Preface: So, to go along with the theme of September and the opening of training camp, I've decided to do my own, 30-part, team-by-team preview of the NHL.
There's just one catch.
I figured, that as NHL Community Leader, I should be doing my best to integrate the community. Therefor, at the end of each preview, you'll have the Community Leaders' opinions of my season previews. They'll tell you whether they agree, disagree, think I'm a lunatic, or anything else they'd like to say.
With that, this week is the Northwest Division—meaning Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary, Vancouver, and Edmonton, and we're starting with the Oilers.
The Oilers are long removed from the days of Kurri, Messier, Gretzky, and Anderson, and they're just a few years removed from the Ryan Smyth era.
With that said, the Oilers are looking to integrate youth into, what has been, a fairly average roster over the past few seasons, relying mostly on grit and effort to get them through games.
Although the lockout has introduced a new weapon to the Oilers' arsenal—the shootout—the Oil are determined to move forward in the right direction under new owner Daryl Katz, and build a contender through cost certainty, exciting young players, and their old-school brand of hockey.
Roster Additions: Gilbert Brule-F (Trade), Lubomir Visnovsky-D (Trade), Erik Cole-F (Trade), Ryan Polutny-F (Trade), Jason Strudwick-D (F.A.)
Roster Subtractions: Joni Pitkanen-D (Trade), Geoff Sanderson-F (F.A.), Marty Reasoner-F (F.A.), Dany Syvret-D (Trade), Matt Greene-D (Trade), Jarrett Stoll-F (Trade), Raffi Torres-F (Trade)
How did 2007/08 Go? 41-35-6, 88 points, ninth in conference, fourth in Northwest.
2008/09 Goal: Third (or higher) in division, seventh or eighth in conference.
Let's Break'er Down!
Last year was a rough year for Kevin Lowe.
Following an outstanding playoff run in 2005-06, the team tailed off and posted a disappointing 2006-07, while they watched as the disgruntled Chris Pronger raised his first Stanley Cup—as an Anaheim Duck.
Following their lowest point total since the mid-90s, Kevin Lowe was determined to shake things up. At the draft he was able to land Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson for Joffery Lupul and Jason Smith, and within the opening weeks of free agency, Lowe had already signed Mathiew Garon, and attempted to acquire Michael Nylander.
If not for some second thoughts (or whatever happened) from the Nylander camp, then the Swedish centre could have been an Oiler.
Disgruntled at how players were wanting out of Edmonton, Lowe began making big-money pitches for restricted free agents—namely Tomas Vanek and Dustin Penner—and we all know how that ended up.
But with all of the fireworks that emanated from last season, Lowe again sought out a different way to shake up his team. This year that route was through the trade market.
A brand new point of view
The place on the Oilers’ roster with the most new faces is up front with the forwards. Out are Jarret Stoll, Geoff Sanderson, Raffi Torres, and Marty Reasoner, and in their places are Erik Cole, Ryan Potulny, and Gilbert Brule.
Both Brule and Potulny are younger players who still have yet to find their place in the game. In Philly, Potulny saw flashes of success—including 12 points in 35 games in 2006/07—but he never stood out enough in the Flyers system, and began tumbling down the depth chart, almost akin to Dany Syvret in Edmonton.
Brule meanwhile, has been the epitome of a bust so far in his NHL career.
Drafted sixth overall in 2005, Columbus was confident they had found a player with the ability to play alongside Rick Nash. Following a four-point, seven-game audition in 2005-06, the Jackets were encouraged by what they saw, but still returned him to the Vancouver Giants for seasoning.
Over the next two seasons, though, Brule was awful. In 142 games, Brule was only able to gather 28 points—and had only nine last year, in 61 games—for a minus-24.
Although it’s hard to expect anything more than 10 or 20 points this season, Edmonton is hoping that Columbus was just giving up on a player who took a little longer to develop than they wanted. After all, Brule is only 21—so he could very well come back and make Columbus rue July 1, 2008.
In Erik Cole, the Oilers know exactly what they’re getting, thanks to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals. The former Hurricane is a tough-as-nails player who’ll stop at nothing to get on the ice. Remember, he somehow recovered from a broken neck at the hands of Brooks Orpik to play in the finals that season.
Aside from being gritty and hard-working, Cole can also find his way around the scoresheet—he’s had three straight 20-goal seasons, including a 30-goal season in ’06 after only 60 games. If not for injuries, Cole could very well be flaunting three straight 60-point campaigns around right now too.
But the biggest thing about Cole? He’ll help protect Edmonton’s young centers.
It may surprise you to know that of all Edmonton’s centers, only Sean Horcoff is over 24 heading into this season. Granted, that means that their only really established scorer down the middle had 50 points in 53 games last year in an injury-shortened effort.
But that also provides shootout wizard Sam Gagner, Kyle Brodziak, Andrew Cogliano, Mark Pouliot, Brulet, and Potulny (and possible Rob Schremp) with plenty of playing time, and plenty of room to improve. Expect both Cogliano and Gagner to crack the 50-point barrier after coming close last season.
