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Five Questions in Oil Country

Scott SeymourContributor ISeptember 16, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 27:  Sam Gagner #89 of the Edmonton Oilers skates during warm up prior to the NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on March 27, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Oilers defeated the Ducks 5-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs by six points in 2008-09.

On paper, that doesn’t seem like much—but there were times last year that the Oilers made that six-point gap look so big that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade could have marched through it.

After a springtime coaching change led to a summertime pursuit of Dany Heatley that fell short, the Oilers now embark on a season with some big changes behind the bench, a new goalie, but not many other differences from last year.

Here are the five biggest questions the Oilers will face heading into the 2009-10 season:

5. Can They Put away the Proctor-Silex?

When it became apparent early last year that Erik Cole either couldn’t or wouldn’t figure out how to play left wing with Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, that was the start of the Oilers’ long downhill slide.

Coach Craig MacTavish’s solution was to bring out the blender: Pretty much every forward not named MacIntyre had an audition on Horcoff’s port side. This wreaked havoc on the other lines, creating a complete lack of on-ice cohesion that dragged down the production of other players—leading to further bouts with the blender.

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Early and instant chemistry between Horc, Hemmer, and, say, Patrick O’Sullivan would go a long way. But another season of So You Think You Can Play Left Wing on the first line could be trouble.

4. Wither Faceoffs?

The numbers say Horcoff was the best faceoff guy in the league last year, but a big reason for that was because he also had the most at-bats. And that was because the other Oiler centers were weak-weak-weak on the dot.

That took a toll on Horcoff, who was clearly worn out taking all the big draws and scrambling back to the bench if his line wasn’t already out there. Making matters worse, the Oilers didn’t bring in another faceoff guy during the summer and traded away an heir-apparent (Kyle Brodziak).

Unless there are hidden plans to parachute somebody in early in the season, faceoffs could turn into a big problem.

3. Any Chance of a Growth Spurt in the Next Two Weeks?

Right now, the Oilers don’t appear to have enough size...again. Last year, they got pushed around a lot. Granted, there were many times when they didn’t seem interested enough to push back, but there were also many other times when they were simply too shrimpy to put up a fight.

In today’s NHL, there are teams out there that successfully compensate for lack-of-size with plenty-of-skill. Can the Oilers be one of those teams? Better hope so, because they’re not any bigger than they were last year.

2. What If the Bulin Wall Crumbles?

Conventional wisdom suggests that Nikolai Khabibulin only plays well at or near the end of a contract, so the Oilers could be in trouble after handing him a four-year deal. But he played well last year and if he stays healthy, the Oilers should be in pretty good shape.

But therein lies the question: If he gets hurt, can Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers pick up the ball? Last year, JDD looked good in some starts and bad in some starts, but the biggest problem was that those starts were weeks—and even months—apart.

The Oilers aren’t the only team with question marks in backup goaltending (see Flames, Calgary and Canucks, Vancouver), but they’ve got a lot riding on a healthy Khabby.

1. Was It Really MacT’s Fault?

The shrill and bleating legions of MacTavish-haters finally got their wish: He’s now a TSN analyst.

Replacing him is the tandem of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney.

Critics who snorted over the summer that the Oilers can’t possibly function with a “head coach” and an “associate coach,” either failed Hockey History 101 or are under the age of 25. Head coach/associate coach was exactly the set-up that Glen Sather and John Muckler had for the Oilers’ first 10 years in the NHL—and, as memory serves, those were some fairly productive years.

However, make no mistake, the coaching overhaul was the biggest move of the summer for the team and represents a significant shift in the team’s culture.

But more than anything else, GM Steve Tambellini will now be able to determine whether or not the last three non-playoff seasons were the fault of the coaching staff or the playing staff. The former has been replaced, but will the latter be able to prove it was the right move?

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