It seems like the staple of the past few seasons was that the Oilers are going to suck. It’s been a safe bet. They were lacking in talent beyond Hemsky, they’ve been injury plagued (especially Hemsky), and they have had questionable goaltending at best. It appears that this is the case no longer. While the quick start to season has proven to be unsustainable, it has become clear that the Oilers may not be the bottom feeders they were pegged as. In one of the softest divisions in the league, it may be possible for the Oilers to climb back to being a contending franchise sooner rather than later.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think that Nugent-Hopkins could be a force this early in the league. After watching other first overall picks stumble out the gate in recent years I assumed an undersized center in a “superstar-free” draft wouldn’t produce like this. The kid certainly is making a case that he is already an all-star in the league and it’s impressive to see a rookie make those playing around him better from day one as well.
The return of Ryan Smyth might have been the best move of the summer, and the city of Edmonton certainly agrees with Smyth. At 35 Smyth is on pace for career bests in goals and assists if he can stay healthy and even if he slumps he’s proven he is more valuable to the organization than Colin Fraser.
Speaking of the oldies, it looks like incarceration agrees with Khabibulin and he will finally be the goaltender that the Oilers inexplicably signed to a multiyear deal three summers ago. The fact that Devan Dubnyk is also progressing in a more comfortable development environment makes for some stability in between the pipes for the Oilers down the line.
Eberle, Hall, and Horcoff have also been consistent performers, and if Hemsky can stay healthy, the Oilers will actually have an intimidating top six.
As exciting and promising as that half of the team is, the wheels come off the second you start looking at the bottom six forward group and defensive unit, although up to now they have produced the 7th best penalty kill and the 9th best goals against.
Outside of Ryan Jones there is little too happy with when it comes to checking line forwards, although Lennart Petrell looks promising. Magnus Paavarji has been miscast in the role and doesn’t seem to be capable of generating offensive chances on his own. Ideally the equally miscast Sam Gagner would be aiding in that, but to say he’s been slow out the gates is an understatement. Between the two forwards they have zero goals, and three assists in thirty games.
At this point there isn’t much that can be done with Gagner other than hope he snaps out of it, as for Paavarji, it seems odd that he hasn’t been demoted and given an opportunity to find his game.
Eric Belanger seems to have lost the offensive aspect of his game as well, and without the two-way aspect to his game he offers very little value after the face-off has been won. He has been a key member of the penalty kill as well, but without a five on five game Belanger should be relegated to the fourth line duties.
Similarly, it seems that the Oilers are choosing to squander a solid prospect in Anton Lander and develop him soley as a fourth line center. While his average TOI is still above 11 minutes, it’s arguable that his time could be better spent playing 20 minutes a night in all situations in a lower league.
Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager exist solely in meat sack capacities, and given Hordichuk’s two minutes a night and only dressing for four games he has proven himself to be quite possibly the league’s most useless meat sack.
While the Oilers may be dealing with a frustrated Linus Omark, the decision to demote him is the correct one, there isn’t any shortage of high end top six talent on this team, and there is little purpose to playing him in the bottom six. Hopefully Paavarji and Lander too will be given the chance to develop their games.
The blueline seems to be the time bomb I’d most worry about as an Oilers fan. Bottom six forward problems can be solved with waiver wires and trading late round picks, the defense situation requires heavier lifting.
Despite the strong goals against, and Tom Renney’s defensive system, the team will need help. Ryan Whitney is a decent top pairing guy when he’s in the line up, but if that’s over 40 games this season count your blessings.
Equally, Cam Barker showed signs of progression before his injury, and when he returns should be able to resume a top four role.
Ladislav Smid would be a well received 5th or 6th defenseman on any team in the league, but at close to 21 minutes a night he’s a sign of poor depth. Smid is doing what he can to show he deserves the time by leading the league in blocked shots and being one of the top 15 defensemen for hits in the league. As a Toronto fan I will point out that Luke Schenn is also fairing well in this categories and I wouldn’t label his season so far anything other than a complete disappointment.
Tom Gilbert minute eater isn’t much better. In a second pairing working with someone who can cover is mistakes Gilbert could thrive. As the team leader in TOI the Oilers are playing with fire. His increased physical play and shot blocking are promising, but Gilbert, along with Jeff Petry both currently reside in the top 20 defensemen for giveaways (note: I’m aware this is a subjective garbage stat.)
The most pleasant surprise has to be the rise of Corey Potter from career AHLer to not awful NHL defenseman. Playing twenty minutes a night in all situations and chipping in offense from the point, Potter is looking to be a capable player, but again one most likely reserved for a bottom pairing role. Thankfully Cliff Fletcher is no longer a GM in the league so we won’t see Potter making over $4 million next season (although if anyone is crazy enough to do it Tambellini’s your man.)
Beyond that it seems the quality falls right off. Andy Sutton’s lack of speed and decision making abilities seem to have him on a course that will see him bounce out of the league shortly. Theo Peckham’s poor positional play and lack of discipline make him an affordable Mike Komisarek. Petry is coming along, but really shouldn’t be in the line-up if this team is healthy.
When looking at the Oilers it seems that this is a team capable of competing sooner rather than later with a couple of savvy moves to strengthen the blueline, but outside of young skilled forwards there isn’t an area where the team is particularly deep (what a terrible area to be deep.) The team is also in a situation where potentially moveable pieces Sam Gagner, Linus Omark, and Magnus Paavarji have their values at all time lows. The best move may still be to move Ales Hemsky, but he still may be more valuable to the Oilers if he can string together a healthy stint.
As a new resident of Edmonton I have to say I’m excited to watch this team develop over the next few seasons, and while I plead an amount of ignorance towards this franchise in the past I feel my eyes will now forcibly shift in their direction. I still pledge 100% loyalty to the Maple Leafs, but I am willing to quietly wish for playoff in my new town as soon as possible.