I was going to do a III and IV with this but then the Oilers traded for Mark Fistric and I kind of went down a rabbit hole of “When do defencemen develop?” (more to come) so I’m just going to mash them together. I haven’t talked about special teams but the nutshell version of it is this: the Oilers probably aren’t going to shoot 16.1% again at 5v4 and, although they might get some more 5v3 time this year that will make up for some of that, the PP probably isn’t going to be as good as it was last year. The PK was nothing special last year but there’s no reason to think it’ll get substantially worse. Call last season a true talent 82-83 point year once you allow for luck, good and bad, in various places.
That’s still a ways from the playoffs but it kind of gives the Oilers a fighting chance. There’s a big difference between needing to get 18 points better to have a legitimate expectation of a playoff spot and needing to get 9 points better. Keep in mind, the playoff cutline is likely to be something like 55 or 56 points – if the Oilers were a true talent 82 point team last year, we’re talking about a difference that’s narrowed to 7 or 8 points. There are, I think, four critical reasons to expect that this year’s Oilers’ team will be better than last year’s:
1. Guys who played during the lockout. Seven of the Oilers’ top nine forwards were playing somewhere during the lockout: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, RNH, Nail Yakupov, Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and either MPS or Teemu Hartikainen, depending on who gets that slot next to Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. Add to that Ladislav Smid and Justin Schultz and it seems to me be more likely that the Oilers get off to a hot start than teams that have more guys shaking off rust. A couple of points in the 12 games in 20 days stretch to open the season that they wouldn’t otherwise get narrows the gap between the Oilers and the playoffs.
2. Taylor Hall is going to explode. I’m a real believer in “Mr. Second Line Flop” Taylor Hall. At the end of this year, I think people are going to be talking about him as a real, honest to goodness NHL star. He did bad things to bottom sixers last year and was scoring a point and a half a game over his last twenty games in OKC this year. He quietly had the same G/G as Jordan Eberle, without the shooting percentage miracle. I’m optimistic that, paired with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner, they could give the Oilers a line that can go toe to toe with the other team’s best line and not just hope to hang around but hope to outplay them. Edmonton had real problems on the road last year, in part because the RNH/Hall/Eberle line got their lunch fed to them and there wasn’t really another option for most of the year due to Hemsky’s problems.
3. Added talent. This year’s Oiler team gets to hopefully get something closer to 100% of a season out of Hall. I often wish I had the power to create alternate histories and see how they turned out because I’d love to know if Hall would have been on the ice for the season opener if there hadn’t been a lockout. Oiler history suggests yes. In addition, they’re going to get the real Ales Hemsky, hopefully for something like 90% of a season, instead of the nicked up one who struggled through the first half of last season. That guy was 12th or so in Western Conference points/game between 2005-11 and did it playing against the other team’s best. They’re basically adding him, since they didn’t get that guy for most of last year.
I doubt Justin Schultz will help much defensively – more on him to come – but he can at least bring something to the PP and hopefully handle third pairing ES minutes if second pairing minutes are beyond him at this point. Finally there’s Nail Yakupov, who more than held his own in the KHL and who will play with guys with offensive ability and may end up getting sheltered with some good offensive players – a Yakupov/RNH/Eberle trio on the road could be matched exclusively against the bottom of the other team’s lineup, with Gagner/Hall/Hemsky and Smyth/Horcoff/Hartikainen/MPS playing the better lines.
4. Hall aside, there are a lot of young players who should be better. Another year of experience is only going to benefit guys like Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Devan Dubnyk and the six top nine guys who will be younger than 23. That’s a lot of guys who are still improving and, one would hope, more of them will be getting better than regressing. There’s a kind of critical mass of players there.
All of this should serve to narrow the gap between the Oilers and a playoff spot. It looks doable to me and while it’s hard to believe I’m writing this, I see them as being more likely than not to be a playoff team. Which leads me to three concerns that I have with this year’s team, problems with how it’s constructed. One of my (many, many) complaints about Tambellini has been the passivity of his rebuild. Basically, he seems to think a rebuild is something that happens while you lie on the floor passively.
