more years, by which time one of the two younger goalies will have to had taken his place.
It would be shameful to avoid mentioning Taylor Hall as a major Calder Trophy candidate at the start of the season. Not only are his OHL numbers off the charts, but his focus seems to be on the NHL and the Oilers now more than ever. He declined an invitation to the 2011 World Junior Tournament in favor of training and preparation for the upcoming season.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, much of the roster is the same as it was last year and will remain the same again in the following year. Bad contracts and under performing players will likely be weeded out all season by Tom Renney while other players will have a chance to capture stardom. It’ll be a long road back for Edmonton, longer now with another regime change. Fifth in the Northwest, 15th in the Western Conference.