A noted sports journalist in Edmonton commented recently that the team may be forced into beginning the upcoming season with their current roster. For Oil fans, the thought of watching the Oilers go through another season like last is as appealing to watch as a Celine Dion concert marathon in HD on Valentine's Day, when your mother-in-law is in town. But the question is, would history repeat itself if current Oilers WERE the 2009/2010 team?
Before getting into this, it should be pointed out that it is highly likely that at least one more roster change will occur. The Oilers roster is unbalanced in respect to salaries - Staios, Souray, Visnovsky, and Gilbert are all cap hits greater than $2mil per season. Grebeshkov will likely be in the $3mil range, and Smid could go as high as $2mil (although $1.5 is more likely). No team has six D-men who are minimum $2mil cap hits. Further to this is the realization that the Oilers have a decent and affordable seventh defenseman in Jason Strudwick, and two defensive prospects in Theo Peckham and Taylor Chorney who are ready for the NHL. It is fair to assume that at least one quality defenseman will be moved before the season starts, likely for the purpose of acquiring a Top 6 forward.
For now, and for the sake of this discussion, let's pretend no changes are coming. It could happen, folks. It's much more likely that the current line-up will be the team, than Dany Heatley will become an Oiler. So this discussion is a valid one.
The first realization when considering the Oilers roster is that it might be time to promote some players from within. The top Center position is a good example of an area where a promotion could occur. Shawn Horcoff is a leader of this team as he demonstrates a combination of an incredible work ethic, dedication to team, and dedication to the community. Every team needs a Shawn Horcoff. Unfortunately for the team and Shawn, he has been misused as their #1 Center. He just isn't a top end offensive guy. This season might be year the top job goes to Sam Gagner. While he is still unbelievably young, there has been a pattern of success when he is paired with Hemsky that can not be ignored. Over the last 20 games of the last two seasons, Gagner has been the top offensive player on the team, and he's done it playing with Hemsky.
The Oilers do not have a natural 50 goal guy. Or a 40 goal one. Or a 30 goal guy for that matter. What they do have is an abundance of second-line players, which, when you think about it, is a is-the-glass-half-full-or-empty situation. I seem to remember a Boston team in the 70's having tremendous success with 10 - 20+ goal players. Since the Oilers do not have a superstar, they need to have three lines that can be a threat every single game. Is it possible? Perhaps.
Potential line combinations under the Quinn/Renney Era
Penner - Gagner - Hemsky
Nilsson - Cogliano - O'Sullivan
Moreau - Horcoff - Pisani
Stortini - Schremp - Brule
Hmmm...How is this line-up an improvement over last season? Penner, for one, will have a better year. MacT was not a Penner fan, and Quinn is a fresh start for him. Further to this, Penner got his goals last year having very little power play time. If you put Penner on the first line, including the power play, and kept him there all season? He will be a 20 goal guy, and could reach 30. I kid you not.
Nilsson is somewhat in the same boat as Penner, in the sense that a fresh start with new coaches won't hurt him. Where Penner brings the potential to be a quality power forward, Nilsson is yet another small player and set-up man. He has talent, but of the six forwards listed on the above Top 6, he is clearly the most expendable.
The Horcoff line would bring hits and defensive zone quality, but not many goals. The fourth line, with Schremp and Brule, could be a good one. Or, it could be horrifying. One thing is for certain: Schremp and Brule definitely deserve to be playing ahead of Pouliot and Jacques. Some of MacT's projects were perplexing. It's time to move on.
Unlike the Oilers forward lines which could be subject to endless debate, the defense is a much clearer discussion.
Souray - Visnovsky
Grebeshkov - Gilbert
Staios - Smid
The Oilers have nine defensemen who could play in the NHL. Either two good players are going to be in the AHL to start the season, or someone is going to be moved. The Oilers as their line-up currently stands is as good as any team in terms of defensive mobility and offensive potential. The knock on this unit is in terms of size and hitting. Staios is getting older, and Souray is too value to be in the box all game. Gilbert, Grebeshkov and Visnovsky are not physical players.
Goaltending is a non-issue. Actually, I've been confused and amused by the praise of Dwayne Roloson's season last year. Almost every game I watched, he let in at least one soft goal. While he played almost half the season consecutively, the decision to give him that kind of ice time was another strange coaching move by MacT. In the few games he was allowed to play, Jeff DesLauriers looked as good as Rollie.
Bottom line is, Khabibulin is a step up and DesLauriers will be given 25 to 30 games this year to develop into an NHL-quality stopper. The least concerning position this year is in goal.
So what does this all mean? Detriot, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver, and Chicago all look to be better teams than Edmonton going into the year. St. Louis looked amazing during the second half of last season, and are young and improving. While Pronger is gone, Anaheim has had a busy and productive off-season, and should be in the mix come playoff time. Which leaves Edmonton battling it out with Columbus, Nashville, Los Angeles and Minnie for eighth place. Eighth. Again. Yuck.
Bottom line is, the Oilers will not make the playoffs with this team. The good news is, everyone, including the management, know it. Who stays and who goes is anyone's guess. What is certain is that there will be at least one significant move to bring in a Top 6 forward. My guess would be a Top 4 D-man being moved for a winger with size and some hands. All this talk about the Oilers obtaining a Kessel and such is lovely and entertaining, but the likelihood is rather low. Look for the Oilers to instead trade salary-for-salary; an established forward for an established defenseman. If I were Vis, Shelly or Gibby, I'd keep some empty boxes at the ready.