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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    Report: Leafs win arbitration case with Cowen

    OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 21: Jared Cowen #2 of the Ottawa Senators prepares for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Canadian Tire Centre on January 21, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have won their arbitration case with Jared Cowen, who will remain bought out.

    TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported the news today. It is a significant loss for Cowen, the 25-year-old defenseman who came to the Leafs in February as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade.

    From Sportsnet’s story before the ruling:

    At issue is whether Cowen was healthy enough to have the final year of his contract bought out by the Leafs last summer. A lengthy section of the CBA is devoted to “procedures for determining fitness to play,” and they include a player’s right to pursue a second medical opinion beyond what is provided by the team.

    That information, plus witness testimony and other evidence, will be taken into account by the arbitrator while rendering a decision.

    For Cowen, there is $3-million in salary at stake. That represents somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent of his career NHL earnings to date – a huge amount given his injury history and diminished future earning potential.

    For the Leafs, it’s significant win. They’ll actually get a $650,000 cap credit this season. Next season, they’ll take a $750,000 hit, and after that their obligations are over.

    If they’d lost, they would’ve lost the credit and assumed a $3.1-million cap hit this season, the final year of Cowen’s contract.

    Sportsnet explains why the Leafs didn’t want to lose:

    That’s a $3.75-million cap swing in total and would almost certainly result in the Leafs invoking long-term injury relief on one of three players – Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas or Joffrey Lupul – to remain compliant.

    Even though the LTI maneuver would offer immediate relief, it’s something the Leafs hope to avoid since it would increase the size of the cap overage penalty they’ll carry into next season because of performance bonuses expected to be earned by as many as five rookies in their current lineup.

    Cowen had hip surgery after he was bought out. It’s been reported he may not be ready to play until February, assuming he can find a team. He played 37 games for the Senators last season, registering no goals and four assists.

    Related: Lupul to start season on injured reserve, still aims to play again

    No hearing for Taylor Hall after Larsen hit

    NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils hits Philip Larsen #63 of the Vancouver Canucks in the second period on December 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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    Devils forward Taylor Hall will avoid supplemental discipline for his big hit on Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, an NHL spokesman has confirmed.

    Midway through New Jersey’s eventual 3-2 win over the Canucks, Hall caught Larsen behind the Vancouver goal with a massive bodycheck, knocking Larsen unconscious. The Danish blueliner was prone on the ice for several seconds before receiving medical attention, and was eventually stretchered off.

    Hall wasn’t penalized on the play.

    Larsen spent the night in a New Jersey-area hospital, per Sportsnet, and is flying to Vancouver today to meet with team doctors.

    Hall said he didn’t regret throwing the hit, but felt awful about the result. He and Larsen do have a history, having briefly played together in Edmonton.

    “I’m looking to make contact there, but I never want to see a guy laying on the ice there like that,” Hall said, per NJ.com. “I only know how to play the game one way, and you’ve got to play it hard. But like I said, I feel terrible.

    “When you see him laying on the ice like that, he’s a former teammate of mine, and I just would have loved to make a hit there and continue the play. I hope he’s OK.”

    Related: The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

    The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

    NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 9: Cory Schneider #35 of the New Jersey Devils and teammates salute their fans after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on April 9, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 5-1. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
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    Last night’s game in Newark was mostly notable for the scary situation involving Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, who had to be stretchered off the ice following a devastating hit by Taylor Hall.

    But the players played on, and the Devils eventually defeated the Canucks, 3-2.

    The victory improved New Jersey’s record at Prudential Center to 8-0-2. The Devils are the only team in the NHL that has yet to lose in regulation at home. They’ve struggled on the road, going 4-7-4.

    A quarter of the way through the season, the jury remains out on New Jersey as a legitimate playoff contender. The Devils have just six regulation wins, with four of their victories coming in overtime and two more in the shootout. Only the Panthers (5), Coyotes (4), and Canucks (4) have won fewer games in regulation.

    But keeping games close has served the Devils well. Twelve times they’ve been tied after 60 minutes, guaranteeing them at least a point. Heading into tonight’s action, they sit just one point back of Washington for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

    “We’re in a playoff race,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz told reporters this morning ahead of his team’s game with the Bruins (on NBCSN).

    The Devils don’t play again until Thursday in Montreal, where a tough stretch starts for John Hynes’ crew. New Jersey returns home to face St. Louis Friday, then it’s back on the road for games at the Rangers, Blues, Senators, and Rangers again.

    Wings activate Howard off IR following six-game absence

    MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 12:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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    The Red Wings have played pretty well lately — 5-1-2 in their last eight — and got some good news on Wednesday, as veteran netminder Jimmy Howard was activated off injured reserve.

    Howard has been out since Nov. 25 with a groin injury, suffered early in a game against the Devils. He’s missed the last six games as a result, but will — per NHL.com — take part in Thursday’s practice and presumably be ready to dress in time for Friday’s game against the Blue Jackets.

    Howard was playing very well prior to getting hurt, posting a 1.82 GAA and .940 save percentage in 12 appearances, 11 of those being starts.

    His return means it’s back to AHL Grand Rapids for Jared Coreau, who was recalled a couple weeks ago and made his NHL debut against the Penguins last Saturday, stopping 32 shots in a 5-3 loss. That game was the only one in the last eight in which Detroit failed to secure at least a point.

    A big reason for that run was the play of Petr Mrazek. With Howard out, the Czech ‘tender has performed admirably, especially over his last five games — Mrazek has stopped 147 of 158 shots for a .930 save percentage, posting a record of 3-0-2.