Saturday, December 10, 2011

On Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney

This past year, two very important pieces of the Edmonton Oilers roster underwent two significant surgeries each to repair two critical body parts for the sport of hockey. Ales Hemsky underwent his second shoulder surgery in the past two years, while Ryan Whitney underwent ankle surgery, just after coming back from a second foot osteotomy the season prior. Both players were early first round picks in the NHL entry draft, going 13th overall in 2001 and 5th overall in 2002 respectively, and both are arguably currently entering the prime of their careers. Both players have had to deal with a pretty significant injury history in their young careers, but when healthy both have the potential to be game changers.

At his best, Ales Hemsky is a dynamic winger who can quarterback a powerplay and make opposing defenders look like pylons with his quick hands and high end skill. He has the vision to be a great playmaker and the ability to finish plays when he chooses to shoot the puck.  He also isn't afraid to go to the high traffic areas and take a hit to make a play, hence the two shoulder surgeries in two years. Like Hemsky, when he's at his peak, Ryan Whitney can largely influence a game. His puck moving ability allows him to control the point on the man-advantage, and his great first pass is a significant piece to the transition game of the Oilers.

In the past two seasons, Hemsky has played in just 69 games for the Oilers, posting 64 points. Whitney on the other hand, in that same time span has appeared in just 54 games and put up 38 points. Through two months of the 2011-12 season, Hemsky has already missed 11 games and Whitney has missed 17.  Yet despite the similarities between them: age, offensive ability, and injury history, the way in which these players are viewed in Oil Country is growing ever disparate.

With Ryan Whitney, despite his early struggles, fans and media alike seem to be willing to show patience and allow him to play his way back into form. His 1 point and -4 rating has been attributed to the significant time and games he's missed, and most are convinced that given enough time, the Ryan Whitney of last season will return, which he almost certainly will. With Hemsky however, Oil Country doesn't seem to have that kind of patience. The fact that he's off of his point-per-game pace and his hesitation to shoot the puck has been a large point of criticism, despite the fact that he has also missed a significant amount of time. The expectations for both players seems to be quite different across Oil Country. If it's unfair for fans to expect Whitney to immediately be an impact player in his return to the Oilers lineup, why is it fair for fans to expect the same of Hemsky?

There has been more and more trade rumblings involving Ales Hemsky these days. While of course his contract status plays a big part in it, in addition to his start to the year, it may be a bit premature to make a move that big.  Given his current level of play, Hemsky's value is probably at its low right now, and any move the Oilers were to make would net them something significantly short of what Oilers fans should want in return. Just because Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle have been dominating to start the year, it doesn't mean Hemsky is all of a sudden expendable and should be tossed away. There is still almost 3 months until the NHL trade deadline. Between now and then, Tambellini and company need to figure out what Hemsky's level of commitment to this team is and how much of next year's salary cap they can afford to give him, should they choose to re-sign. If free agency is the route Hemsky chooses to take, then the Oilers have to move him, but not until February 27th. Having Hemsky in the lineup will help more than anything he could bring back in a trade right now. If Tambellini can get Colten Teubert, a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick for Dustin Penner, then Oilers fans should also want something in that ballpark for Hemsky.

But just as fans have demonstrated a willingness to wait for Whitney to turn it around, Hemsky should at least be offered the same amount of patience. He'll play his way out of this slow start, and the Hemsky that Oilers fans know and used to love will eventually return, hopefully.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Ryan Smyth and the Value of Leadership

Through 17 games of the 2011-12 regular season, the Oilers currently sit in 6th place in the West and 2nd in the Northwest, only 3 points behind the Wild with a game in hand.  The surprising start to the season has been the result of number of players performing better than Oilers fans could have hoped they would, with one standout being none other than Ryan Smyth.

Smyth has once again found the scoring touch that made him a 30-goal man four times in his NHL career.  Through the first 17 games, Smyth has scored an impressive 10-7-17, good enough for the team lead, with a +2 rating.   Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Smyth is currently 2nd on the team with 29 PIMs, which has largely been the result of his willingness to get into the tough areas and battle for every puck.  The Oilers made the deal for Smyth this summer in the hopes that he would bring leadership into the dressing room and show the next generation of Oilers what it takes to be successful in the NHL.  So far it's been pretty obvious that he has done all that and more.  Of course no one expects Smyth to keep up this 48 goal and 82 point pace, but he will almost certainly improve on the 23-24-47 he scored last year in LA.  Whether it's being back in an Oilers uniform that has him motivated or another case of a player in his contract year, Smyth is proving his worth.  Points aside, it's the so-called intangibles that he brings to this roster that makes up his true value to this team.

The early success of Ryan Smyth in his return to the Orange and Blue however raises an interesting debate.  When he first came back to the Oilers, Smyth made it abundantly clear that his desire was to re-sign in Edmonton and likely finish his career here.  Smyth will be 36 years old when his current deal expires.  Oilers fans assumed he would take a hometown discount on his next deal, but if he manages to get back to 30 goals this year, how much of a discount will it be?  With Hemsky's deal also set to expire and Hall, Eberle, and MPS a year away from RFA status, how much can the Oilers afford to offer Smyth on his next deal?  How much is leadership worth moving forward?  Ryan Smyth is definitely an important piece of this growing roster that the Oilers needs to keep around, but smart cap management will be key.  They say the intangibles are not easily quantifiable, but Tambellini and company will need to to do exactly that between now and this summer.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at Home and Away

Through the first seven regular season games with the Edmonton Oilers, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has impressed nearly everyone who has seen him play and currently leads all NHL rookies in scoring at 5-2-7 with a +2 rating.  With two games left to play before his entry level deal officially begins, there has certainly been a lot of positives to take from Nugent-Hopkins' game.  While largely considered a playmaker in junior, RNH has demonstrated early that he possesses a great finishing ability as well. With 5 goals already this year he currently sits in a tie for 4th in the NHL.  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins through seven games has an impressive shooting percentage of 29.4% on 17 shots on goal. To put that into perspective, the red hot Phil Kessel has connected on 33.3% of his 27 shots on goal. Of course it is unrealistic to expect those kinds of percentages to last the entire season, for both RNH and Kessel, but it gets the point across. Last season Corey Perry and Steven Stamkos finished the year at 17.2% and 16.5% respectively. Helping Ryan Nugent-Hopkins find this early success are his two wingers. With Taylor Hall on his left and Jordan Eberle to his right, the trio of youngsters have formed one of the league's most dynamic lines. Playing with those two certainly helps create time and space for RNH to do his damage. The top end skill and hockey sense from all three forwards combined creates a lot of chances for the Oilers in the offensive zone. When this trio hits the ice, opposing teams immediately start thinking about defense rather than generating offense, which is what every team hopes for from its first line. Another important factor contributing to the success of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the favorable matchups that the coaching staff has sent him out against. This is no more evident than when you compare the numbers at home and on the road.

The Oilers have so far played 5 games at Rexall and 2 games as the visitor this young season. Although this isn't a large sample size to examine, the numbers for RNH in blue versus white are interesting. In 5 home games, Nugent-Hopkins is 5-2-7 with a +3 rating, while in his 2 road games, he's 0-0-0 with a -1 rating. Another interesting discrepancy is in his faceoff %. At Rexall he's 29.2%, which is not very impressive as it is, but on the road he's even worse at 15.4%, possibly due to the fact that he's required to put his stick down first. The coaching staff has already addressed this issue by having Shawn Horcoff take the draws on the powerplay and Horcoff or Belanger taking his defensive zone faceoffs, with the only drawback being the cost of his ice time. Clearly home ice advantage has played a big part in RNH's early offensive production this year. Having Tom Renney be able to pick and choose when to send out Kid Line 2.0 definitely puts Nugent-Hopkins in the position to succeed. However, If RNH is going to develop into a consistent NHL threat, he will need to learn how to produce on the road. Although with the great hockey sense he possesses, it should only be a matter of time before those numbers even out. Unfortunately for Oilers management, games 8 and 9 are both at Rexall Place and they will have to make a decision on the fate of RNH with only those two road games in mind.

