• Looking Ahead III: Are The Oilers A Playoff Contender?

    by Tyler Dellow • January 17, 2013 • Hockey • 28 Comments

    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 mc79hockey@gmail.com

    About Tyler Dellow

    28 Responses to Looking Ahead III: Are The Oilers A Playoff Contender?

    1. dawgbone
      January 17, 2013 at

      A healthy, pre-2012 Hemsky adds all kinds of match up problems for other teams and gives the Oilers all kinds of different possible lineup looks.

    2. Orville
      January 17, 2013 at

      I like how you have Hall-Gagner-Hemsky together. I also believe that line will need to play together and take on the tough minutes against the other teams best defense match ups if the Oilers want to win. As explosive as RNH and Ebs are they never proved they could do it against top competition in the NHL 5×5. I think Ebs might be able to handle tougher minutes but I’d like to see him continue developing chemistry with Nuge and helping him develop into the #1 Center he will eventually be.

      • dawgbone
        January 17, 2013 at

        Unfortunately, the Oilers are probably going to go with Hall-RNH-Eberle as a line.

    3. January 17, 2013 at

      I find it hilarious that you still root for the Oilers.

    4. Bruce McCurdy
      January 17, 2013 at

      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.

      How does Krueger get these match-ups on the road without last change?

    5. Bruce McCurdy
      January 17, 2013 at

      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.

      How does Krueger get these match-ups on the road without last change?

      • dawgbone
        January 17, 2013 at

        Depending on who you are facing (and their depth) they are either going to have to use their top lines on Yak-RNH-Eberle or Hall-Gagner-Hemsky. If it’s The Eberle line, the Hall line is going to run a lot of lines into the ground.

        It’s not like last year where road teams could focus on the kids and not really worry about anyone else. There’s now a lot of matchup problems for other teams.

        • Bruce McCurdy
          January 17, 2013 at

          Oh, I get that it’s a much bigger problem for opposing coaches now. I just don’t see how you get a high-octane line out against the other team’s bottom 6 in their barn all the time.

          • jeffaves@yahoo.com
            January 17, 2013 at

            Its actually simple on the road its Smyth with Ebbs & RNH and Yak with Horc

    6. Triumph
      January 17, 2013 at

      The Performance Bonus Cushion only accounts for 7.5% of the cap, so the Oilers could only spend something like $75M. It’s just that we think it’s unlimited because who has that many players with that many bonuses, other than a team that’s finished with the #1 pick 3 years in a row?

      • Bruce McCurdy
        January 17, 2013 at

        The Oilers have six (6) guys on bonuses, including the three 1 OV’s, JSchultz who is getting paid like another one, & Eberle & Paajarvi who got drafted in 2008 and ’09 but whose ELCs didn’t kick in until 2010. Their bonuses are relatively small, with MP unlikely to hit some of his targets. It’s a pretty unusual cluster to say the least.

        • Tyler Dellow
          January 17, 2013 at

          Bah, I’d forgotten that 7.5% thing. The thing with the Oiler bonuses is that you can probably ballpark them reasonably well right now. There’s the Schedule “B” ones which are easier to hit and capped out at $850K and then the Schedule “A” ones which I wouldn’t really be banking on anyone hitting but come with a $2MM hit.

    7. Jim
      January 17, 2013 at

      Tim Connelly is apparently being waived by the Leafs. At a bit under 5 million (4.6 million cap hit?), is he the grizzled, bearded, fully grown man you are looking for? I’ve never really seen him play much but he is a bit famous (or used to be). Not a whole lot of goals for the money, but he has had a Hemsky-like injury history.

      • January 17, 2013 at

        Problem with Connolly is that he is a centre and that he wants more offensive opportunities. He is average defensively, he used to play a lot more on the PK with Buffalo, but I don’t think he’d want to go somewhere where he’s a defensive option although right now he’s headed towards the Marlies so maybe it’s a sacrifice he is interested in making.

        • Jim
          January 19, 2013 at

          PPP,

          Thanks very much for replying. After posting I decided to stop being quite so lazy and I looked into Connolly’s straight and fancy stats and checked how to spell his name as well. He didn’t look quite to interesting close up, especially given that he would have to have a defensive role. Your comments would seem to end that train of thought. Nevertheless, I figure he could be useful if he was patient and was bought out first…. same as a lot of guys!

    8. Tyler Dellow
      January 17, 2013 at

      Bruce -

      If you’ve got two lines who can run up against the other team’s best lines, it gets easier, I think. Obviously, no last change, so you can’t outright pick your matchup but you CAN look for spots to slide in a Yak/RNH/Eberle line after the other team’s better lines have just come off. It’s also easier to quick shift them if you’ve got two lines who can play the other team’s better lines, because the other team can’t just follow your best line onto the ice if you’ve got a second line that can play on the bench.

      So you’re right, no last change but there’s a kind of a tipping point if two of your three best lines can take on the better lines that I see anyway.

    9. Heuristic@mail.com
      January 17, 2013 at

      Tyler,

      I really enjoy reading your posts, they’re very insightful and realistic with either praise, or concern. This post in particular, to me, makes a lot of sense and I can see Krueger being flexible with these line combos depending on the barn we’re playing in. Where I might disagree is with your assessment of the D. After reading what Steve Smith said about the D I think that group is going to be flexible as well, depending on the opposition. With the minutes spread around, combined with the fresh way practices are being run, I honestly believe our whole team will be a) less prone to injury and b) better equipped to deal with them when they occur. I must admit Dubnyk is a hope and injury to him will be problematic. Possibly Tambo wants to get through this season and next year; when free agents; and price tags, are better. The holes, we all know exist can be addressed better at the end of this season… IMHO.

