2014/15 Season Preview – Edmonton Oilers

RNH

2013/14 Season Record – 14th in Western Conference, 7th in Pacific Division

W

L OT PTS

GOAL DIFF.

29 44 9 67

-67

2013/14 Season Recap

Every season seems to bring renewed hope for Oiler fans, and seemingly every season those hopes come crashing down before you can say “I blame Shawn Horcoff!” (Disclaimer: I firmly do not believe Shawn Horcoff was to blame for the team’s troubles, and boy could the team use him right now…)

The reasons given by fans and media for this are myriad season over season, including but not limited to: poor defensive depth, poor forward depth, the young stars had no veteran support, the young stars were/are busts, poor coaching, too many coaching changes, the Belanger Triangle, lack of emotion, Devan Dubnyk, lack of facepunchers, too many facepunchers, and so on and so forth. Some of those have merit, others do not.

Last year, with yet another new coach (their 4th since Opening Night 2009) behind the bench and promises of a fitter team with greater work ethic, the team positively fell flat on their collective faces out of the gate, finishing out 2013 with a 12-24-5 record and once again the laughing stock of the league. Devan Dubnyk’s unbelievable collapse from the off didn’t help, nor did Dallas Eakins’ swarm system that quite simply didn’t work, gifting the opposition glorious chances.  Compounding the issues was the fact that the only bonafide NHL center on the roster was Boyd “8 Goals” Gordon – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was still rehabbing a shoulder injury, and Sam Gagner had his face caved in by Zack Kassian in preseason.

The team went to battle with Gordon, minor league 4th liner Will Acton, left winger Taylor Hall and AHL star Mark Arcobello up the middle. Gordon thrived, arguably the team’s MVP, though ran ragged by the coach. Acton was saddled with awful linemates on an awful team, and predictably didn’t look good. Hall, whom many had been clamouring to see perform a Messier and transition to center, was ineffective at best. Arcobello surprisingly looked completely at home, putting up points, displaying an edgy physical game and defensive smarts.

Even once Nugent-Hopkins returned, he was over-relied upon by Eakins and while he was good much of the time, he still didn’t display the same level of prowess he did in his rookie year. Gagner was also simply not the same player after his return, as you might expect from someone playing with a shattered jaw.

The rest of the season was a write-off, with a rotation of goalies that bordered on hilarious – Dubnyk, Jason Labarbera, Ilya Bryzgalov and Richard Bachman all saw time in the crease, before GM Craig MacTavish finally got his men in Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. By the trade deadline, the team were obviously sellers, saying goodbye to long-time Oiler Ales Hemsky and also Nick “Did They Really Trade Tom Gilbert For Him?!” Schultz.

March was the only month of the season where the team won as many games as they lost, and despite what the coaching staff and management said at the end of the year, things were still looking dire in Oil Country.

Projected Roster

LW C RW
Taylor Hall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Jordan Eberle
David Perron Leon Draisaitl Teddy Purcell
Benoit Pouliot Mark Arcobello Nail Yakupov
Matt Hendricks Boyd Gordon Anton Lander
LD RD
Martin Marincin Jeff Petry
Nikita Nikitin Mark Fayne
Andrew Ference Justin Schultz
G
Ben Scrivens
Viktor Fasth
EXTRAS
Tyler Pitlick
Keith Aulie
Luke Gazdic

Top Call-Up Options

Forward Steve Pinizzotto 
Defense Oscar Klefbom
Goal Richard Bachman 

Top Prospects

1. Leon Draisaitl

2. Darnell Nurse

3. Oscar Klefbom

Key Additions

  • Mark Fayne (UFA signing)
  • Benoit Pouliot (UFA signing)
  • Keith Aulie (UFA signing)
  • Nikita Nikitin (trade and sign)
  • Teddy Purcell (trade)
  • Iiro Pakarinen (European FA signing)

Key Subtractions

  • Ryan Smyth (retired)
  • Sam Gagner (trade)
  • Denis Grebeshkov (UFA)
  • Philip Larsen (rights retained)
  • Taylor Fedun (qualifying offer not tendered)
  • Ben Eager (UFA)
  • Roman Horak (rights retained)
  • Anton Belov (UFA)
  • Mark Fraser (UFA)
  • Ryan Jones (UFA)

Roster Thoughts

Though I still don’t feel he gets the respect he deserves, any line with Taylor Hall on it is going to be one opposition coaches will key in on. Hall has been the most effective scoring left-winger of the last two seasons, scoring 130 points in his last 120 games, and at just age 22 is not yet in his prime. A 90-point season could be in the cards if his team-mates can elevate their play to match his. He will undoubtedly be joined at the hip with Jordan Eberle, a fellow top-30 NHL scorer, who seems to be settling in nicely as a 25-30 goal, 60-70 point producer.