Road woes or not, it's becoming more and more clear that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ready for the show. He's creating chances more often than not, he's only been on the ice for one even strength goal against, and he's quaterbacking a much improved Oilers powerplay. More importantly RNH has shown that he can rise to the challenge and elevate his game when called out. Twice this season he's been benched by the coaching staff late in the third period of games, and twice he's bounced back the next game with a strong showing, scoring a hat trick in one and the game winner in the other. Consistency is something that all NHL rookies struggle with early, it took Taylor Hall nearly 25 games last season to find his, but the ability to recognize and learn from mistakes and improve upon them is important for a player trying to find that consistency. Tom Renney has always stated that the decision on RNH will be based on his entire body of work, and so far that body of work would suggest that he'll be in an Oilers uniform in Colorado on October 28th in game 10 of the regular season.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

On Game 1 of 9 for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played in his first career regular season NHL game last night, and what a debut it was. The game against the Penguins was the season opener for the Edmonton Oilers, but also the first of a nine game tryout for the 2011 first overall pick. Playing on a line with 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall and veteran playmaker Ales Hemsky on the top line certainly provided RNH with every opportunity to make an impact. He played just over 17 minutes, including 3:53 on the powerplay. While he scored the game tying goal late in the third period to help send the game to overtime, he did a lot of good things before that as well.

Nugent-Hopkins certainly did not look out of place skating on the top line and the first unit powerplay. He showed off his great vision and passing and set up Hall and Hemsky with a few good chances. Even 5-on-5 he was able to play his game and didn't look outmatched physically. The puck seemed to follow him around the ice all night. As for the special teams, having both Hemsky and Nugent-Hopkins playing together on the powerplay was successful in creating another point of attack. Teams in the past knew that the man advantage for the Oilers was run through Hemsky, allowing them to concentrate their efforts on him. But now having another solid puck mover on the half boards adds another threat to the powerplay. While, they didn't score with the man advantage last night, it certainly looked better than it did last year already. It's still early in the season but let's hope that it's a sign of things to come as the powerplay will need to be effective if the Oilers are going to end up on the right side of these 1-goal games more often than not this year.

Of course it wasn't all positives for Nugent-Hopkins last night. His numbers in the faceoff dot were terrible. He finished the night at a measly 13.3% on the draw. While 5-on-5 the Oilers can rely on Horcoff, Belanger, and Lander in the dot, on the powerplay, Nugent-Hopkins will need to improve or else the Oilers will be starting every man advantage by chasing the puck back into their own zone. However winning faceoffs is a skill that can be taught and improved, and luckily for Nugent-Hopkins he should have a few good teachers to learn from on this roster.

Overall it was an impressive debut for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and if he plays the next 8 games like he did against the Penguins, his spot on the roster should be a lock.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Kid Line 2.0 and Managing Expectations

Fans got a sneak peak at the future of the Edmonton Oilers tonight as Tom Renney finally put together the trio of players that will form the cornerstone of this franchise for the next 10 years. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centered Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle for the first time this preseason and the kid line 2.0 did not disappoint, generating all three goals in a 3-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, with the last two first overall picks in the NHL entry draft netting 6 points. The trio of young forwards displayed an impressive transition game and scored two of the three goals off the rush, something that Oilers forwards have had difficulty doing in the past.  As an Oilers fan you can't help but think about what this line has in store for years to come. There seems to be the pieces required for a great chemistry: an elite playmaker, a hard nosed power forward, and a budding sniper.  But will they be playing together in the NHL this season?

As exciting as it was tonight to see the sublime passing by Nugent-Hopkins combined with the great finishing of Hall, the quality of competition wasn't exactly the cream of the crop. With not quite an NHL caliber lineup iced by the Coyotes it's hard to judge how good this line could really be in the regular season. This was also the Coyotes team that I predicted to finish last in the Western Conference earlier this summer. With two games remaining on the preseason schedule against the Wild and Canucks, it will be interesting to see if Renney gives this line another chance to play against tougher competition and what will surely be near NHL rosters.

While Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle certainly have their names already etched on the roster sheet for this season, whether Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will stay past the first 9 games is still up in the air. But so far in the preseason he's done almost everything right, and is making a strong case for himself. He's scored 6 points in 4 games, which has likely exceeded almost everyone's expectations. Not only has he performed on the offensive side of the puck, but he's managed to stay responsible on the defensive side as well. He definitely does not look out of place on NHL ice. Most importantly he's been able to play the game that made him the first overall pick this summer. This is still an ongoing evaluation of RNH, but he's making the most of his opportunities and doing everything he can to stick with the big club. Regardless of what happens in October, it sure makes for exciting times in Oil Country.

Flying under the shadow of the new kid line tonight was the reunited man line of Smyth-Horcoff-Hemsky, and it was just like old times. The trio worked the cycle well, and while they were held off of the score sheet, they seemed to find the chemistry they had back in 2006. Hemsky played in his first game since March 1st and looked like the same player we last saw. He didn't shy away from contact, even crashing Phoenix goalie Mike Smith hard off the wing on one rush when he tried to tuck the puck in far side. Importantly he looked comfortable out there with his rebuilt shoulder. Hopefully Hemsky will be able to build on this first game back, as the Oilers will need him if they are going to be competitive in the Western Conference this season.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Start of Oilers Training Camp

The Edmonton Oilers are set to open the 2011-12 training camp tomorrow morning, starting with team physicals. This will be the second year in a row that camp will start following a long offseason and a first overall pick at the NHL entry draft. But this time around things are a bit different. While the word of the summer of 2010 in OIL Country was rebuild, the word this summer perhaps was retool. A lot of new pieces were brought into the puzzle that will hopefully take the shape of a winner here in Edmonton this offseason. Pieces that didn't seem to fit were moved out and pieces of a specific form were brought in to fill the gaps. Last season the objective was to help the young players learn how to compete at the NHL level. This year the objective should be for the young players to learn how to win. There are however still a number of questions that are worth debating heading into training camp.

Here are 5 of them:

1. Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins prove he is ready to compete at the NHL level? This is of course the number one question on Oilers' fans minds as training camp starts. There is no doubt that RNH possesses the skill and sense of an NHLer, but will his 175 lb frame be ready to handle the physical rigors of playing at the highest level for 82 games. RNH will get every opportunity throughout the preseason, and likely through another 9 games in the regular season, to demonstrate that he can handle the physicality and still play his game. The answer to this question is not so obvious right now, but it's worth noting that in 2007 Patrick Kane entered the league at around the same weight and still finished with 72 points and won the Calder Memorial Trophy.

2. How will Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney respond to offseason surgery? It was already reported earlier this week that both of these veterans will likely not be 100% by the start of preseason. Ryan Whitney was the teams best defenseman last year before an ankle injury ended his season. With his ability to move the puck and generate offense from the back end, a healthy Whitney will be integral to the Oilers improving on their 2010-11 finish. Earlier in the summer Hemsky said that heading into this season he was the healthiest he had been in a long time. What Whitney is on the blue line, Hemsky is up front for the Oilers. Everyone knows how good Hemsky can be when he's healthy, and with unrestricted free agency looming, this will be an important year for both him and the Oilers.

3. Will Petry or Chorney win out as the 7th defenseman? What makes this debate interesting is the fact that waivers will play a large role in determining who is on the NHL roster at the end of the preseason. Starting this season Taylor Chorney is no longer exempt from waivers and will have to clear if the Oilers decide to send him to the AHL. Petry on the other hand is still waiver exempt and the Oilers therefore have no risk in losing him to another club if they choose to send him down. After seeing them both play in the show last season, in my opinion Jeff Petry has already passed Taylor Chorney on the depth chart. However, the Oilers have been developing and waiting on Taylor Chorney since they took him with the 6th pick in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft and are still hoping that they can get a return on their investment of such a high pick. Whether Chorney would be claimed on waivers at this point in his career is questionable but it may not be a risk management is willing to take yet.

4. Which Nikolai Khabibulin will show up to training camp? Two seasons ago, after the Oilers signed him to a new four year deal, Khabibulin started strong and played well despite the inexperience team that skated in front of him each night. The numbers didn't show it but Khabibulin was arguably their MVP that season until a back injury ended his year. Last season, Khabibulin was a completely different story. His compete level dropped off and he seemed content to allow a young goaltender take a bigger share of the starts than he should have. Things went from bad to worse when a drunk driving conviction landed him in jail and subsequent house arrest this summer. If Khabibulin comes to camp ready to battle for the starting role again, the Oilers will have a healthy competition in net this year, which may not be a bad thing.

