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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    Columbus giving prized rookie Werenski ‘every opportunity to run the power play’

    2015 NHL Draft - Portraits
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    The Blue Jackets aren’t easing Zach Werenski into his freshman campaign.

    Werenski, the highly touted blueline prospect, has been tasked with running the Columbus power play during the exhibition campaign — often as the lone defenseman with four forwards — and it looks like a role he might reprise throughout the regular season.

    Even though he’s yet to play an NHL game.

    “I want to give him every opportunity to run the power play,” head coach John Tortorella said after an OT win over Nashville, per the Blue Jackets website. “He certainly did a good job of that tonight. We’ll keep on giving him opportunities and we’ll see where we go.”

    More: Looking to make the leap: Zach Werenski

    The Werenski hype train has been full steam for just over a year now. The eighth overall pick in 2015, Werenski spent two highly decorated years at the University of Michigan before turning pro at the end of last season.

    Dispatched to Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Lake Erie, the 19-year-old had a fantastic professional debut. He was a major catalyst on the Monsters’ defense, scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup championship.

    “The skill set he has — his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player,” said Monsters coach Jared Bednar (now the head coach in Colorado). “To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.”

    All signs point to a very talented — and young — Columbus defense this year. It was already assumed 21-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Ryan Murray were going to play major roles, and now it sounds like Werenski will be leaned on just as heavily.

    Which means it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the vets.

    Jack Johnson averaged over 24 minutes per game last year, a figure that will undoubtedly decrease. It’ll also be curious to see what happens to David Savard, who was playing more than 23 minutes a night — do remember that, at the start of last season, the Jackets gave Savard a hefty five-year, $21.25 million extension.

    The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

    ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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    The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

    A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

    The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

    Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

    The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

    Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

    “This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

    Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

    “The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

    How tight?

    “Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

     

    Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

     

    Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

    ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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    The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

    Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

    It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

    As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

    St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

    Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

    More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

    PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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    Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

    Now we know why.

    Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

    It’s a big blow for the Stars.

    After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

    He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

    Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

    Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.