Joining them will likely be 2011 1st Overall Pick Nugent-Hopkins. RNH has come under fire for not producing at an elite rate to-date, but many forget that he is nearly 18 months younger than Hall, and has had pretty much two seasons marred by shoulder injuries. His potential remains elite, with exceptional passing ability and a smart two-way game.  The first line is not the problem, particularly with their continued maturation and added support this year.

That added support up front comes in the form of Teddy Purcell and Benoit Pouliot. Purcell, acquired from Tampa for Gagner, provides a big body with skill. Many will not like Purcell – through his own admission, he is not a physical-type – but he has a considerable history of producing very well when playing with scoring talent, and of being a very good possession player (albeit against softer competition). Pouliot also has the benefit of being an excellent possession player, having put up strong advanced stats on a variety of teams and in a variety of situations, and also provides size that he is more than willing to throw around. He has not lived up to his draft pedigree, but does possess decent skill and speed and it would be interesting to see him given an opportunity to ride shotgun with the Oilers’ scorers.

Nail Yakupov is a wild card, having had a poor season in 2013/14, but remains a tantalising package of speed, skill and an insane shot. If he can realise his potential as a 30-40 goal scorer, the Oilers will be a deadly offensive team. I don’t expect that of him yet, and would consider a 20-goal campaign a success for him, but it is uncertain how he’s going to be used this year.

David Perron was a wonderful surprise for the team last year, giving the team a much needed boost of energy, passion and “assholery” that has been missing for a long, long time, not to mention a high skill level. He co-led the team in goals, and should continue to be a great asset to the team.

The bottom line will undoubtedly feature Matt Hendricks, a fan-favourite who seems to have the respect of his team-mates and isn’t without some hockey skill. His opposite wing is in a state of flux, and my reckoning is that Anton Lander will finally grab that spot. Lander laid waste to the AHL last year, but remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma in the NHL. The talent is there though, and if utilised correctly should be able to contribute enough to stick while providing excellent PK skills.

What am I forgetting? Oh yes, the depth at center. Oh boy, woooooowee. I’m willing to give MacTavish the benefit of the doubt here – I’m sure he tried hard to obtain a capable player to slot into the middle-six for a year or two until Leon Draisaitl can take the reigns. And herein lies the issue. I have high hopes for Draisaitl, the big German center selected 3rd overall in this year’s draft. He has immense talent, and should one day form quite the tandem with Nugent-Hopkins. He may even perform reasonably well, but I have an intense dislike for the fact that the team has not provided any obstructions for him making the team. Gifting him a spot hurts the player, and it hurts the team. It is what it is, however, and as it stands he will likely slot in as the second or third line center. He will likely form a rotation with Mark Arcobello, who had a very good stretch in the NHL last year before slowing, and then finishing the year by destroying the AHL (28 points in 15 games). I am a firm believer that he is an NHL player despite his height deficiencies, and I do look forward to seeing if he can produce this year, but again he is not a proven option and the lack of options at this key position is alarming.

On defense, Jeff Petry returns for what could (unfortunately) be his last season as an Oiler, if you believe that the 1-year deal he recently signed is an omen of such things. He is in over his head as a number 1 defender, but has been without exception the team’s best defender the last two seasons and is a highly capable top-4 skater with all-round ability. The addition of Mark Fayne should ease Petry’s workload, and make them both better; Fayne has been quietly excellent for the Devils the last few years, and while he doesn’t put up much offense he does have a good first pass and excellent defensive positioning.

Martin Marincin was a wonderful surprise last year, showing a smart, simple game, and his enormous wingspan gives him great defensive potential. He slowed towards the end of the year, but he played so well overall that I am personally very excited to see how he develops. Nikita Nikitin is a question mark.  He has had very strong seasons, but last season did not look good while sliding down the depth chart in Columbus. Hopefully he can recover his game.

