With the NHL season starting today, my obsession with 'everything Oilers' that has consumed my life this past year, and reading everything I can about every player, I want to share my own insight on the team I've been following since I was about 9 years old.
I've been mighty impressed with the new advanced statistics gathered and analyzed by Oilers' bloggers (especially 'Boys On The Bus' and 'The Edmonton Journal Cult of Hockey Blog') that have consistently confirmed my own feelings and thoughts watching the games the past season.
There's been a lot of improvements this summer with the team. Let's look at them and at what the future holds this season.
1. Tambo gonzo--the return of MacT.
The first move was President of Hockey Ops, Kevin Lowe's firing of GM Steve "Dithers" Tambellini. Well deserved. It doesn't take a good GM to get 3 #1 picks in a row. It's bad luck followed by luck. The hiring of former captain and coach Craig MacTavish as GM appeared to be a recycled 'old boys' hire. But we all have to admit, MacT's moves and style have been night and day compared to before. He's brought back Scott Howson from Columbus as his right hand man and Billy Moores as Director of Coaching Development--a very smart move on its own. OIL UP.
2. Ralph gone. Dallas? Dallas? Who the f@#$ is Dallas?
In playing sports for many years, I've always had an instinct for defense, where defense is #1. It's difficult to practice defense on your own in any team sport. The only way, really, is to have great instincts, experience, and be in great shape.
So this early summer, when MacT made his first "bold move" by firing rookie NHL coach Ralph Krueger and replacing him with a soon-to-be NHL rookie coach, the successful AHL Toronto Marlies' coach, Dallas Eakins, it was a shock to many.
However, in further insight by several bloggers, the homework was done in looking at the absolutely abysmal five-on-five record of the team last year. These bloggers showed video clips of what was a very leaky defensive system, and they had all the stats to back it up too. This system, what we can gather, appears to be based on a "big rink" European-style, where the players are more spread out in their own end, particularly the wingers, who stay high near their blue line, perhaps ready for a quick offensive transition break-out. This style, in theory, would make sense with the run and gun young offensive talent the Oilers have.
But this is not Europe. It's a smaller rink. I remember watching the first episode of "Oil Change" and seeing 1st pick Nail Yakupov on the rink with Sam Gagner and Samwise telling the rookie that due to the smaller rink, wingers are expected to pinch in and help out the d-men and the centre with their opponent(s) on the boards by staying quite close. Well, the opposite happened under Krueger's system. Wingers stayed high, and the lowly centreman was tasked with the help--on both sides of the rink.
Why do you think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins offensive numbers were down but his defensive Corsi rating against tough opponents was high? The Nuge spent more time playing defense. Why? Because that was the system he was under. And that system, my friends, has never been used by any team in the NHL ever.
We're sure MacT looked at the success of Eakins' defensive system with the Marlies', a team that had the best defensive record in the AHL last year, in comparison to the Oilers', who had, by far, the worst five on five defensive record. Eakins' uses a "swarm" system, which is quite common.
But combined with a high focus on fitness, playing a more attacking, quick possession regain defense, Eakins' recognizes that it's success depends on the players having a high fitness level. No way you could use that system in the KHL as the rink is so big, energy management becomes a parameter. And for a team that lacks size like the Oilers' to use brute force to gain the puck, the bet is that a high level of fitness and determination will beat a lazy Dustin Penner brute force style a majority of the time.
So, I believe, Krueger got fired because of his terrible defensive system and Eakins' got hired for his good system and more. Much, more.
This will be the biggest impact of change this year. He admitted today that it's taking a while for the players to adjust and buy into his system and there is still work to do on that front. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later. Culturally, it's been night and day. Krueger's style was "too esoteric" by MacT standards. Eakins' has come in with a "clean slate", "we're not a young team", "unflappable" style that has been very refreshing for all of us, more so the players. "You play well, you'll play more." No more donuts at press meetings--veggie plates instead. Dressing room changes. Joining new d-man and captain Andrew Ference at fitness mornings at the Legislature with 200 random Edmontonians at 6am, he's set a very serious tone in this city. OIL UP.
Goodbye Whitney, Peckham, et al. Hello Cup guy-local guy, Andrew Ference, now our captain (which I predicted). Hello, KHL #1 dynamo Belov, former Oiler Grebeshkov, Horcoff trade guy Larsen. Not only is there a better system in place (not hard to be better than total crap), but the D are at least 40% better than last year as far as experience and skill.