5. Which of Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, and Anton Lander will start the regular season in Edmonton? At this point the scales may be tipping in favor of Linus Omark given the offensive skill he showed last season. But with Hartikainen showing he has the big body and soft hands to compete and contribute in the NHL at the end of last season, and Lander demonstrating early on that he can bring a complete all-around game to the roster, there may be some competition for Omark. Not to mention this debate will be further complicated if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins takes one of the 13 or 14 forward spots. Omark was clearly displeased with being sent down to the AHL at the end of training camp last season, and it's looking like he'll have to work even harder this year if he wants to avoid the same result.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

On Making a Good First Impression

Last night, Edmonton Oilers fans got their first look at Anton Lander in a game situation and the 2009 2nd round pick definitely did not disappoint. Over the past 2 years the talk about Lander's complete 2-way game has been building around Oil Country, but perhaps the biggest praise came earlier this week from Lander's long time friend and teammate Magnus Paajarvi:

"He's one of the best guys I know as a human being and as a person. He's a very good leader on the ice, and he's very solid at everything. He can do anything." Those are pretty strong words coming from a player who possesses a solid skill set himself.

While the quality of competition from the Vancouver Canucks prospect roster was hardly NHL caliber, Lander still showed off the game that Oilers fans had already heard so much about in the 7-2 victory. Lander not only scored twice on the powerplay, but played physical, strong defensively, won faceoffs, and showed a lot of poise and good hockey sense. The fact that he has been playing against men in the Swedish Elite League for the past 4 years has certainly helped his development, and it showed on Sunday night in Penticton as he played like a veteran among rookies. Combined with his strong leadership qualities and his ability to play in all situations, in Lander it appears as if the Oilers have the makings of a pretty complete hockey player who is still just 20 years old. Now of course it was only one game in a prospect tournament, and as such the results should be taken with a grain of salt, but the potential is there for Lander to become a dependable center in the near future for the Edmonton Oilers. Picking Lander at 40th overall in the 2009 draft may turn out to be another home run for Stu MacGregor and his staff.

Of course, not to be outdone by Anton Lander last night was the one that everyone came out and tuned in to see, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While RNH didn't quite put on the show that Lander did, he still showed the great vision, quick hands, quick feet, and agility that made him the first overall pick at the NHL draft earlier this summer.

While it was a good Oilers debut for Lander and Nugent-Hopkins, the reality is that they will both be in a tough competition to play in the NHL this season when main camp starts. At this point, the Oilers are heading into training camp with a log jam of centers, including Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Eric Belanger, and Gilbert Brule, with the first three mentioned essentially guaranteed a roster spot already. Should RNH prove in the preseason that he is ready to play in the NHL then Lander may end up getting caught in the numbers game and be forced to start in AHL, which may not be a bad thing. Though if RNH ends up back in Red Deer, Lander will certainly have a good opportunity to win that 4th center position on the Oilers depth chart out of camp. Let's just hope that when training camp opens in a week, these players can prove true the old adage that competition breeds success.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the 2011-12 Northwest Division

With training camps around the NHL set to open in less than a month, the time seems about right to examine some of the offseason moves within the Northwest division, and there have certainly been a lot of them, to see how the Edmonton Oilers stack up against their rivals. The Oilers will play 24/82 games this seasons within the division, meaning there are 48 potential points to be won or lost, not including 3 point games. With the return of the Winnipeg Jets and likelihood of realignment next summer, this may be the last season with the Northwest division as we know it. So here's the breakdown on the five teams in the order they finished last year.

Vancouver Canucks
This summer has been more about subtraction rather than addition for the team that made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final this past season. The biggest loss for the Canucks this summer was Christian Ehrhoff to the Buffalo Sabres, which came at the cost of re-signing Kevin Bieksa. A 50 point defenceman is hard to come by in the NHL and the Canucks will have to look within to replace the lost offense. Up front the Canucks also lost Raffi Torres, and while he was streaky offensively, the grit and energy he brought to the lineup will be missed, though retaining the services of Chris Higgins will help.

Up or Down?
Considering this team lead the league last season in Wins, Points, Goals For, Goals Against, Powerplay %, tied for second in Penalty Kill %, and went to the final round of the playoffs, there's really no place to go but down. Given their new reputation as an NHL powerhouse they can expect the oppositions' best effort night in and night out this season. There should be no easy games this year and the Canucks will be hard pressed to repeat their incredible season, especially given their shortened offseason. Finally if Ryan Kesler is not 100% to start the season, that will be another setback the Canucks will have to overcome. Regardless, they should still easily capture the Northwest division and compete for top seed in the West again.

Calgary Flames
The Flames basically decided to stand pat this summer and hope that their veteran core of Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Olli Jokinen can lead them back to the playoffs. This Flames did make a major move this offseason in trading away Robyn Regehr, probably much to the delight of Ales Hemsky and Oilers fans. While he didn't contribute a lot offensively, he was a reliable, physical force on the Calgary blue line every night. Replacing him will be Scott Hannan, who Jay Feaster recently signed to a low risk deal of 1 year/$1 million. The blueline will now have to be lead by Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano. Up front, younger forwards like Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque will provide some depth beyond the big three veterans, but they will need to keep producing as there is not much else behind them.

Up or Down?
While every other team in the Northwest made significant moves to try and get better, the Flames have stood still. Jarome Iginla is coming off another impressive season in which he scored 43-43-86 but at 34 years old those type of seasons will be harder to come by. In net Mikka Kiprusoff is still an elite goaltender but he will need to steal a lot of games if the Flames are going to stay in playoff contention. The Flames fell short last season, and made more subtractions than additions this summer, so they are likely on their way down this year.

Minnesota Wild
The Wild made arguably the biggest moves in the division this offseason by acquiring former 50 goal scorer Dany Heatley and former 30 goal scorer Devin Setoguchi. Moving out in exchange for them was the teams best defenseman Brent Burns and Martin Havlat, who never quite found his offensive stride in Minny. While the roster took a hit on the blue line, they've added to their depth up front by adding two established NHL goal scorers. Although Heatley and Setoguchi haven't scored those career highs in goals again in recent history, the potential for big offense is still there. The Wild also added two first round prospects in the Setoguchi deal, so they have made moves to try and improve their roster for now and for the future. While the Wild will need to look from within their system to replace Burns on the blue line, they still have a rock in net in Niklas Backstrom to rely on.

Up or Down?
The Wild have upgraded a bit this summer. Lack of offense has plagued this franchise for years but with their new forwards and a new coach, they now appear to be moving away from their defense first mentality. Depth of scoring beyond their top line will still be a problem for the team that scored the second fewest goals in the Western conference last year. The upgrade this team made on offense however, came at the expense of defense as the blue line is left quite thin. Niklas Backstrom will need to be very good if the Wild are to move up in the standings this season.

Colorado Avalanche
The Avs made big moves at the trade deadline last season bringing in former first overall pick Erik Johnson and moving out a big scorer in Chris Stewart. To offset the loss the Avs brought in a potential replacement for Stewart at the draft by selecting Gabriel Landeskog, who is expected to make the team this year. The biggest move was trading for Semyon Varlamov and signing JS Giguere for insurance in net. Those two moves represent a big upgrade for the Avs as they suffered through the leagues worst goaltending last season. The team moved offensive defenseman John-Michael Liles but managed to add to their blueline by signing Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien.

Up or Down?
The Avalanche are clearly on the upswing. Bringing in Semyon Varlamov to be the number one goaltender was a huge move, as the drop off in goaltending was the big difference between the team that made the playoffs in 2010 and the team that missed in 2011. The play of Varlamov will factor in largely to where the Avs finish this season. While it would be unfair to expect a rookie like Landeskog to immediately make an impact this season, he will still fill the power forward role that Stewart previously had and should provide a good two-way game. The Avs are also still very strong down the middle with Matt Duchene one year older and Paul Stastny likely to rebound from a down season. Shipping out Liles was a bold move, but having Johnson for the full season should help with the offense from the back end. This team could make the biggest jump in the standings this season.

Edmonton Oilers
The moves by the Oilers this summer have already been covered extensively around the Oilogosphere so I'll spare you the analysis again. In are Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Cam Barker, Andy Sutton, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Out are Andrew Cogliano, Zack Stortini, Jim Vandermeer, Jason Strudwick, Colin Fraser, and Kurtis Foster.

Up or Down?
The Oilers are definitely on the way up. With the rookies one year better and a number of holes in the roster filled with role players, there should be improvement over the past few seasons. The key issue is still goaltending and team defense, but this team will not be picking first overall again at the 2012 NHL entry draft.

Putting it all together
So how will the Northwest division shape up this season? Given how competitive the Western Conference has become it is still very likely that only one team from the Northwest division will finish in the top 8 again this year. Here's how I see the Northwest finishing:

1. Vancouver Canucks
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Calgary Flames
4. Edmonton Oilers
5. Minnesota Wild

Care to discuss?

