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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