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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    ‘That’s definitely a huge option for us’: Brian Boyle wants to go back to Tampa

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    Brian Boyle spent almost three full years with the Tampa Bay Lightning before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at last March’s trade deadline.

    The veteran center liked his stint in Tampa so much that he’s willing to go back there when he becomes a free agent in less than week.

    “We love Tampa,” said Boyle, per the Tampa Bay Times. “If Tampa wanted to work out a deal, that’s definitely a huge option for us. That’s something that I’ve kind of always thought about. I haven’t closed the door on anything.”

    Boyle enjoyed quite a bit of success with the Bolts. During his time there, he scored at least 13 goals in each of his three seasons, which isn’t bad considering he was more of a bottom-six player when he was there.

    It’s unclear if the Bolts would be willing to take him back at this point, but a big factor will likely be his contract demands.

    “(Tampa) is a great place to be, great place to start a family. And, honestly, we’ll see what they say. You want to be wanted. That’s the other part.”

    The Lightning have just over $23 million in cap space right now. That seems like a good amount, but they still have to sign Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Andrej Sustr. It’s also pretty clear that they’re in the market for a top four defenseman, and that won’t come cheap. As of right now, they only have three blue liners on one-way contracts.

    The 32-year-old is coming off a contract that paid him $2 million per season. He should be able to fetch a higher number if he hits the open market.

    ‘Canes re-sign Masterton Trophy finalist Derek Ryan to one-year deal

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have reportedly taken care of some business on Monday morning, as they’ve re-signed forward Derek Ryan to a one-year deal worth $1.425 million, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

    Update: The Hurricanes have confirmed the news.

    The 30-year-old had 11 goals and 29 points in 67 games during his first full NHL season.

    Ryan’s journey to the NHL is a great story.

    He played three full seasons of junior hockey with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs (2004-2007) before joining the University of Alberta hockey program for four years (2007-2011). Once he completed his Canadian University hockey eligibility, Ryan went on to play three seasons of pro hockey in the Austrian League and one year over in Sweden. He came back to North America for the 2015-16 season, where he played 70 games with AHL Charlotte and six games with the ‘Canes.

    Ryan was a finalist for the Masterton Trophy, which is awarded to “the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”

    “I feel a little out of place,” Ryan told NHL.com during the 2017 NHL Awards. “A couple of years ago, I was battling my way through the European leagues and all of a sudden here I am at the NHL Awards and just kind of taking it all in.”

    PHT Morning Skate: 6 teams that have work to do before the start of free agency

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    –USA Today looks at six teams that have some work to do before the free-agent market opens on July 1st. The Coyotes are gonna need to find a new coach, Vegas will have to keep tweaking their roster and the New York Rangers still need that puck-moving defenseman. (USA Today)

    –The Dallas Stars have been searching for a number one defenseman for a few years now. You have to believe they were excited to land Miro Heiskanen third overall on Friday. The Dallas Morning News shares five things you need to know about their new top prospect. Yea, he wasn’t even both when Dallas won the Stanley Cup in 1999. (Dallas Morning News)

    –Does your team need a center? NHL.com compiled a list of the top free-agent centers that are scheduled to hit the open market on Saturday. If clubs are looking for size down the middle, they could do worse than Joe Thornton or Martin Hanzal. (NHL.com)

    –If you’re a fan of great hair, you’ll enjoy this. The Score looks at the top 5 “flows” from the NHL Draft. Nico Hischier wasn’t only the top pick in the entry draft, he also found himself on the top of this list, too. (The Score)

    –2017 Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns went to Disney World with his family during the off-season, and many of the children thought he was a pirate (I can’t really blame them). “I actually signed a couple of autographs in kids’ books because they thought I was a pirate. And I actually signed them.” (Sports Illustrated)

    –Penguins forward Ryan Reaves didn’t believe the rumblings about him being traded on Friday night. His response was classic:

    These 2017 NHL Draft picks lacked hype … but not swagger

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    The interview process for draft prospects must be a real beating. Then again, it’s also an opportunity for hopefuls to push back.

    In the case of two smaller prospects, it meant providing some swagger in their answers, possibly impressing their new teams. If nothing else, Kailer Yamamoto and Michael DiPietro generated some refreshingly confident quotes.

    One would assume that the Edmonton Oilers picked Yamamoto with the 22nd choice for more than just a great answer alone … but still.

    Nice, right?

    Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek related a similar story about DiPietro, who the Vancouver Canucks nabbed with the 64th pick.

    Funny story: When one team at the NHL told him “We don’t think you can play in the NHL with our team, you’re too small” at the combine, he fired back with “well, I guess you have a problem with winning, then.” How do you not like that?

    If nothing else, those two aren’t shy.

    As a bonus story, check out the bumpy path Will Reilly – aka the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2017 NHL Draft – took to being chosen last overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, via Puck Daddy’s Sean Leahy. From the sound of things, there are worse feelings than going 217th.

    The 2017 NHL Draft may have been “pumped down” from a hype perspective, yet it sounds like many of these prospects at least bring some moxie to the table.