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Monday, August 15, 2011

On Finishing Last in the West

Today The Hockey News began their series of 2011-12 NHL regular season predictions and have selected two Canadian teams to finish last in their respective conferences. In the East the rebuilding Ottawa Senators have drawn the short straw, and in the West they've predicted none other than the Edmonton Oilers to finish 15th for a third consecutive season. This came as perhaps a bit of a surprise considering the rebuild in Edmonton is already entering its third year, and THN is suggesting with their choice that essentially no progress has been made with this franchise.

Here's their reasoning behind not moving the OIL up in the standings just yet:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was added to the exciting core of youth in Edmonton, but like the Senators, the Oilers still have a couple years of bumps and bruises ahead of them. While the prospects should have fans giddy with excitement, the fact is Edmonton is buried in a deep conference full of Stanley Cup contenders, so expectations have to be tempered. Once their prospects earn some experience, the Oilers will be off and running.

The Western conference has certainly become more and more competitive these past few seasons. Looking at last years standings, the Columbus Blue Jackets finished with nearly a .500 record (34-35-13) and 81 points and still only managed to place 13th. From there however, it was a large drop off in points to 14th with the Colorado Avalanche finishing with 68 points on the year. While the Blue Jackets have definitely improved this off season, the direction the Avalanche are headed this season is not as obvious. Although Semyon Varlamov is an upgrade on Craig Anderson and a full season of Erik Johnson and adding Gabriel Landeskog should yield some positive results.

So if the teams directly above the Oilers have improved, what are their chances of moving up this year? Clearly the Oilers have done some upgrading of their own this offseason, which should bring improvement assuming the injury bug doesn't bite as bad as it has in recent history. But will that improvement be enough to catch the Avs and Blue Jackets? Adding to this debate is the fact that while number of teams in the West did get better this summer, some have also managed to get worse, with the Phoenix Coyotes being the standout. The Coyotes had the 8th best offense in the Western Conference last season scoring a total of 231 goals. However, with the exit of Eric Belanger and Scottie Upshall this summer, the Coyotes lost 35 of those goals, which they will likely be hard pressed to replace. Without the offense those two players brought, the Coyotes would have been only 3 goals better than the Oilers. The biggest departure from the roster though is of course Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix won 43 games last year (36 from Bryzgalov) and 20 of those came in 1 goal games. The goaltending of Bryzgalov certainly played a big part in a lot of those victories. Replacing him with the tandem of Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera, who together only have just over 300 games in the NHL, is a downgrade to say the least. If Oilers fans think that entering the season with Khabibulin and Dubnyk is questionable, then consider what Coyotes fans must have on their minds. Dave Tippett will have his work cut out for him this year, and short of a stroke of genius on his part, the Coyotes are poised for a tumble down the standings in 2011-12 and are my early pick to finish 15th in the West.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Red vs. White

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was cut from Team Canada's World Junior Championship selection camp last December after failing to make a good impression with coaches. This year, coming into the summer development camp he vowed to assert himself more and to make better on last year's performance. So far Nugent-Hopkins has done just that by demonstrating his high end skills during the drills and scrimmages, and then topping it off with a game breaking performance at last night's intrasquad matchup in front of his home crowd.

For the most part of last night's Red vs. White game, Nugent-Hopkins was rather quite offensively while his linemate Devante Smith-Pelly put on dominating performance. It may have been the nerves of playing in front Oilers fans at Rexall Place for the first time as a member of the Oilers or perhaps a bit of mid summer rust in his game, but the chances weren't coming as easy as they usually do in the offensive zone. Despite the slow start, Nugent-Hopkins was still able to get into the game by winning faceoffs, something we didn't see much of from him when he was here last playing against the Oil Kings in the WHL playoffs, and getting in on the forecheck and penalty kill. His puck pursuit and quick feet were evident on the forecheck and in his own zone, and he demonstrated his ability to separate opposing players from the puck a number of times throughout the game. But still, for the first 55 minutes of the game, the offensive brilliance that Oilers fans were expecting to see was a bit lacking.

However like skilled players so often do, when Nugent-Hopkins finally got his opportunity he buried it. With his team down by one late in the third, Nugent-Hopkins got in on a rush and managed to find a loose rebound and put it away with a beautiful spin-a-rama backhand. The goal definitely gave him a shot of confidence and just a few minutes later he showed off his quick hands and quick release and scored the game winner with 20 seconds left in the game.

While it wasn't a dominating game by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last night, Oilers fans got a glimpse of what he can still do when the bounces aren't going his way, a scenario that is guaranteed to appear for a rookie in the NHL if he makes the team this year. Considering it was only an exhibition, the game had a decent pace and the players certainly didn't shy away from the physical play, which was perhaps not surprising when there are 47 players battling for 22 spots on the tournament roster. Nugent-Hopkins didn't look outmatched physically by any means, but of course the opposition was fellow junior players and doesn't really give any indication of how he'll perform in the NHL. It was good to see though that the additional 10 pounds he has put on his frame since the draft didn't seem to affect his speed, which is such an asset to his game. It's still unclear whether Nugent-Hopkins will even be available to play for Team Canada this December, but his showing last night certainly didn't disappoint Oilers fans and helped add to the growing excitement here in Oil Country.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

On the 2013 or 2014 Edmonton Oilers

Kevin Allen of USA Today (@kausatoday) recently posted his 10 early projections for the 2011-12 NHL season and had an interesting one that involved the Edmonton Oilers. Here's what he had to say:

"Whether the Edmonton Oilers are close to competing for a playoff spot is unknown, but they will be exciting. It's easy to project them as an elite Pittsburgh Penguins-style contender by 2013 or 2014. There are a good number of general managers who gladly would trade their team for the Oilers' roster." While a number of OIL country writers and bloggers have been writing the same things about the direction this Oilers rebuild is heading in, it's nice to hear it from a writer who is on the outside looking in. It's even nicer when it comes from a hockey writer who is as respected as Kevin Allen is.

One thing that is for certain in Mr. Allen's bold prediction is that this season's Oilers will be exciting. With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Linus Omark all one year smarter, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney both one surgery stronger, and the roster itself one Ryan Smyth, a first overall draft pick, and four free agents better, it should make for a much more impressive showing than Oilers fans have seen in recent years. Over at OilersNation they often talk about the Oilers and playing ELPH, or Exciting Last Place Hockey, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the LP dropped this coming year. That is, of course assuming that the Oilers can avoid the massive injury bug that has plagued them for the past few years.

With regard to becoming a "Pittsburgh Penguins-style contender" by 2014, that is definitely what fans across OIL country have been dreaming of, but are they really that close? The 2008-2009 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins finished the regular season 2nd in the Atlantic Division and 4th in the Eastern Conference with 99 points that year. Their roster boasted a great deal of depth on offense, including 2 players that reached triple digits in scoring, 4 forwards that scored 20+ goals, and 7 other players that scored 10-20 goals. The Penguins also had 4 forwards score 46 or more points that season, the Oilers didn't have any this past year. But while the Oilers may not currently be the high powered offensive force that the Penguins are, the depth on offense is starting to appear and should only improve as the current crop continues to develop, and promising prospects graduate to the next level. It is interesting to note though, while the Penguins forwards scored a lot that year, there was still quite a disparity among them with Crosby and Malkin both scoring more than double the points of third leading scorer Jordan Staal. While no one is expecting Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to become Art Ross and Hart trophy winners like Crosby and Malkin, if they can both become offensive leaders that will drive the Oilers night in and night out, then perhaps the comparison to the Penguins might not be that far off.

Where the Oilers are lacking in comparison to the Penguins though is in the goal crease and the depth on defense. While the help on the blue line is coming for the Oilers thanks to strong drafting in recent years, the goaltending situation is not that clear. With Nikolai Khabibulin struggling to show that he is still a number 1 goalie in the NHL, the Oilers have had to rely on Devan Dubnyk more than they had hoped they would need to this early in his career. While Dubnyk played very well last season (35gp, .916 SV%, 2.17GAA), whether he is ready to handle the physical and mental rigors of being a starting goalie is to be seen. Marc-Andre Fleury may not be a Vezina caliber goaltender, but what he does is give the Penguins a chance to win every night. If the Oilers can find his type of consistency, either in Dubnyk or someone else, then their chances of becoming a solid contender in the coming years will be greatly improved.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Two Franchises Headed Down the Same Path

In the 1980's, both the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders were on top of the hockey world. Of the 10 Stanley Cups awarded that decade, 8 of them were won by these two teams, forming two of the great dynasties in NHL history. Fast forward to today and these same two teams find themselves in the NHL's basement, with the Oilers and Islanders having missed the playoffs for the last 5 and 4 seasons respectively. Earlier this year, Hockey Night in Canada and the NHLPA conducted an NHL player survey and one question asked was what team would you least like to play on? Perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhealming majority of players answered with the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers, combing for 47% of responses. So just as they were in the 80's, the Oilers and Islanders again find themselves in the same position, only this time rather than hockey supremacy, it's respectability they're after, as they both try to rebuild their franchises and get back to the top.

