Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars

Tom Renney admits that Nikolai Khabibulin’s role next season remains a ‘great mystery’

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As the Edmonton Oilers stockpile prospects and young players, the optimism around the organization remains strong. But as I’ve said before, at some point fans will grow tired of so-called potential and crave an on-ice product that isn’t regularly embarrassing.

Despite only scoring 193 goals (third worst in the NHL) last season, it seems like the team’s offense seems is moving in the right direction, especially if Taylor Hall has a strong second season and Ales Hemsky stays healthy in his contract year.

One must perceive the Oilers’ biggest issues to be in their own end of the ice, then. Merely glancing at the Edmonton Journal’s tragically comical poll about the team’s best defensive corps from the last four years sheds a troubling light on the team’s defensive deficits. Perhaps the team could make up for those shortcomings on the blueline by enjoying some sterling play from their netminders, but it’s tough to say that they’ll get above average results from their questionable duo of Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk.

Even Oilers coach Tom Renney isn’t sure what to expect from Khabibulin in general, as he admitted that the troubled Russian’s 2011-12 season remains a mystery even to the team that employs him.

Renney said Khabibulin’s physical and mental health will be assessed in training camp.

“I certainly don’t expect Nikolai Khabibulin to play 70 games. I’m not sure he can play 60. I’m not sure he can play 50. That’s the great mystery here.”

As for Devan Dubnyk, Renney said the young goalie needs to get stronger, more explosive, a fair critique. He added that Dubnyk will take over from Khabibulin sooner or later. “I think this is a young fellow who is on the verge of being a National Hockey League starter. There’s no question about that.”

Khabibulin is certainly getting older, Renney said.

“For me, it’s a perfect scenario at some point in time, whether it’s this year or the beginning of next year, sooner rather than later remains to be seen, but there is an opportunity for a changing of the guard. And it should be a healthy situation.”

Renney also spoke about banged-up defenseman Ryan Whitney, who’s still experiencing some tenderness in his surgically repaired ankle. The former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman ranks as one of the best options Edmonton has on defense, which is a troubling statement even beyond his health struggles because the solid offensive blueliner has his occasional struggles with turnovers.

I’ve seen some people list the Oilers as a possible dark horse candidate, which seems like a fun gamble to throw out because of their young talent. The problem is that they’re a flawed team in the stacked Western Conference, where it’s tough to imagine them overcoming their sub-par defense and shaky goaltending.

It would be great if that instinct ends up being wrong because Oilers fans have been waiting patiently for the team to regain the form they only briefly enjoyed during a Cinderella run with Chris Pronger and Dwayne Roloson. For that to happen, they’re going to need to see continued promise from Dubnyk and a much sturdier Bulin Wall.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist

DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.