Edmonton Oilers – Opening Night Roster Review

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On the eve of their 36th NHL season, and the final one to be played at the iconic Rexall Place, the Edmonton Oilers have announced their opening night roster for 2015/16. This was always going to be an interesting announcement, from the moment the fate of the franchise took a decidedly different turn on 18 April 2015, when a certain set of lottery balls fell their way.

Gone (mostly) are the controversial decision-makers that have dominated the Edmonton sports scene for over a decade and a half.

Gone (mostly) are the flotsam and jetsam that have plagued the depth of the city’s beloved Oilers since July 2006.

Incoming are the new heroes of the City of Champions, on whose shoulders rest the hopes and prayers of an army of win-hungry fans.

Let us review those who would enthral us, frustrate us, captivate us and disappoint us.

The Forwards

#4 – Taylor Hall – the face of the franchise for the last 5 years, he may be turning over that mantle to a new young phenom in very short order. Don’t forget about Hall though. Still just 23 years old, Hall has finished in the top-10 in NHL point scoring twice, has 263 points in 299 NHL games, and is considered one of the World’s premier offensive LWs. Had a disappointing 2014/15 season, but is poised to return in a big way, and playing on the wing of a potential superstar won’t hurt his chances.

#10 – Nail Yakupov – it seems as though the infectious exuberance of young “Yak” has been around for a lot longer than 3 seasons. Unfortunately, it is the wait for him to fulfil his unrealised potential that has made time drag by. The hope from Oiler fans is that the Nail we saw under Ralph Krueger, and who re-emerged in December of last year under Todd Nelson, is the real deal. Speed, skill, a surprising physical game and a (rather inaccurate) cannon of a shot, Yakupov likely has a chance to move up the batting order with usual first-liner Jordan Eberle out for 4-6 weeks.

#12 – Rob Klinkhammer – a solid member of last season’s successful (relatively speaking) “Wagon Line” with Matt Hendricks and Boyd Gordon, Klinkhammer displays many positive attributes (size, speed, grit) but his lack of offensive results had many believing he’d be in tough to make the team. However, he moderately impressed in pre-season action, and should be a solid performer once again (though highly replaceable if need be).

#14 – Jordan Eberle – probably the most consistent scoring threat the Oilers have had since Ryan Smyth’s younger days, the news that Eberle would miss at least the first month of the season was a big blow. A consistent 65-point pace producer, Eberle struggled to start last season but after Christmas formed a deadly combination with Benoit Pouliot and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who for an extended period were the league’s highest scoring line. Look for them to be reunited on his return.

#16 – Teddy Purcell – much lambasted for his lack of speed and “soft” play, not to mention his large contract, Teddy Purcell certainly has his faults. One of them certainly isn’t his lack of skill. He remains one of the team’s best tape-to-tape passers, and is a real thinking-man’s hockey player. He will likely soon give way to a younger, more physical, faster winger, but for now the Oilers are content with Purcell’s veteran presence and understated game.

#20 – Luke Gazdic – one of the few true enforcers left in the league, Gazdic definitely has his supporters, including many current Oiler skaters. A strong and willing combatant, Gazdic has actually shown flashes of moderately acceptable hockey ability, but not enough to truly warrant providing him a roster-spot. Despite my dislike of this player-type in general, I wouldn’t totally object to playing him against the Canucks of this world if it keeps the Oilers’ skaters feeling confident that someone has their backs (despite little numerical evidence to support the theory).

#23 – Matt Hendricks – a player whose arrival at the expense of Devan Dubnyk caused consternation among many at the time of the trade (and now, looking back on it, it’s a pretty galling trade), but Dubnyk was clearly struggling at the time and it took him three teams and a stint in the AHL to get his game back. Meanwhile, Hendricks was exactly what the doctor ordered for an Oiler team lacking humility, accountability, tenacity and decent fourth-line skill. He’ll never be more than what he is now, but his blend of two-way play and aggressiveness, along with the respect he’s clearly earned in the room, make him invaluable to this young team.