The Oilers and the Islanders had similar beginnings with both franchises finding success relatively early, winning multiple championships within the first decade of their existence in the NHL. Both teams established themselves as NHL superpowers by building rosters littered with future Hall of Famers, 14 of them to be exact. But over the years as these players moved on, both teams found limited post season success. In the case of the Oilers it was poor drafting and poor development, and for the Islanders it was poor asset management. These factors combined with tight budgets in both cities ultimately landed the Oilers and Islanders in the rebuilding state they find themselves today.

While fans in Edmonton and Long Island have had to endure a number of tough seasons in recent history, they are now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Oilers have built up a strong core of young skill over the last few years via the NHL entry draft, and have now begun adding established NHLers to help fill specific roles to support the roster. Meanwhile the Islanders have also built a roster with a number of talented young players, including 2009 1st overall pick John Tavares, recent 30 goals scorers Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner, top-10 draft picks Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo, and not to mention top prospects such as Nino Niederreiter, Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and Ryan Strome. While both rosters are still lacking in some areas, the depth on offense is clearly beginning to show. Though they may not be competing head to head for Stanley Cups again in the near future, it is obvious that better days are on the horizon for both clubs. So given their current state of affairs, which team do you think is better poised for success?

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Friday, July 22, 2011

On Wishful Thinking and the Need for Players to Buy In

Earlier this week, the biggest free agent of the 2011 offseason put pen to paper on a new NHL contract. Steve Stamkos signed a 5 year $37.5M deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which brings him in at a very friendly cap hit of $7.5M for a team operating with an internal salary cap. At only 21 years of age, Stamkos has already established himself as a premiere goal scorer in the NHL, having put up 51 and 45 goal seasons in the last two years respectively. Through 243 NHL games he has scored an impressive 119-113-232 and is now arguably one of the top 3 players in the league, yet with this new deal he won't be paid as such. In terms of the annual cap hit, Stamkos comes in at a tie for 7th in the league along side Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. In fact, Stamkos accepted a deal that will pay him less than his teammate and captain Vincent Lecavalier, who has only scored 78-113-191 in the same 3 years that Stamkos has been around. Clearly Stamkos has bought into the fact that in a salary cap system, for teams to be competitive, top players need to share the wealth. This is something that the Oilers will need to recognize in the coming years as this rebuild comes to fruition, and especially IF their top prospects do indeed develop into top players as fans in Oil Country are all hoping they will.

Stamkos is of course not the first NHL superstar to take less than market value in a new contract for the good of the team. The Detroit Red Wings have instilled this philosophy into their players for years and have thus been able to ice highly competitive rosters year after year. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and arguably Nicklas Lidstrom as well, are all playing under cap friendly contracts in order to allow Ken Holland to maintain a certain level of talent throughout the rest of the roster. In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby could have easily demanded the maximum salary allowed under the current CBA during his negotiations in 2007, but instead opted to accept a lower number to help build a Championship winning team. Crosby accepting his reduced deal made it easier for the Penguins to re-sign Evgeni Malkin the next year as well. In Vancouver, the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler are all playing for less than their numbers warrant and that certainly helped in adding significant pieces to the team that just played in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Whether Oilers management will be able to impart this "team first" culture onto their players remains to be seen, but it will be tested in the coming year. On July 1st 2012 two important pieces to this rebuild in Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth are set to become unrestricted free agents. These two players are currently putting a combined $10.32M dent in the salary cap, and while one will very likely accept a home town discount on a new deal, the other is due for a raise. When Ryan Smyth requested a trade back to the Oilers he made it abundantly clear that his intentions were to play in Edmonton beyond his current contract, and that desire coupled with Smyth's age and recent production will likely see his cap hit come down from the $6.25M it currently sits at. With Hemsky the future is not as clear. He recently indicated that he was happy with the direction the team was headed in and that he may not be all that interested in testing the open market. If this is the case and Hemsky does re-sign it will be interesting to see where his new deal comes in. If Hemsky does buy in to this philosophy, he'll need to accept a deal that won't handicap the Oilers and their ability to re-sign Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi the following summer. In recent history the the first overall draft pick has received a significant raise in their second NHL contract, with 4 of the last 5 (Stamkos, Kane, Crosby, Ovechkin) signing large deals with an average annual cap hit of $8.0M, the one exception is Erik Johnson who's cap hit actually dropped after his entry level deal. If this trend continues, which it likely will when John Tavares re-signs with the Islanders, it can be expected that Taylor Hall would also see a good raise in pay with his next contract.

The Oilers have been building a roster of young players with a lot of skill over the past few years, but with high skill comes the potential for high salaries. While top end talent is certainly important, there are many other pieces that go into building a winning franchise, and Oilers management will need to maintain the flexibility to be able to add those pieces when the time is right. If this young nucleus is to stay together for years to come, both the players and management will need to work together to make it financially possible within the NHL salary cap.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the Cogliano Trade

Andrew Cogliano was traded by the Edmonton Oilers in the summer of 2009 to the Ottawa Senators in the Dany Heatley deal that never was. Ever since the day Heatley decided not to waive his no trade clause, Cogliano's name has been a constant in the Oilers rumour mill up until today, when he was finally traded to the Anaheim Ducks for a second round pick in 2013.

Cogliano was largely an offensive forward in junior and at the University of Michigan, but his offensive numbers didn't translate well to the NHL. While he scored an impressive 36 goals in his first two years in the league, he saw his production drop off in the past two seasons, scoring only 10 and 11 goals respectively. This past year, Cogliano realized that he was never going to play an offensive role in the top 6 for the Oilers and worked hard to adapt his game into that of a penalty killing two-way forward. With his good speed it was a role that he transitioned well into and showed signs he could become an effective penalty killer this season. He worked hard with the coaching staff and his effort and commitment to  improving his defensive game was never in doubt. Unfortunately, despite his character and desire to find a niche on this roster, his weakness in the faceoff dot hindered his progression into that role. Finally with the signing of Eric Belanger on July 1st, Cogliano's future with the Oilers was decided. Not only can Belanger play the role of the penalty killing two-way forward, but he can do it winning a lot more faceoffs and in a bigger body. Furthermore, the impressive showing by Anton Lander at the Oilers' recent development camp also didn't help Cogliano's case. So while Cogliano has been a good soldier for the Oilers over the past four seasons, there simply wasn't enough room on the roster for him moving forward.

Getting a second round pick for Cogliano in my opinion is on the low side for a durable established NHL player who is only 24 years old, although the return the Oilers could have gotten for him likely would have decreased if they had waited any longer. Cogliano is currently set to go to arbitration on July 21st where he likely would have recieved a raise on the $1M he was paid this past season. If Cogliano were to receive a ruling that the Oilers didn't like, he would have become an unrestricted free agent and the Oilers would have lost him for nothing. In recent years the Oilers emphasis on improving center ice has resulted in a crowded depth chart down the middle. Strong drafting and the signing of Belanger ultimately made Cogliano expendable. In terms of asset management the Oilers made the right move, but I won't be surprised to see Cogliano develop into an effective 3rd line center down the road. While the Oilers didn't win this trade today, it hopefully won't be one they regret in the future.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On The Current Roster and Things to Come

This past weekend Steve Tambellini kicked off the second phase of the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers. After blowing up the old roster, Oilers management made a commitment to rebuilding this franchise with an emphasis on the draft. But now after stockpiling a number of solid prospects who are beginning to show a great deal of promise, Tambellini has begun addressing team deficiencies by acquiring established NHL talent via trade and free agency.

With a young team short on leadership, Tambellini made a trade to bring back Ryan Smyth. With a group of centers having difficulty winning faceoffs, Tambellini signed Eric Belanger. With a roster lacking size and toughness, Tambellini signed Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk and traded for Andy Sutton. With a blue line looking for more help, Tambellini took a chance and signed a former 3rd overall pick in Cam Barker. Based on the flurry of activity over the weekend, it's clear that Oilers management is no longer satisfied with letting a young team sort things out themselves while remaining in lottery contention. The acquisition of a number of players specifically to address team shortcomings means that winning is now on management's mind.

Looking at the players currently under contract, the 23 man roster is starting to take shape. With today's signing of Theo Peckham to a 1 year extension, the Oilers now have 7 NHL-capable defensemen and the blue line may be set for the upcoming season:

Whitney, Gilbert, Smid, Barker, Sutton, Peckham, and Petry.