The Oilers enter this season with a metric ton of cap space. It’s not entirely obvious, because of the way that bonuses work, but their $64MMish payroll contains almost $12MM of bonuses – the Oilers are allowed to run a payroll of something like $82MM when you take that into account and they’re spending more like $52MM. Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Oilers couldn’t be sure what was going to come out of the CBA negotiations over the fall and that it wouldn’t have been wise to spend more than $60MM.
One wishes, however, that they’d perhaps spent some dough on what the local media are fond of referring to as transition players over the summer. In order of need, I’d have gone top four defenceman, right winger to play with Horcoff/Smyth and then a backup goalie
The defence is awfully thin. The Oilers are obviously relying on one of Justin Schultz or Ryan Whitney to be able to play top four minutes. This strikes me as the thing most likely to blow up of the three areas I’ve identified. Schultz has had his defensive bad moments in OKC and Ryan Whitney has just finished his traditional pre-season explanations of how last year his ankle was affecting him even though he said it wasn’t but this year it’s totally cool. If you look at the list of guys who took two year deals, you’d have to think that the Oilers could have got someone on a one or two year deal by overpaying him without unduly burdening themselves as some of the young players reach the point where they have to be paid.
There’ve been a lot of foreseeable problems that have blown up in Tambo’s face over his time with the Oilers, most famously Nikolai Khabibulin. If planning to round out the top four of what could be a playoff contender with one of an immobile guy with chronic leg injuries or a rookie doesn’t pan out, he shouldn’t get a pass for it unless serious efforts were made to find a defenceman last summer. Considering that the Oilers had Justin Schultz and seven defencemen on one-way deals come July 1, it seems unlikely that that was the case.
Along that vein, another winger, a grizzled fully grown man who can play against men and shaves regularly (or needs to and doesn’t), would have been a nice thing to slot in with Smyth/Horcoff. I think it more reasonable here than with the defenceman to hope that some internal solution emerges. While I’m not really a fan of Ryan Jones, Hartikainen and MPS are another year along the development chain and I could see Tambo hoping that one of them could take a step and play with Horcoff/Smyth or replace Hemsky on a line that played softer minutes. There just seem to me to be more plausible internal solutions to that spot in the lineup than there are with a top four defenceman.
Finally, the guys at Coppernblue suggested that if Devan Dubnyk gets hurt and misses any extended time, the season’s probably over. I’m not entirely sure I agree with this, in that I’m not sure Khabibulin, as opposed to Yann Danis, becomes the starter in those circumstances. Danis is having a bit of an off-season in OKC but Khabibulin has looked done as an NHL goalie basically since he came to Edmonton. If, god forbid, Dubnyk goes down, Danis might be the starter. I’d prefer that the Oilers had obtained a better backup but Dubnyk’s going to play 38+ games if things go well for him, it’s unlikely that Khabby can do much damage in just a couple games and I’m not sure Khabby becomes the starter if Dubnyk goes down.
If one of those things becomes a season derailing problem (mostly the defence), Tambo should pay for it with his job. That said, crappy forward depth and relying on one legged Whitney were features of last year’s Oiler team and, as discussed, it was probably within ten points of the playoffs if you filter out the fluky things that happened. The forwards should be better this year and, who knows, maybe the extended off-season gave Whitney time to bathe in the waters at Lourdes. If not, maybe Schultz proves himself ready for top four NHL minutes.
I’m more optimistic about this Oilers’ team than I’ve been for an Oilers season since 2006-07. I can see them making the playoffs and part of me, most likely my heart, thinks it’s more likely than not. My head is irritated that a few more holes weren’t temporarily plugged with bags of money. I’m on board though. Playoffs or (please) a huge bust that gets the GM fired.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org