The wings of the Edmonton Oilers offer a little more muscle than flair with the Stortini’s and the Moreau’s, but if Fernando Pisani and Robert Nilsson are able to provide some consistent secondary scoring and Dustin Penner (who actually improved in his first season with Edmonton) can up the production to 55-60 points, these Oiler forwards are pretty dangerous.
CSSR or USSR? Wait—what’s the difference?
Coming into this season, the Oilers have an assortment of foreign and North American talent that could form into a fairly foreboding blue line.
First of all, I don’t care if Lubomir Visnovsky is undersized. A guy who puts up 40 points in a down-year, can put up a plus mark in four of the five seasons with the Kings (last year being the exception), and makes me think of drinking every time I try to spell his name is someone I want on this team—especially to compliment the stay-at-home presence of the ever-dependable Steve Staios, whose early years were mind-numbingly bogged down with terrible teams.
After that, we come to Mr. Separated Shoulder himself, Sheldon Souray. Granted, the Oilers aren’t paying his salary for him to show up for 26 games a season—but when Souray is in the lineup, he drastically changes the Oilers’ powerplay, with five of his 10 points last season coming with the man advantage. If Souray can be healthy this year, then the Oil’s PP unit gets a boost, and Mathieu Garon will have some help clearing out the front of his net.
Both Tom Gilbert and Denis Gregeshkov played excellently last year for the Oilers. While both of them are on the way up, Ladislav Smid is looking to rebound from a rough ’07-08—and Theo Peckham may be looking to move up the pecking order of the Oilers’ defense, now that Syvret and Matt Greene have been sent packing.
I’m not here to "Garon"-tee anything
I won’t lie—I always love it when a goalie plays his way back into the spotlight.
So last season when I watched as Mathieu Garon emerged from the desolate landscape of Los Angeles, landed in Edmonton, and proceeded to assert himself as the starting netminder.
I loved all 47 games of it.
I’m sure Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers didn’t, but we’ll get to him in a minute.
The crazy thing about those 47 games, though? 26 of them were wins. That’s a winning percentage of 55 percent, which is just two percent less than Martin Brodeur's 57 percent.
Brodeur played in 77 games. Assuming Garon plays in 60 games—and doesn’t lose steam—he’d be on pace to land himself in the neighborhood of 33 wins—tying the Oilers with Calgary at 94 points.
The question then becomes whether Garon can shoulder the load for that much of a season, but one thing is for sure—Garon gives the Oilers the best chance at winning games since the 2006 incarnation of Dwayne Roloson.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Dwayne Roloson, and there was a time (back long ago when I first thought Toronto should start rebuilding—say, 2006) that I thought the Leafs should make a ply for Rolo.
He’s great as a tandem goaltender—ask Manny Fernandez. Rolo’s always posted great numbers—2.60 GAA and a .909 save percentage for his career—but aside from that run in 2006, he’s never blown anyone away as a starter. Now at his age (soon to be 39), the questions may start to arise as to whether Rolo can handle the backup job, depending on how he performs.
That’s where J.D-D. comes in. Although 24 is still fairly young for a goalie, J.D-D. is starting to show that he’s ready to jump to the NHL—a good thing for him, and a bad thing for Rolo. If the Oil were to let J.D-D. back up Garon now, then they’d be prepared in the event that both Rolo and Garon bolted this-coming offseason.
That’s just my two cents, though.
So what does all of this mean?
The Oilers relied heavily on the shootout last season. Many people thought that because of the NHL’s Random Outcome Generator, the Oilers benefited from some timely goaltending (Garon was 10-0 in shootouts, stopping 30 of 32 shots) and scoring, and earned a batch of extra points that weren’t necessarily theirs.
Well, deal with it. In the next few years, we’ll probably see two or three teams make the playoffs based on shootout stats—and you know what? Those will probably be the teams that make it to the Conference or Cup Finals—that’s just how things go.
But as far as the 2008-09 Oilers go, I don’t think they’ll need the shootout as often. Something tells me these Alberta boys are going to be just fine.
And now for something completely different—introducing Faiz-Ali Virji!
While Bryan’s preview is very good, he does come up short on the Oilers goals for the upcoming season. Unlike past season, Edmonton has a very good chance at winning the division, and I think that a division finish worse than the second place would be considered a disappointment.
The Oilers also have the potential to stop being the fringe eighth place team, and should at worst be in sixth place.
Gilbert Brule will probably start the year in Springfield, as the Oilers will want to take it slow with him, making sure that he can develop properly. If however, he shows up to training camp this year as the player he is supposed to be, he could make the team on the fourth line—which in the Oilers' case is will still be a good line that will chip in more often than others.
I do agree with the analysis on the defence, and that it will be one to be reckoned with this season. A healthy Sheldon Souray will be a huge plus to the Oilers, and should have all the fans who were calling for his head—I admit, I was one of them—quiet down and jump on the bandwagon.
I also agree on goaltending, and think Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers will push both Roloson and Garon to play their best hockey.
Second in the Northwest is definitely a good prediction, and I too think these Alberta boys shall be just fine.
Well that's it for the Oilers. Expect the next part of the preview—depending on which Northwest rep gets back to me first—to come at some point tomorrow. Stay tuned!
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you'd like to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. You can also check out his previous work in his archives.