At forward the Oilers have a long list of players under contract and there will definitely be stiff competition at training camp for spots. These are the forwards who appeared in the NHL last season:

Smyth, Horcoff, Hemsky, Hall, Gagner, Brule, Belanger, Paajarvi, Jones, Eberle, Eager, Omark, Hartikainen, and Hordichuk.

With 14 forwards under contract, along with 7 defenseman, and a goaltending tandem of Khabibulin and Dubnyk, the Oilers would already be at the 23 man roster limit if the NHL season started tomorrow. In addition to this group, Cogliano is still yet to re-sign and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could very well make the roster out of camp. So clearly something has to give. From this list of players, Omark, Hartikainen, and Petry are still waiver exempt, meaning they would not be required to clear waivers for assignment to the AHL, which gives Tambellini some added flexibility. However, Omark has an out-clause in his contract that allows him to return to Europe this season if he so chooses. Omark was clearly unhappy last year when he was cut at training camp and may choose to head back to the KHL if he isn't playing for the Oilers in the NHL this October.

With the signing of Eric Belanger to a three year deal and the selection of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are now a bit crowded down the middle. The most likely scenario would be for Tambellini to move a center for another NHL-ready defenseman. Trade candidates at this point probably include Andrew Cogliano, as he is yet to sign a new deal, and Gilbert Brule since he was already almost traded once this summer. However Brule is unlikely to yield a significant return in a trade based on his injury concerns, which turns the focus back to Cogliano, although Sam Gagner might also be available if the return is significant enough.

The current Oilers blue line is still a work in progress and hasn't gotten help as quickly as the forwards have. There are a number of promising blue line prospects in the system, including Martin Marincin, Colten Teubert, and now Oscar Klefbom, but they are all likely still a ways away from making an impact in the NHL. While the addition of Andy Sutton adds significant size and physicality, the addition of Cam Barker is still a question mark. Will the Oilers be getting the Cam Barker that scored 40 points in 68 games in 2008-2009 or will they be getting the Cam Barker that regressed and struggled these past 2 seasons? For the Oilers to start moving up in the standings they'll need to continue to improve their defense, and if the right deal comes along Tambellini likely won't hesitate to make it. If the Oilers are trying to model themselves after the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, they have their Kane and Toews in Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, but now it's time to find their Keith and Seabrook.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Ladislav Smid and His New Contract

Ladislav Smid came to the Oilers in the summer of 2006 as a piece of the deal that sent Chris Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks after his infamous trade request only days removed from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Selected 9th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Smid was a highly regarded prospect in his draft year, ranked fourth among European skaters and first among international defensemen by NHL central scouting. While Smid was never expected to replace Pronger on the back end, his development into a dependable NHL defenseman has taken longer than anticipated. Today however, the Oilers re-signed Smid to a new two year deal that will certainly pay him like one.

After turning pro, Smid began his career as more of a puck moving defenseman who would jump up in the rush and try to generate offense. In his first season in the AHL with the Portland Pirates Smid scored 3-25-28, but since entering the NHL with the Oilers, the offensive production has never appeared. In 331 games over 5 seasons in the NHL Smid has only scored 4 goals and 40 assists. However, he has demonstrated a willingness to adapt and change his style of play. Over the past few seasons Smid has transformed his game into that of a shutdown defenseman, something that is certainly needed on an Oilers roster that is heavy on puck-movers on the blue line. Smid has developed into a tough stay-at-home defenseman who isn't afraid to challenge opponents, play hard in the corners and in front of the net, and is fairly sound positionally. More importantly, even with 5 years experience Smid is still only 25 years old and believes he can still continue to improve his game. He has stated that his goal is to become a top-four defenseman for the Oilers who can be trusted to play at crucial moments in games and against the opposition's top players, and if he continues on this development curve he should be able to get there.

But is Smid worth the $2.25M contract he signed today? This figure represents a significant raise over the $1.4M he was paid last year. Smid played a ton for the Oilers last season, averaging over 20 minutes a night, largely due to injury, factoring in on both the penalty kill and the powerplay and finished the year at -10 on the 30th place team. Smid had a slow start to the season after major neck surgery over the summer and suffering a mild concussion early, and found himself sitting at -8 by Christmas. However, once Smid got back into the pace of the game, he improved significantly and was only -2 over the last 4 months of the season, when his minutes were increasing and the Oilers were losing a lot of games. So if Smid can start the season where he left off in 2010-2011, he should be able to justify his bump in pay. For comparisons sake, the Red Wings just re-signed Jonathan Ericsson to a 3 year deal at $3.25M annually after earning only $900K last season. Like Smid, Ericsson plays a shutdown game and doesn't provide much offensively, his career high is the 15 points he scored this past year. He plays less minutes a night compared to Smid and is not nearly as physical. Smid also doesn't have the supporting cast that Ericsson has to help out with his +/- statistic. So perhaps the Oilers are actually coming in at the right price.

One major area of concern with Smid however is his health. He has had 2 concussions and a major neck injury in the last 2 seasons. Although he did appear in 74 games last year, the most he's played since his rookie season. Smid, like many young NHL defenseman, is also still battling consistency and needs to maintain his physical play nightly. He likes to play with an edge to his game and will need to keep it that way if he's going to force his way into the Oilers top two pairings. Of course the offense is something that may never come with Smid's game, but keeping the puck out of his own net should still be the priority over putting pucks in the other.

One area that definitely isn't a concern for the Oilers with Smid is his commitment. Smid has stated many times that he wants to play in Edmonton, which is a nice change at a time when the Oilers are having difficulty attracting players. Today in an interview with 630 CHED's Dan Tencer he had this to say:

"Hopefully this season, like I said, is going to be better. I really believe in this team, and that's why I wanted to re-sign here so bad. I was so happy we did. I'm really, really looking forward to this season."

It is that type of optimism and enthusiasm that is needed in the young Oilers dressing room. Smid is motivated and definitely has a "team first" mentality. Hopefully his attitude is one that is contagious. Last season at the trade deadline the Predators and Blackhawks were both inquiring about his availability, and Smid said he was "devastated" to hear about the rumors. In the end the Oilers opted to hang on to Smid and I feel that decision is one that management won't regret.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the Team's Options With Sheldon Souray

*UPDATED Jun 30th

The NHL buyout window closes on Thursday, June 30th and any player that is to be bought out by a club must first clear through unconditional waivers. This means that the Oilers are running out of time with this option on defenseman Sheldon Souray. In order to meet the NHL deadline, the Oilers would have to place Souray on waivers no later than Tuesday Thursday.

Sheldon Souray is entering the final year of his 5 year $27M contract. While the annual cap hit on Souray is $5.4M his actual salary for the final year will be $4.5M. The Oilers have the option of buying out the last year of Souray's contract at 2/3 of the remaining value, or $3M spread out over 2 years. According to CapGeek the buyout cap hit for the next two seasons would be $2.4M for 2011-2012 and $1.5M for 2012-2013.

Steve Tambellini attempted to find a trading partner for Souray last week at the NHL Entry Draft but found no takers. Not even the Florida Panthers who are trying to take on salary in order to meet the NHL cap floor were interested, opting to trade for Brian Campbell and his $7.2M cap hit for the next 5 years instead. Based on the overwhelming lack of interest in Souray at last year's trade deadline and this year's draft, it's clear that GMs around the league no longer view Souray as a productive NHL defenseman. The fact that he only scored 4-15-19 in 40 games in the AHL last season didn't help his cause either.

At this point, what are the Oilers' options with Souray? At his pre-draft media availability, Tambellini gave the impression that a return with the Oilers for this upcoming season was unlikely. Interestingly though, it seems the slight majority of Oilers fans would be willing to give Souray another chance. Adding more to the debate is the fact that today the Oilers decided not to offer qualifying offers to both Zack Stortini and JF Jacques, making them both unrestricted free agents on July 1st. While not the most offensively gifted or defensively responsible Oilers this past season, they both provided an element of size and at times some toughness to the lineup, Stortini moreso than Jacques. While it was no surprise to see the organization part ways with these two players, it is still a bit of a loss on a team that is trying to become harder to play against. Looking at the Oilers roster, the only player that is currently under contract that consistently brings this element with his game is Theo Peckham, and as tough as he is he can't do it alone. While Souray may not be able to provide consistent offense at the NHL level anymore, he still plays with an edge and can bring that toughness to the lineup.

So is the added physicality that comes with Souray worth $4.5M as well as the risk that comes with bringing his attitude back into the dressing room? In my opinion it still isn't. The Oilers this week made a step forward when they brought back Ryan Smyth, as his character is the kind that should be setting an example for the younger players. Having Souray around to potentially counter that would simply defeat the purpose. The money saved by buying out Souray could be better spent on other players that could bring that same toughness. Re-signing Jim Vandermeer at a reasonable contract would be a start, and signing one of Ben Eager or Zenon Konopka, should they hit unrestricted free agency, would be a plus. It's time to cut ties with Sheldon Souray and move on with this new Oilers team and this new Oilers culture.

UPDATE Jun 28th: Sheldon Souray was not placed on 48hr unconditional waivers today indicating that he will not be bought out if my understanding of the waiver rules is correct. Steve Tambellini will likely continue to pursue a trade in the offseason as there may be teams interested if they miss out on potential UFA signings. However if an Oilers player elects to go to salary arbitration prior to the July 5th deadline, there is another buyout window in August after the hearings.

UPDATE Jun 29th: According to Aaron Portzline (@aportzline) of the Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets will place Mike Commodore on waivers this Thursday with the intention of buying out his contract. Thus players do not need to clear waivers prior to the June 30th deadline, but rather only need to be placed on waivers before then. So therefore a buyout is still an option until tomorrow for the Oilers with Souray. In other news, the NHL CBA is confusing.

UPDATE Jun 30th: Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMckenzie) tweeted this morning that the Oilers had placed Sheldon Souray on unconditional waivers with the purpose of buying out the remaining year on his contract.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

On How They Did In Round 1

So the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has come and gone and as expected the Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall. While there was a fair bit of action on the draft floor, the Oilers stayed relatively quiet, though likely not for lack of trying, and opted to stick with their 19th overall pick and ended up drafting Swedish defenseman Oscar Klefbom. In other news, after a day of rumors that the Calgary Flames had a deal in place to acquire Ryan Smyth from the LA Kings, Smyth opted to veto the trade and hold out for a deal with the Edmonton, which eventually came with the Oilers sending Gilbert Brule and a conditional draft pick back the other way. However, while media outlets in LA have reported the deal is done, Steve Tambellini himself has denied this. Regardless, this is a trade that will eventually be completed, likely by tomorrow.

Overall the Oilers had a successful first day of the 2011 Draft. They picked the best player available with their first pick and managed to grab a big defensive defenseman at #19. In Oscar Klefbom the Oilers are getting a physical character defenseman who can move the puck well and played in the Swedish Elite League at 17 last year. He also captained Team Sweden to a silver medal at the U18 World Jr Tournament. At 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds he certainly has the size to play the NHL game but may need some time to develop.

Today the Oilers were able to add two solid prospects to help fill two large holes in the current roster at center ice and on the back end. More importantly they did so without having to give up a significant roster player in an attempt to move up from the 19 spot. They also added the veteran leadership of Ryan Smyth and managed to ship out an expendable forward in Gilbert Brule. Hopefully the Oilers can find more success tomorrow in the remaining rounds.

UPDATE: TSN and the Edmonton Journal are reporting that concerns over the health of Brule is holding up the Smyth deal. While the trade is still likely to be completed, it will probably involve different pieces going back to the LA Kings.

UPDATE2: The Oilers reported this morning that Ryan Smyth is heading back to Edmonton in exchange for Colin Fraser and a 7th round pick. Interesting that the final offer was less than what was in the original deal. Good on Steve Tambellini to not cave to all the fan pressure to just make a deal happen but to actually hold out and get the best deal for the Oilers.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Future of Sam Gagner

If all of the speculation is correct, tomorrow night Steve Tambellini will step up to the stage at the Xcel Energy Center and announce that with the first overall selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, the Edmonton Oilers are proud to select from the Red Deer Rebels, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If this is the case and the Oilers do select the dynamic playmaking center, where does that leave Sam Gagner and his future with the Oilers?

Sam Gagner was drafted 6th overall at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and immediately made the jump to the NHL the following season. It has been hotly debated ever since among Oilers fans if this was the correct decision, or whether Gagner would have been better served going back to junior for another season. Gagner silenced most of his critics that year when he went on to score 49 points in his rookie season. However, he may have done himself a disservice in doing so as he raised the expectation level for himself throughout OIL country, which was already quite high considering how early he was drafted in the first round. Ever since his strong rookie season, Gagner has seen a slight decline in his offensive production scoring 41, 41, and 42 points over the next three years. The jury is still out on what Gagner’s ceiling really is. OIL country seems to be divided on this, with some believing he has not yet reached his true potential, and other believing that he has already seen his game plateau. Many have suggested that Steve Tambellini offer Gagner up in a trade tomorrow in an attempt to move up from the 19th overall selection.

Looking back at the selections in the 2007 draft, it’s clear that the Oilers made the correct selection at #6 spot. Out of all the players taken in Gagner’s draft class, the only player that has scored more points than Gagner is Patrick Kane. The only other player that was available at number 6 that might have been a better pick is Logan Couture who went 9th overall, but of course hindsight is never wrong and clearly the Sharks knew something no one else did as they made two trades on draft day in order to get the 9th pick. However at the time, Couture did not have nearly the numbers in junior that Gagner scored, and certainly 2 seasons in the AHL and playing in the San Jose Sharks top 6 this season helped his impressive rookie campaign.

So if the Oilers select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tomorrow, does that immediately make Gagner expendable? In his first 4 seasons, Sam Gagner has shown at times that he possesses the hands and vision to be a quality playmaking center in the NHL. In addition to the offensive abilities, Gagner has also demonstrated willingness to battle and even push back when challenged. More importantly, he has also shown a commitment to improving his game, often putting in extra time at the rink to work on his weaknesses. This fall Gagner will enter his 5th NHL season at only 22 years of age, and there aren’t too many NHL players who stop improving at 22. While Gagner may never be a first line center, I feel he does have the ability to be a strong second line center. Given that the quality of wingers on the Oilers has improved significantly over the past few years, I would expect the point totals for Gagner to increase as he solidifies his role on an offensive line. Is a 20 goal 40 assist season beyond his abilities? Gagner has one more year on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent again. There is no need to give up on him yet. Even if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins becomes an Oiler tomorrow, keeping Gagner around will give RNH time to develop either back in Red Deer or in a sheltered role in the NHL. Until Nugent-Hopkins becomes a legitimate first line center and pushes Horcoff down the depth chart, there is time to wait and see with Gagner. Of course it is still entirely possible that the Oilers could select Adam Larsson tomorrow, which would then make Gagner’s future a lot clearer.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Ryan Smyth and a Possible Return

Ryan Smyth was the saving grace of the 1994 NHL entry draft for the Edmonton Oilers when they selected him 6th overall after making the mistake of drafting Jason Bonsignore with the 4th overall pick. In 12 seasons for the Copper and Blue, Smyth scored 265-284-549 and currently sits 7th all time in Oilers scoring history. During his tenure in Edmonton, Smyth became a fan favorite not because of his offensive abilities, but because of the so called intangibles that were so obvious in his game. Smyth played the game with heart and passion, and was a true workhorse every shift, every game. He displayed a constant willingness to sacrifice for the team, which was no more evident than during the 2006 Stanley Cup run, and also likely the reason why he only played 4 full seasons in his 12 years with the Oilers. He was a true leader for the team both on and off the ice and became the face of the franchise. Then in the spring of 2007, Kevin Lowe and the Oilers made a decision they probably now regret when they opted to trade Smyth at the deadline after failing to come to terms on a new contract. So today when Bob Mckenzie posted an article on TSN suggesting that Smyth was interested in a return to the Oilers, it was no surprise that OIL country was abuzz with the news. Smyth, and not Nugent-Hopkins, was the Ryan that Oilers fans were interested in acquiring on this day.

In an interesting turn of events, Smyth himself later denied the story in an interview with the Edmonton Journal's Jim Matheson. However it has since been reported by Helene Elliott of the LA Times that Smyth requested a trade for family reasons and Kings GM Dean Lombardi confirmed that he has had talks with Smyth. Looking at the Kings numbers it would make sense that Lombardi would be open to trading Smyth. They currently have 11M in cap space (with a 59.4M cap) with only 16 players under contract, and still need to sign a number of free agents including Drew Doughty and Wayne Simmonds. Trading away a 35 year old veteran with a big contract and one year away from unrestricted free agency would go a long way financially. So if all of this is true and Smyth does indeed want to return, should the Oilers welcome him back with open arms?