#28 – Lauri Korpikoski – an intriguing addition to the team, his addition and the simultaneous subtraction of Boyd “Emerges Like Andy Defresne From A River Of Shit Despite Being Thrown Into Hell” Gordon are among the off-season’s most argued-about moves for Oiler fans. Korpikoski is younger and faster, with more offensive upside and some two-way ability; on the downside, he isn’t anywhere near as capable at playing the tough minutes, doesn’t play centre, and has seen his once-promising offense decrease significantly the past several years. We’ll see.

#42 – Anton Slepyshev – shock number one on the opening night roster! The 21 year old Russian forward has long been admired by scouts for his speed, high skill level, sniper’s shot and physical play, but his offensive production for many years in the KHL left many wanting more. The first overall pick in the 2011 KHL Draft (seriously! Oilers’ can’t get enough of ’em), Slepyshev came to North America looking to make an impact, but most fully expected most of his season to be spent at the AHL level. That could still happen, but the winger had an outstanding camp and proved he could play a game to suit anywhere from lines 1-4. Could be in a battle with fellow country-man Yakupov for Eberle’s spot on the #1 line.

#51 – Anton Lander – arguably last season’s most pleasant surprise, Anton Lander finally emerged from 5 years of turbulent development (flip-flopping between the NHL and AHL, becoming a point-per-game performer at the latter level but nary able to post a single point at the former) to become a seemingly-excellent third line performer. Will need to prove he can continue this over a full season, but had an excellent camp – looks like a young Shawn Horcoff out there (remember – the Shawn Horcoff that everyone liked!), with a penchant for puck retrieval and deflections on the powerplay.

#55 – Mark Letestu – the Boyd Gordon replacement. Has a better history of offensive production than his predecessor and is slightly younger and faster; not as much of a wiz on face-offs but still good, Letestu looks like he could be a perfectly reasonable 4th line center. Didn’t have a great camp, so hopefully he picks up his game soon or a certain Russian behemoth in Bakersfield may take his job before too long.

#67 – Benoit Pouliot – probably Craig MacTavish’s most successful roster addition, at least in the one season he has played for the team so far, Pouliot provided a different (and much desired) dimension to the Oilers’ top 6 last year. Plays a solid defensive game, he is an excellent driver of possession, using his speed and big body and high skill level to drive the net and create plays. Was part of a high-scoring trio with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins when not injured. With the infusion of yet more young talent into the lineup, it is unclear how long Pouliot will remain in the top-6; however, his uniqueness on the roster and his versatile game means he could hang around longer than expected. An excellent complementary player.

#93 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Kelly Hrudey’s favourite “third line centre”, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is coming off a season playing heavy first line minutes, and excelling while doing so. The 2011 first overall pick is quite understated, but has a quiet determination and intensity to his game. And what a game. He may not (yet) be putting up offensive totals expected of 1st overall selections, but there are few players his age (still only 22!) who can boast such an outstanding two-way game. Many see elements of Datsyuk and Bergeron in him, and it’s tough to disagree. The most apt comparable is likely Dave Keon, he of Maple Leafs fame, and his game really is beautiful to behold. His edgework on his skates has to be seen to be believed, not to mention his passing ability. While Connor McDavid may be the first line centre of the future for this team, Nugent-Hopkins is there right now, and is primed to explode.

#97 – Connor McDavid – there will rarely be more hatred for a team acquiring a player with such blind luck, but Oiler fans will not care one iota. This player quite literally changed the entire fate of the Edmonton Oilers, ushering out one dreadful era and bringing in one of hope and potential glory. In the days following the lottery win, out went Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson (mostly), and in came Bob Nicholson, Peter Chiarelli and Todd McClennan. The player? Unparalleled speed and acceleration (seriously, YouTube him), combined with a deadly playmakers skillset. Some have declared him more talented than Crosby at the same age. Was excellent in training camp and preseason, though wasn’t rewarded on the scoresheet nearly enough (his 5 points in 5 games were surprisingly under-the-radar). Will receive Taylor Hall on his wing to start the season – will they make magic? Will McDavid fulfil his destiny? Time will tell.

