2010-2011 NHL season preview: Edmonton Oilers

GYI0061784200-hall-macmillan-getty.jpgLast season: (27-47-8, 62 points, 5th in Northwest Division,15th in Western Conference) The Oilers were, hands down, the worst team in the league last year. At no point did they exhibit any hope for their fans and the moment in November when Nikolai Khabibulin went down with a back injury was the moment when the team essentially mailed it in for the year. Yes, even in late November.

Head coach: World-class nice guy Tom Renney takes over. Last season, Renney was an assistant to Pat Quinn on the Oilers bench and he’ll try to bring his easier demeanor to a team that figures to be very young and learning to grow in the NHL. Renney doesn’t have a world of pressure on him but should the play of the Oilers’ three potential starters under 20 suffer, he’ll hear it loudly from the fans.

Key departures: F Ethan Moreau, F Patrick O’Sullivan, D Sheldon Souray. Yes, I know Souray is still a part of the team, technically, but he’s not going to play a game for them this season after being sent home by the team. He’ll be an ex-Oiler soon enough. After being put on waivers by the Oilers and unclaimed he’s either headed for Oklahoma City in the AHL or potentially picked up on re-entry waivers at half the price by another team.

Key arrivals: F Colin Fraser, D Kurtis Foster, F Taylor Hall, F Magnus Paajarvi, F Jordan Eberle. If you didn’t think the Oilers’ three rookie arrivals wouldn’t be included here you’re crazy. They’re the three most-exciting forwards to land in Edmonton since guys named Gretzky, Messier, and Kurri. Lofty talk, I know, but times have been tough of late in Edmonton. Even their 2006 Stanley Cup finals team wasn’t a very good one. Hall, Paajarvi, and Eberle give the Oilers faithful something they haven’t had in years though: Hope.

Under pressure: For a team coming in with low expectations and full knowledge that they’re going to be very young there isn’t one person on the ice with pressure to get things done.  Renney is new to his job so there’s not too much pressure for him. So who’s left? GM Steve Tambellini. He’s the guy that signed Nikolai Khabibulin to an egregiously long, 35+ contract that stays on the cap no matter what, assembled a team without much of a defense, and he’s the guy that’s going to take the heat should anything go wrong with the Oilers otherwise.

nikolaikhabibulin4.jpgProtecting the house: Goaltending is a situation always worth watching with any team, but in Edmonton it’s a special brand of mess. Khabibulin is healthy and he’s back playing. His drunk driving conviction is being appealed and while that’s going on, he doesn’t have to spend his 30 days in jail in Arizona. Due process is fun that way. If he’s healthy and he doesn’t have to go to jail during the season, he gives the Oilers stability in an area that otherwise is a mess. Either Jeff Deslauriers or Devan Dubnyk will back him up and in emergency starting duty last year, neither of them did well to keep the puck out of the net as the Oilers allowed the most goals in the NHL. Failing those two players getting it done, former NHL starter Martin Gerber is waiting in the wings as well in Oklahoma City. What was a major black hole for Edmonton before is suddenly somewhat of a strength.

Fear not, however, because a big reason why the Oilers will have a rough season is their defense. With Souray out of the picture, the team’s best blue liner is likely either Tom Gilbert or Ryan Whitney. They’re both solid guys offensively, but they suffer at controlling the other team’s top forwards. Ladislav Smid, Jim Vandermeer, and Kurtis Foster round out the top six. Foster’s booming shot will soften the loss of Souray and Vandermeer is the one defenseman who prides his game on stopping the opponents. Any chance he can play 45 minutes a game?

Top line we’d like to see: It’s too easy to pick Hall-Eberle-Paajarvi as the top line we’d like to see. Instead, it’s the Oilers other top line of Dustin Penner-Sam Gagner-Ales Hemsky that we’d like to see do well in Edmonton. Penner had a breakout year last season for the Oilers, scoring 32 goals. Gagner is poised to have a big season eventually and Hemsky missed most of last year with injury. By all accounts, Hemsky has returned stronger and faster than he was before which means great things for an offense that sputtered horribly last year. Getting Gagner to break out would be a huge boost for the team. While the rookies will have their moments of greatness, if the Oilers are to be strong this year, these three veterans are going to need to step up.

Oh captain, my captain: The Oilers are without a captain for the time being. Last year’s captain Ethan Moreau is now in Columbus. Candidates for the position include Whitney, Penner, and the leader in the running for it, Shawn Horcoff. Horcoff has been there long enough, has the veteran grit the position calls for and he too could be poised for a bounce-back season now that he’s healthy again.

stevemacintyre1.jpgStreet fighting man: The obvious choice to pick here is Zack Sortini. He’s a massive beast of a forward and he’s not afraid of throwing down with anyone. He had 17 fighting majors last year for the Oilers to lead the team but if you’re looking for someone even more terrifying than Sortini, look no further than Steve MacIntyre, who returns to Edmonton after a year away in Florida. He’s a menacing old-school brand of goon. The poor-man’s fighter on this team is J-F Jacques. Given that he too is bouncing back from injury, perhaps it’s best he not drop the gloves with anyone.