Unlike last year all teams have had a chance to have a proper development and training camp and preseason. With the loaded up prospects from the past two years, much attention has been placed on young, future stars. The 2013 Draft had the Oilers go big on defense with Darnel Nurse and he developed and adjusted quickly during camp. Many thought he'd actually make the team, at least for the first 11 games before he'd be required to be sent down without a pro contract. Other d-prospects, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun have impressed and this fan is sad to see Fedun sent down, especially after a disappointing injury at camp previously. I also liked Larsen. The Oilers have good d-depth now, especially on call-ups. I'm not worried about it anymore. Finally.
a. Goodbye captain Horcoff, hello Boyd Gordon. Horcoff was a love/hate player with a huge contract that did not sit well in a low-cap market for this season. The jury is out if high faceoff/defensive Corsi Gordon will fill the shoes and many feel he's a perfect 4th line centre, not 3rd line due to his lack of offensive prowess. Let's call this EVEN for now.
b. Perron for Paajarvi. This WAS a bold move. St. Louis needed some younger talent with a lot of potential. Oilers needed results now although Maggie had a very good end of season momentum. The timing was perfect. This was a steal of a trade and one of MacT's best moves so far--especially in so far that we have recently learned Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, after seeing Maggie in camp, sees what we saw all along: fast, good skills, but not forceful enough, especially for the style that the Blues play. Perron has so far been very good during preseason. Blues fans were very sad to see him go. OIL UP.
c. TTFN Hartikainen, hello Jesse Joensuu. I was a big Hartski fan and at times it looked he'd breakthrough somehow, but like Paajarvi, it didn't pan out and he's off to Europe on his own while the Oil maintain his rights. His replacement? Islanders winger, Finnish big man Jesse Joensuu, who has blown the doors off of expectations as low as they were, during camp. Another great pick up by MacT. OIL UP.
d. 4th line. What a mess. Who knows who's on it day to day. Right now it looks like Eager - Acton - Brown. Picking up former Oiler Steve MacIntyre to play tough guy now sees him on the IR. His quick replacement was Dallas AHL prospect fighter Luke Gazdic. I used to be an Eager fan because of his speed, and didn't really miss him being sent down last year, but with better coaching, he's ideal for the 4th line with limited minutes. Is Wil Acton a slight improvement over Chris VandeVelde or Anton Lander? Perhaps a wee bit so far. But I'll take him over Belanger any day. On the right, Mike Brown remains. Tenacious indeed. Gone down are fan-favourite Ryan Jones, who has lost his step from the eye injury last year. I think I'd rather have him in than Brown but we already have a pile of skill. We do need more toughness. Is the 4th line better than last year? We'll see. EVEN, but OIL UP if they can get the top three lines to play more PK and better 5v5 defense where the 4th line isn't needed as much, which is what I think is going to happen--more 3 line scoring rotation from Eakins'.
e. Forward prospects. Quite lacking. Mark Arcobello filling in for Sam Gagner right now, which is what he'll continue to be--a fill in. Great skill, but way too small for a 2nd line centre. Heck, Gagner is too small for that too. I was impressed with Tyler Pitlick as a future, if not called up 4th line winger. Linus Omark? Meh. Had a terrible camp, made maybe two good plays. AHL guys Ryan and Curtis Hamilton, are also notable mentions, but definitely Jujhar Khaira. Andrew Miller, MacT's early pick up from Yale was a disappointment compared to expectations.
6. Backup goalie.
Goodbye Khabbi, hello Jason LaBarbara from Phoenix. I liked the Bulin Wall and think he's a tad better than LaBarbara. Everyone's saying Dubnyk needs to be a bit better. Well no shit, but I thought he was outstanding last year already. Let's talk in 20 games and see.
6a. Ty Rimmer. Very good prospect who's leaped over Tyler Bunz (who just got sent to the ECHL again). Richard Bachman and Olivier Roy are the guys in OKC. If Dubnyk gets injuried though, yikes.
Dubnyk is better than last year but backups aren't as good, so OIL EVEN.
B. WHAT WE NEED:
Those are the major changes and the Oilers have many more improvements than lack. Now let's look at what we need as far as players to win the Cup.
1. Two-way centre.
With Nuge and Gags out injured, Hall has moved over, albiet temporary. With AHL-level guys Mark Arcobello and Will Acton filling in, we really don't have a full two-way centre at all right now. Many waived centres were bypassed by MacT. I can only think that this big piece of the puzzle is what MacT is building up for--a megatrade or something--the real bold move everyone is hoping for. On Draft Day he traded away higher round picks for many more lower picks. But with the Oilers on the cap limit, we'd have to move Hemsky and or Nick Schultz and a pick.
2. #1 D man.
Is Andrew Ference the guy? He's not big enough nor a more offensive guy than Justin Schultz to be a true #1, like a Chara or Weber. All good teams have this kind of guy.
3. Solid 4th line.
Shorthanded, greasy goals galore, while truly stopping the other team from scoring.