The Blueline

#2 – Andrej Sekera – one of the team’s big offseason acquisitions, Sekera was arguably the top free agent d-man on the market, which makes it all the more important that a team so desperately in need of help on the back end got their man. He’s not flashy, he’s not big nor fearsome, but he’s a smooth skater and quality puckmover who also makes strong defensive reads and has sound positioning. He’s a top pairing guy, though not a high-end one. Think of him as Jeff Petry’s much-needed replacement, only with more offense. Whether he’s up to the task of righting an already sunk ship will be interesting to watch.

#5 – Mark Fayne – a much heralded free-agent signing in 2014, it’s safe to say Fayne has underwhelmed so far as an Oiler. He was never going to wow fans with his game, but stronger defensive play was certainly expected. Hopefully being paired with stronger partners this season (Sekera, Klefbom) will lift his game to a top-4 level as was previously hoped.

#8 – Griffin Reinhart – likely Chiarelli’s first big gamble as Oilers’ GM, Reinhart was acquired from the Islanders for two reasonably high picks at the 2015 draft. A highly regarded two-way defender in junior, he was positively dominant for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL in their run to the Memorial Cup title in 2014, something the Oilers clearly didn’t forget about. He was solid if unspectacular in his first pro season, playing first-pairing minutes in the AHL and with spot duty on the powerplay. He’ll never be a top-end point producer, but he has all the tools to be an excellent top-4 defender should his development continue on an upward trend. Made the Oilers out of training camp, beating out veteran Nikita Nikitin and brash rookie Darnell Nurse.

#19 – Justin Schultz – the memes surrounding poor Justin Schultz have grown to deafening levels over the past couple of seasons, with “Jultzing” and “Norris” becoming two of the most unfortunate. Hyped by the previous regime as a potentially elite defender, Schultz has failed to piece together his considerable talent into a legitimate NHL defender. He is truly excellent when in the offensive zone (although he needs to work on holding the puck in at the opposition blueline), but his defensive zone play is lacklustre at best, while his ability to move the puck out of his own end and through the neutral zone is shockingly inconsistent for a supposed puckmover. This preseason however, he has looked like a new man, playing with intensity and making crisp outlet passes. Will it last through the regular season? For the Oilers’ sake, it better.

#21 – Andrew Ference – a polarizing figure among Oiler fans, Ference was never going to cover the bet on his considerable contract. He was mediocre in year one, and poor in year two. He is not going to get  any better. He has had a wonderful career for an undersized defender, but despite his fanatical commitment to fitness the game has passed him by. Every fan should however respect his work in the community, and without a doubt his ability to handle the tough media questions night after night through all the losing; not everyone will agree with his strong views, and he didn’t always say “the right thing”, but he has played hard for the Oil Drop in his two seasons and that’s all that can really be asked. His days as captain are likely over, and it would be a surprise if he lasts the year as an Oiler.

#62 – Eric Gryba – acquired as the second part of a controversial move to swap out Martin Marincin for someone grittier and tougher, Gryba has intrigued Oiler fans since the team traded for him from Ottawa. Big and a willing combatant, he was regarded in Ottawa as a hard-nosed defender who was actually quite capable of boxing out opposition forwards and providing solid defensive play. However, his skating ability is relatively poor, and his puckmoving worse. He has not looked good in pre-season action, but will likely get the chance to prove his worth by virtue of being one of Chiarelli’s acquisitions.

#77 – Oscar Klefbom – a real revelation last season, the 22 year old Swede emerged as one of the team’s top blueliners last year. The talent was always highly regarded – there were murmurs at the 2011 draft he could emerge as the best of that year’s crop of d-men – but his developmental line was inconsistent, plagued with injury and lack of offensive progression. Once he hit the AHL in 2013 however, things began to improve, and by the end of last season he had put all fears to bed, playing a strong defensive game, playing with intensity, skating miles (and fast), and even contributing on the scoreboard with surprising creativity. Defenders never develop in a straight line, so caution must be advised, but the hope is that Klefbom continues to develop into a high-end two-way defender.

#88 – Brandon Davidson – shock number two! Well, at least a little. Brandon Davidson is waiver-eligible this year, so there was a suspicion the Oilers would keep him up, but in truth the perennial-underdog really earnt his place on this team. A feel-good story if there ever was one – in short, his family couldn’t afford to put him in junior hockey until his draft year, and then in his first year of pro hockey he was struck down with testicular cancer – Davidson has developed into a tough, dependable defender who plays a simple game with decent passing and skating ability. He was dominant defensively in the AHL last year and played 12 solid games with the Oilers. He’ll likely never be more than a bottom pairing defender, but for a 6th Round Pick who was always at least a year behind in his development than the rest of his age-group, that would represent a huge win.

In Net

#33 – Cam Talbot – if there was ever a case of putting all your eggs in one basket, this may be it. The Oilers managed to pry the much-desired Talbot out of New York for a reasonable price, hoping beyond hope that he can put a stop to the team’s years of sub-standard netminding. He was truly excellent in relief of the injured Henrik Lundqvist last season, but there are concerns that his NHL sample size is simply too small to put trust in. This is true, but studies have been done to show that Talbot may be capable of something quite special. Oilers fans wait with bated breath for the reality.

#39 – Anders Nilsson – shock number 3! While fans were happy to see the Oilers acquire something for low-end college prospect Liam Coughlin, most likely never expected Nilsson to truly contend for a spot with the team out of training camp; more likely, he was brought in as competition for former-starter Ben Scrivens to re-ignite his game. Nilsson had other ideas however, as he was nothing short of brilliant in his pre-season action and forced Scrivens to the farm team. As with any player, pre-season performance cannot be read into too much, but the guy clearly has talent and desperately wants to give the NHL one last shot. Things didn’t go well for him on Long Island previously, but at least part of that was due to illness; his performance in the KHL offers some hope for at least a solid backup to Talbot.

First Call-Ups

#1 – Laurent Brossoit – his development has been gradual, but Broissoit finally looked confident at the AHL level last season, and was positively outstanding in his first taste of NHL action. He will battle with Ben Scrivens and Eetu Laurikainen for playing time this year, but it would be a shock if he wasn’t gifted a lion’s share of the starts in Bakersfield.

#25 – Darnell Nurse – the one player who can’t arrive soon enough for every Oiler fan, Nurse offers the kind of package that the team has been clamouring for since Pronger left town. He’s big, he’s vicious (and I mean vicious), he can move the puck, he can defend and he can skate like the wind. He simply needs time to learn to control his game and let the pro-game slow down, but make no mistake – he is the defender of Edmonton’s future.

#29 – Leon Draisaitl – the 2014 3rd overall pick was *this* close to making the team out of camp, but management felt he would be better served playing big minutes in the A. Sublime passer and built like a talent, when he arrives he’ll add wonderful options to an already loaded offense.

#41 – Bogdan Yakimov – part of the Russian invasion of Edmonton in recent times, “Yak2″ wasn’t as impressive in this training camp as last, but the 6’5” 232lb forward will get to play big minutes in Bakersfield this year and continue his development as a potential NHL centre.

#82 – Jordan Oesterle – an excellent skater and strong puckmover, Oesterle has to improve his defensive game but he adds a dimension Edmonton are in short supply of after Justin Schultz.

______________________________________

And so concludes our look at the opening night roster for the 2015/16 Edmonton Oilers. It’s a safe bet that with the inevitability of injuries, trades and poor performances, this will not last long. There is no question that this is one of the most talented Oiler teams of the last decade; the real questions are, will they gel as a team, and is it enough to get them anywhere near the playoffs?

The last several years have taught me… never try and predict a positive outcome for an Oilers’ season!

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