Best-case scenario: Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi all end up finalists for the Calder Trophy. Hemsky has a huge comeback season while Penner continues to throw his weight around to be a 30+ goal scorer again. Gagner similarly has a big season while supporting forwards Andrew Cogliano, Horcoff, and Gilbert Brule have bigger-than-expected seasons while Khabibulin has a resurgent season in goal leading the Oilers to the eighth spot in the West.

Worst-case scenario: Khabibulin gets hurt again. The “big three” struggle under the weight of expectations while learning what it’s like to play in the NHL. The defense plays as suspect as they look and further expose the problems in goal. Renney does his best with what he’s got,  Tambellini fiddles while Edmonton burns and the Oilers head back to the draft lottery.

Keeping it real: This may be the most exciting team in the Northwest Division, but they’re not going to be a very good one. The defense is too poor to expect anything big and putting everything on Khabibulin to keep things steady is daunting at best. He’s 37, has a bad back and will likely be going to jail eventually. If he’s not distracted by everything that would be a bigger story. The Oilers won’t be a playoff team but they’ll be fun to watch while looking like a throwback to the glory days of the 1980s with the high-flying offense and inability to really play much defense.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Oilers are a definitive 1. They’re not going to win the Stanley Cup. There’s hope for the future though and this season will be the first step in the journey, and as first steps go, they’re always the toughest.

(Hall photo: Dale MacMillan – Getty Images)

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    Bruins recall McIntyre from AHL on emergency basis

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    Tuukka Rask was supposed to be back in goal for the Boston Bruins tonight.

    But then, just a couple of hours before their game with the Nashville Predators, the B’s announced they’d recalled goalie Zane McIntyre from the AHL on an emergency basis.

    It’s not yet clear why McIntyre was recalled. Rask missed Saturday’s game in Brooklyn with a lower-body injury, but coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier today that Rask was healthy and ready to go.

    “Tuukka is healthy,” said Cassidy. “That’s what he indicated to me and that’s all I needed to hear. He’ll be our starter tonight.”

    If Rask is unable to play, expect Anton Khudobin to get the nod.

    Khudobin backstopped the B’s to a 2-1 victory over the Isles on Saturday.

    Nestrasil blasts Carolina, says he’s finished with organization

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    Andrej Nestrasil, the Czech forward who scored a career-high 23 points for Carolina last year, ripped the team in a recent interview and said he’s all but done playing for the organization.

    SB Nation site ‘Canes Country has the details, including translation of the original Nestrasil piece from Czech news outlet Blesk. In it, the 26-year-old — currently playing with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte — said he was “done here, 100 percent,” adding “I don’t way to stay here.”

    Nestrasil’s frustration stems from the aftermath of a fractured vertebra, an injury that prematurely ended his ’15-16 campaign. He recovered in time to start this season, but only dressed 16 times (compared to 24 healthy scratches) before he was waived in early January. In speaking with Blesk, he said the ‘Canes “didn’t give me much of a chance after the injury.”

    “When I first got hurt, they wanted to help and were promising me things all over the place,” he said. “But when it came down to it, they weren’t willing to actually do anything.”

    Nestrasil cleared waivers, and joined the Checkers. He’s since appeared in 28 AHL contests, scoring four goals and 10 points.

    This falling out happened pretty quickly. It was less than two years ago when Carolina inked Nestrasil to a $1.825 million extension, calling him a “a big body and a good fit for our team and what we’re trying to do.”

    ‘Canes County did note “the word choice may be more harsh in translation than Nestrail intended.”

    PHT reached out to the ‘Canes regarding Nestrasil’s remarks. The club said it was aware of them, and declined to comment further.

    Pre-game reading: On Kopitar’s challenging first season as Kings captain

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    — Up top, Drew Doughty talks about the Edmonton Oilers, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight over Doughty’s Kings. “Their top guys and their forwards want to play defense now,” said Doughty, “whereas in the past I feel like their top guys just kinda worried about getting points and weren’t worried about playing defense.”