Andrew Ference is without doubt a respected team-mate and does wonderful things in the community – as evidenced by his winning the King Clancy Memorial Trophy – but his play on the ice left a lot to be desired. He plays hard, but paired with rover Justin Schultz he just doesn’t have the speed to cover for the youngster’s frequent mistakes. Perhaps in lesser minutes Ference can still be effective, but he is far from being a capable top-4 player on this team. Schultz, as mentioned, makes far too many mistakes for both his own and the team’s good. He can be wildly exciting when jumping in on the rush, displaying blazing speed and dazzling skill. Unfortunately, he was a disaster in his own end, seeming confused at times and lackadaisical at others. His potential is still good, but as much as the team loves him, he is rapidly circling the drain. For everyone’s sakes, he needs to improve this year.

In net, the team seems highly enthused with Scrivens and Fasth as a tandem. I agree that they both have the potential to take the number 1 role, though their lack of an extensive resume means I’m not going to put money down on either of them to truly grab the role and run with it. They do have the advantage of playing in front of a stronger defensive unit than Dubnyk ever had the advantage of, not that many will let that ruin the narrative!

Key Player

For a team so desperate to reach the post-season, there are a dozen possibilities for “key player.”  Taylor Hall – as he goes, so the team goes, but you do know what you’re getting with him. Leon Draisaitl – will he survive the rigours of the NHL, produce enough and not be a defensive liability on a team horrificly shallow on centers? Mark Arcobello – will he show as well as he did last year, thus assuaging said fears over the team’s depth up the middle? Ben Scrivens – will he play well enough to be considered at least an average NHL ‘tender, despite his lack of experience? Mark Fayne – will he be the defensive rock everyone is expecting?

However, I have opted to go with first line center, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Unbelievably, there are some who think of “The Nuge” as a bust, the former 1st Overall draft choice having failed thus far to put up elite scoring numbers as the likes of Hall, Tavares et al have done.  It must be noted however, that aside from a dire sophomore season where he was suffering with a shoulder injury, he has put up solid to very good numbers, averaging 59 points for every 82 games over the course of his young career thus far.

Further to that, he displays an exceptional defensive conscious. And I mean exceptional. No, he’s not at Pavel Datsyuk levels (yet), but for a player who has only just turned 21 to display the smarts he does tells you why Oiler fans are so excited about his potential. Combine that with some of the most ridiculous playmaking skills you’ve ever laid eyes on, and absolutely beautiful skating ability (seriously, watch his edgework, it’s like no-one else’s), and you have your franchise anchor in the middle.

Why do I consider him the key for this season? Well, if the Oilers are to take a step forward in spite of their aforementioned black-hole at center, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins must do the following:

  • Stay healthy – he has only played one near-full NHL season to-date (the lockout didn’t help), and is reportedly finally healthy after re-habbing an old shoulder injury. That’s good news, BUT if he goes down to injury this year the Oilers simply don’t have anyone who can take those minutes. Draisaitl may be able to one day, but that day is not yet.
  • Improve his offence – as I mentioned, his offence has been good, not great. That needs to take a step forward this year, and hitting at least 65-points is an absolute must. He remains a potential point-per-game player, but until that happens it is all just guess-work. The Oilers have Hall and Eberle as their big-time offensive punches, and RNH has to join them if the team is to ice a truly terrifying line.
  • Improve his defense – I stated above his defensive abilities are unreal. However, it has yet to all come together in a Datsyuk/Toews/Bergeron-type package. He has to take the next step in becoming that calibre of player who can skate in all situations.

Without these above points, I don’t see the Oilers having much success this year.

2014/15 Expectations

I’ve given up having high hopes for the Oilers, at least for the time being. I do hope they make the playoffs of course, and I do believe they’ve made some excellent additions up front and on D, but the gaping hole at center is simply too worrisome to ignore. They might make a move such as moving out Petry for an establish center, but that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul – I really like the look of this defensive unit, and no matter who’s coming down the pipeline this team is better with Petry at this stage than without him. Leon Draisaitl will (hopefully) be the answer to the second line center question, but that day is not yet near.

I believe the Oilers to put up their best year in a long time this season. Unfortunately, I still can’t see that meaning any higher than 10th in the West.

Follow Chris on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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