C. STEP UP!
Who needs to really step up?
1. Hemsky: MacT not finding any takers this year, Hemmer couldn't have it any better than being paired with Hall and Smyth right now. Eakins has been very impressed, but a couple times during preseason, Hemmer wasn't playing due to illness or injury, which makes none of us fans surprised at all.
2. J. Schultz: His play diminished throughout the year. Let's hope his fitness level improves so he can handle his first big full season.
3. Dubnyk: No more crappy bad angle goals please, and that's all we ask. It happens to the best of goalies, but just saving a few of those could make all the difference.
I'm not worried at all about Hall, Eberle, or Yakupov one bit, except Hall will likely score less at centre.
Here's how the healthy lines COULD go, in my humble opinion:
1. Hall - Nuge - Eberle: The chemistry stats on these three is through the roof. Can't split them up although perhaps Hall and Perron switch so Hall plays with Yak.
2. Perron - ??? - Yakupov: They need a big guy to clear the way for Yak and Perron or Hall to zoom in on the wings.
3. Joensuu - Gagner - Hemsky: Not a bad 3rd, or heck, 2nd line at all. Very skilled.
4. Smyth - Gordon - Brown: Experienced and smart, although I'd love to see Tyler Pitlick on this line for sure next year.
1. Smyth - Hall - Hemsky: Hall clearly misses playing with Nuge and Ebs but doesn't mind Hemmer and less so Smyth.
2. Perron - Arco - Eberle: The right side pair played very well together in OKC last year. Perron will hopefully make up for Arco's lack of NHL experience for now.
3. Joensuu - Gordon - Yakupov: Very interesting line up, with three players and nothing in common. Big checker, faceoffs, and super skill. I think the chemistry will take time with these guys.
4. Eager - Acton - Brown/Gazdic. I hope they don't play much.
Ference - J. Schultz: should be very good. Justin couldn't ask for a better guy to be paired with right now.
Smid - Petry: no surprise. Let's hope Petry continues to improve and not go stagnant.
N. Schultz - Belov: a small shutdown guy paired with a big all-round player in Belov.
Is this a Stanley Cup team? No. :
Is it a playoff team? Just barely. They WILL win 50% of the games including shootout wins.
I predict, like many have, that the Oilers will finish 4th or 5th in the Pacific behind the California teams and maybe Vancouver. If 5th, they'll be ahead of the 4th place Central team so they get in on the new crossover. The Canucks, now the Oilers official rivals this year, will see the Oilers beat them in the season series (last year overall, the Oilers were slightly better) and THAT alone will make the difference.
But with the improvements over last year that I've mentioned, I think the Oilers are one of the most underrated teams in the league and will have a much better year because of a new serious focus on defense, which will be 40% better than last year (players and system), fitness level, attitude, combined with even more skill (Perron, Joensuu, Ference, Belov), toughness (Joensuu, Ference, Perron, Gazdic, Belov), and depth.
1. San Jose Sharks: It's time. Many predicted they'd go all the way last year.
2. Anaheim Ducks: They're old, but they're good.
3. LA Kings: Always lack during the regular season, but tough tough tough.
4. Edmonton Oilers: The Rodney Dangerfield of the league will surprise most, especially the jerks at TSN.
5. Vancouver Canucks: Loungo will burst with all the pressure. Torts will piss everyone off but they'll make the play offs because the Central division lacks.
6. Arizona Coyotes: Could possibly be better than Vancouver but they're sooo booorring to watch.
7. Calgary Flames: Coaching is not the problem here at all... poor management of long term. They'll certainly steal many games from top teams, so no one should be complacent.
1. Chicago Blackhawks: They're just pure excellent.
2. St. Louis Blues: It's definitely time. Top defensive team in the league.
3. Dallas Stars: underrated.
4. Nashville Predators: not as good as many think
5. Winnipeg Jets: could be better than Nashville but the Jets were in a shitty division last year.
6. Minnesota Wild: boring and overrated
7. Colorado Avalanche: they're the new Blue Jackets.. and will grow this year but be much better next.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS:
Oilers vs. Sharks
Kings vs. Ducks
Canucks vs. Blackhawks
Stars vs. Blues
Oilers vs. Ducks
Blues vs. Blackhawks
Oilers vs. Blues
Blues vs. Penguins: Blues. A few have predicted but their D is tops. Toews Team and then Syd and Co. won't be able to get through it.
Call me a crazy optimistic fan, but it's entirely possible, especially with a healthy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and a big trade for another two-way centreman near the Spring deadline. No one is predicting what I have here, that the Oilers go to the Conference finals, and that suits me just fine. Call it a BOLD MOVE.
And SOMETHING has to happen this year. We've waited long enough. The rebuild IS over.