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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    PHT Morning Skate: How Avs turned it around; How Oilers fell apart

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    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    • It sounds like Marc-Andre Fleury will be joining his teammates in Colorado. That’s good news considering he suffered an injury just a few days ago. They can’t afford to lose him right before the start of the playoffs. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

    • The Colorado Avalanche were awful last year, but thanks to Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Semyon Varlamov and a few others, they’ve managed to claw their way back to respectability. (Fan Rag Sports)

    Brayden Schenn won’t be facing supplemental discipline for the hit he delivered on David Krejci Wednesday night. (NBC Sports Boston)

    • No one expected the Edmonton Oilers to fall off the face of the earth one year after making the second round of the playoffs, but that’s exactly what happened. TSN’s Frank Seravalli examines why that happened to them. (TSN.ca)

    Aleksander Barkov has emerged as one of the best centers in the NHL this season. His ability to play a quality two-way game has them in the playoff conversation. (The Hockey News)

    • The “Melnyk Out” billboards in Ottawa have have sparked a national conversation about the way Eugene Melnyk is affecting the Senators fan base in a negative way. (The Sports Daily)

    • British hockey player Liam Kirk has developed into a legitimate prospect for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Instead of moving to a more traditional hockey country when he was younger, Kirk decided to stay in Great Britain. (Elite Prospects)

    • Here’s an interesting list of players that broke the color barrier for each NHL team. (Grand Stand Central)

    • The 2018 Isobel Cup will be handed out to the Buffalo Beauts or the Metropolitan Riveters. Here’s a full preview of the championship game. (The Ice Garden)

    • Blues forward Jaden Schwartz has developed into one of the most underrated stars in the league. (Bleedin Blue)

    • Only one defenseman has won the Lady Byng Trophy since 1954. Could Roman Josi be the next one? (On the Forecheck)

    • The fact that so many potential candidates pulled themselves out of the running for the Carolina GM job probably isn’t a good sign. New owner Thomas Dundon might have to reexamine his structure. (Scotty Wazz)

    Clayton Keller talks about his path to the NHL, how he prepared for his first full season and more in a Q&A with the Sporting News. (Sporting News)

    • Coverage of the Vancouver Canucks seems to have taken a negative turn over the last couple of years, but is that surprising given their recent results? (Canucks Army)

    • Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Golden Knights and Sharks.

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    The Buzzer: Kopitar scores four, McDavid’s four-point night and Olczyk cancer-free

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    Players of the Night:

    Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings: Two words: career night. Kopitar scored four goals, becoming the first Kings player in 25 years to do so, and thus, setting his own career-high in the process. The Kings decimated the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 in the process.

    Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets: Bobrovsky made 33 saves en route to a shutout victory, the Blue Jackets’ 10th in a row in a 4-0 win against the Florida Panthers, who have been red-hot themselves.

    Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals: Grubauer has been solid in relief of Braden Holtby down the stretch as the Capitals’ No. 1 gets some rest before a playoff push. He won his fourth start out of his past five since March 10, stopping all 39 shots that came his way in the shutout.

    Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: He’s not playing for a playoff spot, and he shouldn’t get too many votes for the Hart Trophy. But McDavid still has his eyes set on Mr. Art Ross. McDavid had two goals and two assists in a 6-2 win for the Oilers over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. McDavid’s 94 points  (36 goals, 58 assists) are now just one shy of Nikita Kucherov for the NHL lead.

    Highlights of the Night:

    Above all else, this:

    Hard work pays off:

    Kopitar’s fourth:

    Not everything is pretty when it comes to the Canucks. This is though:

    Factoids of the Night:

    Things you don’t see very often:

    Poor Cam Ward:


    Blue Jackets 4, Panthers 0

    Hurricanes 6, Coyotes 5

    Flyers 4, Rangers 3

    Lightning 7, Islanders 6

    Capitals 1, Red Wings 0

    Maple Leafs 5, Predators 2

    Oilers 6, Senators 2

    Canucks 5, Blackhawks 2

    Kings 7, Avalanche 1

    Sharks 2, Golden Knights 1 (OT)

    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Sharks drop Golden Knights 2-1 in overtime

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    If the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s fixing to be one hell of a series,

    Thursday’s meeting cemented that. The game had all the ingredients that make up that playoff feel — tight play, tight checking, great goaltending and low scoring. There was urgency from both teams, despite both being near locks to make the postseason.

    And it came right down to the last shot of the game.

    Logan Couture scored 39 seconds (ironically, Couture’s jersey number) into overtime to clinch a 2-1 win for the Sharks on Thursday night.

    The Sharks gained a single point on the Golden Knights and are seven points back of Vegas for first in the Pacific Division with eight games remaining. Perhaps most important, they remained four points clear of the Los Angeles Kings, who leapfrogged the Anaheim Ducks with a 7-1 win against Colorado. San Jose owns a game in hand on L.A.

    Catching up to Vegas seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. The two teams play each other for the last time next week.

    The loss was bittersweet for the Golden Knights, who set record No. 2321778 for a club in their inaugural season.

    Malcolm Subban made 42 saves, a career-high after being thrust into action following an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Tomas Tartar got the ball rolling in the game 3:47 into the first period to give the Golden Knights an early lead.

    That lead lasted for roughly a period.

    Brent Burns tied the game 1-1 at 3:27 of the second period with the slickest of wrist shots from the point.

    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Eddie Olczyk declares he’s cancer-free


    It’s the news every hockey fan wanted to hear.

    On Thursday night’s Chicago Blackhawks broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago, Eddie Olczyk, who was diagnosed last summer with colon cancer, told the hockey world some great news.

    “I got the call on March 14 at 5:07 p.m. letting me know my scans were clear,” an emotional Olczyk said as he stood next to long-time broadcast partner Pat Foley. “I’ve never heard a better phrase in my life. I’m now 10 days on with the rest of my life.”

    Olczyk, 51, had surgery after his diagnosis and had his last chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 21.

    “All the cancer is gone – we beat this thing,” Olczyk said, thanking a handful of people, from colleagues at NBC to the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL to his family members, wife and four kids. “And I say ‘we’ because it has been a team effort. We all beat this and I’m so thankful for all the support and prayers. They worked. I’m proud to stand here before everybody and say we beat this thing.”

    Foley called Olczyk’s battle with cancer, “heroic.”

    Olczyk was scheduled to have a scan in April to see how his chemo treatments had gone, but that scan was moved up due to emergency hernia surgery, according to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times.

    “I’ve had enough crying to last me a lifetime,” Olczyk said. “I can’t emphasize enough just the support out there… just the texts, the email, the letters. I’ve received thousands and thousands of mail. I won’t be able to thank everybody, but I just want everybody to know on behalf of Eddie Olczyk and his family, we’re forever grateful for the support and the prayers and well wishes we received over the past seven months.”

    Olczyk said one thing he realized through his battle is that he found out he was way tougher than he thought he ever was.

    “If I can inspire one person to stay away from this, then I guess it was well worth it going through it,” he said.

    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck