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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