Smyth has one year remaining on his 5 year 31.2M contract at an annual cap hit of 6.25M, although his actual salary for the upcoming season is only 4.5M. These numbers are hardly an issue for the Oilers who currently have over 20M in cap space, and likely have no intention of spending to the ceiling for the upcoming year. Last season Smyth scored 23-24-47 and appeared in all 82 games for the Kings while still playing significant minutes (18:02 TOI/g). Interestingly, despite developing into a strong penalty killer while with the Oilers, the Kings hardly used him shorthanded (0:19 SH TOI/g). However Smyth did factor largely into their powerplay unit (2:57 PP TOI/g), parked in front of the net no doubt. So clearly, while he has taken his fair share of punishment over 16 NHL seasons, Smyth clearly still has game left in him.

While his offensive output last season with the Kings was hardly that of a 6 million dollar player, his 23 goals and 47 points would still have lead the Oilers in scoring. Offensive numbers aside, his ability to play in all situations, as well as up and down the lineup would be a great asset to the Oilers. On this roster, Smyth wouldn't be counted on to provide offense every night. Which brings me back to the intangibles. Over the past few years Oilers management has been adding a lot of skill to the lineup, but it is very young skill. The Oilers last season were the 3rd youngest team in the league with an average age of only 25.8 years. The Boston Bruins just proved to the hockey world that experience is still important to winning. Along with the experience in Smyth also comes his veteran leadership. While Shawn Horcoff did a fine job in his first year as Captain, you can never have enough strong leaders on a team. Not only does Smyth lead in the locker room, but he also leads by example on the ice. There are not many players better to help teach the young players on this team about what it takes to be a professional in the NHL, and more importantly what it takes to be an Oiler.

Of course there are some drawbacks to bringing Smyth back to Edmonton. Mainly he would be taking potential ice time away from the younger players the coaching staff are working to develop, players such as Teemu Hartikainen who also plays a gritty game on the left wing. Secondly, what would the price be the Oilers would have to pay to bring him back? In a perfect world the Oilers could send back Sheldon Souray, who will make the same salary as Smyth this season with 1 year remaining on his contract, but given Lombardi is likely trying to gain cap space in a deal, they would probably have little interest. Although it has been suggested that the asking price from the Kings may not be all that high.

Given all this, the benefits of bringing back Smyth clearly outweigh the negatives. On a young rebuilding team such as the Oilers, having another veteran leader to mentor and guide the young stars would be the greatest gain. It's obvious that Ryan Smyth still bleeds OIL, so why not bring back a player who is motivated and has the desire to play for this team and this city? Trade for Smyth, put an 'A' on his chest, and help move this team forward into the future.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On What to Do With Ales Hemsky

Today over at The Cult of Hockey an article was posted regarding the Columbus Blue Jackets' interest in Ales Hemsky. With the Blue Jackets holding the 8th overall selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft and looking to acquire NHL-ready talent, it should come as no surprise that Scott Howson would be calling up Steve Tambellini to inquire about the availability of the talented winger. Howson of course was second in command to Kevin Lowe for the Oilers when Hemsky entered the league as a rookie in 2002, and watched him develop over the years until he took on the title of GM in Columbus in 2007. Rumors were rampant last year at the trade deadline that Hemsky was available for the right price, so no doubt he will likely be available again at this years draft. So if the sources are correct, what should the Oilers do with the most skilled player on their roster?

Hemsky is entering the final year of his contract with the Oilers at very affordable cap hit of 4.1M. However with the final year of a contract comes impending unrestricted free agency. Over the past 6 seasons since the lockout, Hemsky has scored a total of 96-235-331 in 360 games and proven himself to be a first line winger on most NHL rosters. He has demonstrated a willingness to play hard in the corners, carry the puck into traffic, and take hits to make plays, often at the expense of his own body. His dynamic offensive skillset, high-end vision, and ability to make plays with the puck at top speed make him one of the premiere playmakers currently in the league. At his age he is entering the prime of his career, and he is certainly the type of player that could help turn around a struggling franchise. No doubt the Blue Jackets are interested in Hemsky on the hockey side as they have been looking for a set up man for Rick Nash ever since they drafted him, but also on the business side to help ice a winner in a market where fans are getting impatient.

Of course with the good in Hemsky also comes the bad. In the past 6 seasons where he has scored nearly a point per game, he has also missed 132 games due to injury. Worse yet, in the past 2 seasons he has only appeared in 69 out of 164 games. He has a tendency to overplay the puck which often leads to turnovers in the offensive zone, and there has also been questions raised in the past about his work ethic at practice. While the latter criticisms are issues that are typically resolved with experience and maturity, Hemsky's on-ice durability is the main concern going forward.

So with this in mind, which direction should the Oilers take? If there is a deal to be had with the Blue Jackets at the draft it is likely centered around the 8th overall selection coming back to the Oilers. With a draft class like this year's where the top-end talent is so spread out, the Oilers would likely get a decent prospect at #8 to go along with the player they take 1st overall. However the issue with moving more proven NHL talent in exchange for prospects is that it would likely mean another lottery pick for the Oilers at the 2012 NHL entry draft. While young talent is certainly a much sought after commodity in today's NHL, there is still something to be said about experience. At some point the Oilers will need to maintain or add some veteran presence to the roster, and with 8 years NHL experience there's no reason why Hemsky couldn't be part of it. Also at only 27 years of age Hemsky is still young enough to move forward with the growing pool of young talent the Oilers have acquired over the past few years. With Ales Hemsky the Oilers know exactly what they are getting, that is a point per game player when healthy. With a draft pick, there is still a significant amount of risk involved regardless of how highly touted a prospect may be. In my opinion it would be better to take the risk with Hemsky's health than with an 8th overall pick, especially considering that Stu MacGregor ranked this draft as only a B+. Unless the Blue Jackets are willing to pay a higher price, which Tambellini should be asking for, and likely is considering he wanted Brayden Schenn in return at the deadline from the LA Kings, I wouldn't consider moving Hemsky. Instead I would look at negotiating a contract extension which would see him through at least the entry level deals for Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi.

When the Oilers made the decision to move Penner instead of Hemsky at last year's trade deadline, Steve Tambellini must have gotten the impression from Hemsky that he was committed to the rebuild of this franchise. If this was the case then negotiations between both camps should start on July 1st. But just like with Ryan Smyth, if a deal is not in place come spring of 2012 then the Oilers need to move him at the deadline, as they can't allow a talent like his to walk away for nothing next summer.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

On the Value of a Pest

What do Chad Larose, Corey Perry, Kris Draper, Matt Cooke, and Dave Bolland all have in common? First, they are all players of the breed known as the "pest" and second, they've each hoisted the Stanley Cup in the past 5 years. In today's NHL the pest has remained a valuable member of successful winning teams, and it's been no more evident than in this year's Stanley Cup finals in which both teams feature players the type, including Alex Burrows and Brad Marchand among others. So the question is, should the Oilers be looking into adding one to the roster?

The pest is the player that hockey fans hate on opposing teams, but tend to love when they skate in the home jersey. There's absolutely nothing more frustrating than seeing an opposing player run around the rink, play chippy, start scrums at the whistle, and skate away from them with their gloves on their hands and an aggravating grin on their face. For the past few years Oilers management has been talking about making this team "harder to play against" and adding a player cut from this mold would be a way to get there. The ability of a pest to agitate an opposing team's top players to get them off their game and goad them into taking penalties has been seen time and time again. Just think back to Round 1 and how the Blackhawks fared against the Canucks with and without Dave Bolland in the lineup.

The Oilers currently have one player that could arguably fill the role of the pest in Theo Peckham. Peckham is a player that loves to mix it up and yap at the opposition. However the man they call Teddy Peckman rarely backs down from a challenge and doesn't quite infuriate the opposition in the same manner. Also his style of play while agitating, usually ends up in more penalties taken than drawn, as evidenced by his 3rd most PIMs in the league this past season. I have no problems with the way Peckham plays the game and the toughness he brings to the lineup, but I wouldn't go as far as calling him a "rat".

However it should be noted that there is a difference between a pest and a villain. That there is a difference between a Dave Bolland and a Matt Cooke, or a Corey Perry and a Sean Avery. The most effective pest is one that can drive the opposition crazy without resorting to diving and taking cheap shots, and can still play the game well. One that can take away the focus of the opposition without themselves becoming the focus of the game. There are different breeds of pests in the NHL and it is a thin line dividing them. Finding one of the right character is certainly not an easy task, but one that Steve Tambellini should consider as they continue to build this franchise into a winner.

UPDATE Jun 15: With the exception of Tim Thomas, Brad Marchand was the difference in the Stanley Cup Final for the Boston Bruins

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