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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    The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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    Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

    Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

    His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

    Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

    Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

    Highlight of the night. 

    For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

    Factoid of the Night.

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

    Misc.

    — Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

    Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

    — With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

    James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

    Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

    Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

    Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

    Scores and recaps

    New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

    Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

    Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

    Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

    Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

    New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

    Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

    Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

    Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

    Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

    Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

    Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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    Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

    The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

    They had no other update.

    After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

    He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

    Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.

    Senators top Maple Leafs but lose Bobby Ryan for a month

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    The Ottawa Senators’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night came with a price.

    After the game coach Guy Boucher confirmed that veteran forward Bobby Ryan broke his right index finger during the game and is expected to miss at least the next month.

    Ryan has yet to score a goal for the Senators in eight games this season but has recorded five assists.

    He fought through an injury plagued season in 2016-17 that ended with one of the worst individual stat lines of his career. He was able to salvage the season however with a tremendous postseason performance that saw him finish with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 19 games as the Senators went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they would lose in double overtime.

    The Senators are off to a great start this season earning at least a point in seven of their first eight games (4-1-3).

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    The Penguins seem to have a backup goalie problem

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    The Penguins worked to address one area of concern on Saturday when they acquired forward Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings.

    Now they need to start working on another major area of concern — their backup goalie.

    The Penguins had to know Antti Niemi was never going to step into Pittsburgh and replace what Marc-Andre Fleury gave them on the ice, but they had to be expecting a little more than what they have received thus far.

    After giving up seven goals in the Penguins’ 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Niemi has now given up 16 goals in 128 minutes of hockey this season. His save percentage is a brutal .797.

    In games Niemi starts the Penguins are 0-3 and have been outscored 22-6, losing games by margins of 10-1 and 7-1.

    In the games he hasn’t started they are 5-0-1 and have outscored their opponents 24-17.

    It would be unfair to put all of the blame on Niemi, because even with regular starter Matt Murray in net they have also had stretches where they have struggled defensively and not quite played at the level they showed the past two seasons.

    Niemi has also made all of his starts in the second half of back-to-back situations against teams that were not only rested the night before, but also teams that should be among the best in the league this season (the Chicago Blackhawks, two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning).

    But none of that can excuse the way Niemi himself has played thus far, either. At some point you  need your goalie to make a save no matter who your team is playing or what is happening around him. His rebound control has been shaky, he looks uncomfortable when he is making saves and it is not like he is coming off of a great performance a year ago. In 42 appearances with the Dallas Stars he finished with an .892 save percentage, one of the worst marks in the league, and was at .905 the year before. He is 34 years old and has not performed at a better than league average level (or even at a league average level) in several years.

    It has to be an area of concern for the Penguins because if Murray has a flaw early in his young career it is that he has missed some time due to injury. In the past they have had Fleury there to step in. They do not have that luxury now.

    Niemi is only signed for one year at $700,000 so it is not like they have a huge investment in him.

    If they decide to go in another direction already (they will probably give Niemi a little bit of a longer leash, I am sure) they have Tristan Jarry in the American Hockey League, or perhaps explore a trade if they are uncomfortable with such a young duo and inexperienced backup behind Murray.

    Either way, it is really difficult to see them sticking around with this sort of performance from their backup for much longer.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.