The Edmonton Oilers finished last season at the bottom of the Northwest Division standings and three points out of a playoff spot. The early finish was a disappointment for the Oilers and their fans, but the way the season ended provided confidence for 2008-2009. I’ll explain.
Despite being left out of the party that is the ‘Second Season,’ Edmonton made great strides to finish as close as they did. Since the month of March, Edmonton went 11-5-1 to nearly make the playoffs. Go back to Feb. 24, and they finished the season 14-5-1.
All this means that the team that was together after the trade deadline was able to gel and make a legitimate push. Good news for Oilers’ fans is that the majority of that team is back again.
Defense was the issue in ’07-’08. The Oilers allowed the most goals in the Northwest, as well as the second most in the Western Conference.
Joni Pitkanen being claimed by the Carolina Hurricanes highlights losses on the blue line. Pitkanen was a restricted free agent and is now signed in Carolina for three years. His offensive talent is full of potential, but his numbers suffered in the hockey-crazy city of Edmonton.
Pitkanen was replaced in a trade that sent Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene to Los Angeles. In return, the Oilers received Lubomir Visnovsky – a talented defenseman with even more offensive talent that Pitkanen.
Visnovsky totaled 41 points (8 G – 33 A) as a King, and has the chance to put up better numbers with a better team in Edmonton. He is, at 31-years-old, not going to surprise too many people with a breakout season. However, another aspect of consistency now resides on the Oiler blue line.
The only worries with Visnovsky are that he has seen a drop in production every year since the lockout. Likely a product of playing with NHL bottom-feeder LA, the defenseman’s numbers should improve. Just three seasons ago he put up 17 goals and 50 assists for a career-high 67 points.
The other worry resides around his lack of size and strength. He needs to capitalize offensively in order to make up for his stature.
Also on the blue line are Tom Gilbert, Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios. The three have one glaring problem: a less-than-acceptable plus/minus rating. Gilbert made up for it with his 33 points (13 G – 20 A), but Staios is the worst of the three with a minus-14.
Rounding out the starting six are Ladislav Smid and Denis Grebeshkov. Smid, at minus-15, is another defenseman that needs a bit of improvement.
Jason Strudwick, acquired during free agency, will likely start the season in Springfield (AHL). However, he will get the nod if the defensive problem persists.
With a better attack, the defense can improve thanks to point production on the offensive end. Just as the Oilers led the division in allowing goals, they scored the most goals as well. Interestingly enough, Edmonton did so without a 30-goal scorer. Heck, they barely had a 20-goal scorer.
Three players on the ’07-’08 Oilers’ squad scored 20 goals or more. They are Dustin Penner (23), Shawn Horcoff (21) and Ales Hemsky (20).
The right side produced very well for Edmonton. Along with his 20 goals, Hemsky added another 51 assists to lead the team in points with 71.
He will man the first-line right wing with line-mates that are just as productive. I’ll explain as we progress.
Also on the right wing is Sam Gagner. At only 18-years-old, Gagner put up outstanding numbers in his first NHL season. 49 points later (13 G – 36 A), big things are expected for his future. With many other young stars excelling in the NHL, Gagner likely got less attention given the Oilers struggles.
Fernando Pisani and Zack Stortini round out the rest of the right wing. Both are hustle guys and role players. Pisani adds 20 points a year, while Stortini is the enforcer.
On the side opposite of Hemsky is the new addition to the team, Erik Cole. In Carolina last season, Cole put up 51 points (22 G – 29 A). He can do even better on the line he is on this year.
The left wing stays strong down the line with Penner and Robert Nilsson. Nilsson, with 10 goals and 31 assists, is a more than capable third line winger.
The final left-winger is Ethan Moreau. Oiler fans are waiting for his numbers to translate over to the NHL. As a young player in the OHL, Moreau blew away the competition. Since arriving in the NHL, he has been unable to produce those same numbers. However, as captain of the team, he plays a bigger role in his leadership than anything else.
At center, the leader is Horcoff. And with a new, six-year contract extension, he will maintain that role in Oil country for some time. He centers the potent first line, and by the looks of things, the 20-goal mark will not be as elusive as it was last season.
Andrew Cogliano follows him closely. Both are capable of putting up 50 points or more a year. They did a solid job firming up the top two lines at center, and are expected to do the same this season.
Kyle Brodziak is the third line center, and did well in his first full season in the NHL. Scoring 14 goals and adding 17 helpers, he set a high standard to aim for as far as production goes. At 24, he has the potential to grow in to more of a scorer, though most scouts don’t predict such to happen.
And finally Marc Pouliot will man the fourth line. He saw limited time in the NHL last season, and could potentially be in and out again this year. If he struggles, Gilbert Brule would likely be the next option. Brule was signed as a free agent on the first day of free agency.
As was described earlier, Edmonton had quite a bit of trouble keeping the puck out of its own net. Part of that can be credited to the lack of a starting goaltender.
Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson split time nearly evenly last season. Neither having a chance to play for consistent stretches contributed to sub-par numbers. However, what can you do when neither goalie is playing well? You have to keep shuffling the deck until one guy earns the job.
’07-’08 was just a very uncharacteristic season for Roloson. He finished with a GAA of 3.05 – the first time in his career he has finished over 3.00. At age 38, time may finally be taking its toll on the net minder.
Thus, enter Garon. He finished the season with a 2.66 GAA and .913 SV%. These are pretty decent numbers and it will be interesting to see how he fares with a larger workload this year.
This team is very young. This season could be a ‘coming out party’ for Gagner and many of the other young players in Edmonton. Oiler fans should be excited at the fact that such a young team nearly made the playoffs.
The Oilers should be better than last year. It appears that their offense is even better than it was last season. For all of the teams I have previewed so far, each has lost one of its top five scorers. This is not the case in Edmonton. With their top five back, plus Cole entering the picture, Edmonton will be finding the back of the net with regularity.
On the defensive side of things, it’s hard to say whether or not this team will improve. They gave up Pitkanen, but eventually got Visnovsky as a replacement. How I see it is that they might have been better off focusing their attention on acquiring a more defensive minded guy to add to the blue line.
Nevertheless, I’m a big fan of chemistry. The fact that the Oilers have their five main guys back, plus a pretty capable replacement, makes me confident that they will improve. How much? That’s the big question. I wouldn’t expect anything drastic.
The goaltender position is the huge question mark in my mind. I have to imagine, with Roloson’s age and recent struggles, that Garon will get the nod to start at the beginning of the year.
Garon has only played over 50 games in a season once in his career. That year he struggled posting a 3.22 GAA and .894 SV%. Can he finally handle the long haul of an NHL season?
Keep it here tomorrow for my third preview of the Northwest Division when I will look at the Calgary Flames.
~Chris @ Pittsburgh Puck Talk