    10. RiversQ
      January 17, 2013 at

      Kind of disappointing to have all that cap space and they add Fistric. The goal should’ve been to force Whitney and Schultz to earn top four spots.

      An offer sheet to Subban would’ve been pretty nice. Other than that, I suppose the dman market is a little scarce. Any overpaid dmen that are still good but out of favour? I can’t think of any right now.

      • jsoh
        January 19, 2013 at

        There is pretty much no way Subban would sign a deal. He wants to stay in Montreal. Even if he signed a deal there is also pretty much no way Montreal wouldn’t match.

    11. Saj
      January 17, 2013 at

      I hear a lot about how teams who had a lot of players who have been playing during the lockout will be at an advantage. However, I could see these same people calling it a disadvantage later in the season when the long season tires them out. Has anyone done any work into this (e.g. during last lockout, or for other sports) to determine if there’s any truth to this meme (or its opposite)?

      • Triumph
        January 17, 2013 at

        Players didn’t immediately run off to other leagues during the 95 lockout. And in the NBA, very few players were able to find employment in other leagues. So I don’t see how there’s enough data here – we don’t even really have a sample size of one.

    12. Tach
      January 17, 2013 at

      Shorter Dellow:

      The Oilers have more good players, but, you know, Tambellini.

    13. Dennis
      January 17, 2013 at

      I think the Oilers are pretty close to being there forwards-wise; the kids look real and if the 94-10 has anything left then either the 89 or 93 line will get the absolute cherry minutes for all the Rexall games. There’s a chance that the forward depth could be exploited enough for the home games that all you would need is a close-to-decent road mark and here comes the playoffs.

      That said it’s all about the D and the netminding. 6′s feet are so bad and won’t get better to the point that young Schultz gets fed to the top four wolves already and can Dubnyk stand up to the accelerated sked? This isn’t a case where you get bombed and you have two days to recover – maybe more if you get a game off and get to work at it in practice. Here’s a season where you get bombed and the back-up’s on his last legs so even more pressure for you to get over it quick.

    14. FastOil
      January 17, 2013 at

      Management has yet again shown where their intent lays, which is fine with me. Not the right time to make a push with at least two multi tool D and C coming up, exactly what the team needs, gratis.

      I hope to see a lot of 5-4 games lost, get the offensive juices flowing, tighten things up when the holes are plugged by the lottery and the new MacGM. Lots of goals, stellar saves, few points for the joke season.

    15. January 18, 2013 at

      Off topic, but thought you blog followers might enjoy some hockey comedy – “Hockey Night in Asia” – a short film shot in Vancouver. Enjoy and share if you like it!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLrpItWThBk

    16. Adam Dyck
      January 18, 2013 at

      Should we take into account that our defence will probably look worse (barring another step forward from Smid/Petry or an unforeseen impact from J Schultz or Whitney) with Tom Gilbert playing in the Twin Cities?

    17. Lee
      January 22, 2013 at

      The thing with Whitney is we don’t know what Katz’ appetite is for having that salary sit in the pressbox , particularly after the Souray fiasco. Given his pylon-esque play in the season opener, Whitney’s ankle(s) definitely looks done and one could argue the Oil would’ve been better served buying him out over Souray. The blame for that decision and the trade to acquire Whitney in the first place can certainly be laid at the feet of Tambellini but blame can be difficult to assign when we don’t know the true extent of Katz and Lowe’s involvement in those decisions.

      Other than Souray (who directly criticized the org), it seems the Oiler mandate is to give these bad contracts a roster spot come hell or high water. A less frugal owner might eat some costs on these GM gaffes (Philly and NY come to mind), but Katz’ track record would seem to indicate otherwise.

      To play devil’s advocate on Tambi for a moment, his two most criticized acquisitions (Khabi and Whitney) have under-performed due to injury issues. When reacting to injuries, it seems a GM is damned if he doesn’t and damned if he does. If he trades or goes FA to get a starting netminder or Top 4 D replacement, he’ll likely have to overpay. If he does nothing, he’s not addressing weaknesses. And with the former option, we’re not privy to the owner’s appetite for an overpay.

      With Khabi, he became largely irrelevant the minute they decided to rebuild. With Whitney, we’re not winning the Cup this year, so the Oil have clearly decided they’ll live with one more season of under-performance on this contract and then dangle him at the deadline.

      The question that really needs to be asked is why aren’t the Oil pursuing an amnesty buyout with Whitney and filling that roster spot by then acquiring a better player outside the org? I suspect the answer is Katz doesn’t want to eat the cost and Lowe’s comments re: a homegrown defense would seem to support that speculation. Finally, if Klefbom or Musil are a year away, do you part with one of your coveted offensive prospects to simply bring in a replacement for Whitney when it’s likely a bandaid solution at best?

    18. Lee
      January 22, 2013 at

      And btw, Tambi did acquire Justin Schultz and Mark Fistric. Does he not get credit for those moves to address D depth or are the masses not satisfied unless it’s a Top 4 signing?

      Seems strange when both J Schultz and Klefbom could be trending in that direction and they’ve already got Petry, Smid and N Schultz in hand. Remember they did plan to have Klefbom in camp this season as a projected starter (there’s the injury issue again), so what you’re seemingly saying is Tambi should be fired if the Oiler D underperforms this season despite the fact that Klefbom got hurt AND he did acquire Schultz and Fistric. Seems harsh.

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