    — It’s been a frustrating season for Kings captain Anze Kopitar, who tells the L.A. Times it’s been an adjustment taking over the team’s top leadership role. “I wouldn’t say a burden,” said Kopitar. It was definitely a change. It’s definitely some adjustments that I needed to make. I’m still learning. I don’t know if you can learn that overnight. It’s been, not a burden, but a new challenge that I think I’m in the process of getting the handle of it and I’ll get there.” (Los Angeles Times)

    — NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly insists that the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas won’t be a problem for the expansion Golden Knights. “No, there’s not widespread panic,” said Daly. “I do think that while fanbases overlap to a certain extent, I think the products of an eight-game NFL home schedule versus a 41-game home schedule in hockey make the products a little bit different.” (Sportsnet)

    — A Q&A with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who talks about the changes he’s tried to implement on offense since taking over from Claude Julien. “I think it’s a lot to do with we’ve kept pucks going toward the net down low, more half-wall attacks, more plays down low. We’ve emphasized more of that than always going low to high with it. We’re trying to get the guys to use more of their skill set, separate down low, especially with man-to-man coverages. So I think our quality of chances, if you look at that stat-wise, has gone up quite a bit in the last 20 games.” (NHL.com)

    — Another Q&A, this one with Steven Stamkos, who talks about all the exciting, young players in the NHL today. “Yeah, 30 is the new 40 in this league. I’m closing in on 30 here, so it’s crazy to really think about it. … I’m 27 now, and next year will be 10 years [since joining the league]. It’s crazy how time flies. Now I’m one of the old guys on the team. You just never take it for granted. It’s such an honor to play in this league, and like I said, 30 is the new 40 now. So you’ve just got to cherish it.” (ESPN)

    — Hockey Canada is making young kids play on reduced-size ice surfaces. “We know statistically when you’re in a smaller playing area it increases the number of puck touches, it increases the number of battles for loose pucks, it increases the number of shots on goal, it increases the number of passes and pass receptions.” Hey, it worked for Auston Matthews in that hockey hotbed of Arizona! (Canadian Press)

    Enjoy the games!

    Goalie nods: McElhinney ready for biggest start of his career

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    Toronto has a massive game tonight as the Eastern Conference playoff battle tightens, but won’t have workhorse No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen available.

    Instead, it’ll be backup Curtis McElhinney who faces the visiting Panthers, while Andersen deals with an upper-body injury.

    Calling it the biggest start of his career, McElhinney can keep the Leafs locked into the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division with a win, on a night when Boston — just one point back of the Leafs — is also in action, hosting Nashville.

    “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in this situation, in terms of being in a playoff race,” McElhinney said. “For me it’ll be business as usual.”

    There’s a significant amount of pressure on McElhinney, who hasn’t been good in March. He’s allowed 13 goals on 113 shots — a .885 save percentage — which included three on 22 in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Buffalo, the game in which he replaced the injured Andersen.

    Though Andersen’s injury isn’t believed to be serious — the Danish ‘tender hasn’t ruled out a return on Thursday in Nashville — the Leafs still must be concerned with the present. They need to get points over their next four games, lest they leave it to the end of the season.

    Yes, the Leafs will play their four contests at the ACC. But those come against extremely difficult opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus.

    For Florida, James Reimer gets the start in goal. How perfect.

    Elsewhere…

    — As mentioned above, the other big game tonight is Nashville taking on Boston at TD Garden. Tuukka Rask starts for the B’s (more on that here), while Pekka Rinne is likely after Juuse Saros beat the Isles last night.

    Connor Hellebuyck returns to the starter’s crease for Winnipeg, after Michael Hutchinson played the last two. Cory Schneider also returns to the starter’s crease, for New Jersey, after Keith Kinkaid played on Sunday.

    — No word from Columbus on who’ll start for the Sabres or Jackets. Robin Lehner won last night in Florida (so it could be Anders Nilsson), and Sergei Bobrovsky played on Saturday in Philly.

    Cam Ward gets the start for Carolina after Eddie Lack‘s scary injury in last night’s OT loss to Detroit. Speaking of Detroit, no word on a starter yet, but Jimmy Howard seems likely after Petr Mrazek played last night.

    — It’s Craig Anderson versus Steve Mason when the Sens take on the Flyers in Philly.

    Al Montoya was expected to start tonight, but suffered a lower-body injury during the morning skate. As such, Carey Price will go as the Habs host the Stars. Dallas has yet to announce its starter.

    — Marquee matchup in Minnesota tonight, as Devan Dubnyk and the Wild host Braden Holtby and the Caps.

    — The Oilers can clinch their first playoff berth since 2006 tonight and, unsurprisingly, they’ll go with Cam Talbot in goal. The host Kings will counter with Jonathan Quick.

    John Gibson is inching closer to a return, but the Ducks feel no need to rush him back. That’s because Jonathan Bernier is playing extremely well, and will get the call tonight in Vancouver. The Canucks are going with Ryan Miller.

    — The Sharks will go with Martin Jones when they host the Rangers. No word yet on a New York starter.