Well folks, it’s September 2nd and now the minds of most fans are turning to the thought of training camp and pre-season play. Heck, the season opener is just a little over a month away. Of course, the flip side of that is that it’s about to get chilly, the festivals are all done, and snow and crap roads will be the order of the day. Oilers hockey makes all that tolerable. Lets just hope Oilers hockey is tolerable. In today’s first part of the preview, we are looking at the overall changes that were made over the summer. Additions, subtractions, and all that stuff.
The Oilers saw three team veterans make their way out of Edmonton. Shawn Horcoff was moved to the Dallas Stars early in the season. The team captain, it was noticeable when he departed. Horcoff fought for the puck, and his effort was missed. The team struggled to replace that, although his low offensive numbers made that departure easier to swallow.
Of course, Ales Hemsky finally made his way out of Edmonton. It’s a little weird that he would also end up with the Dallas Stars, reunited with Horcoff. The main reason he landed there was his chemistry with Jason Spezza. They clicked instantly in Ottawa and help form a team in Texas that has a pretty solid line up heading into the new season. The most meaningful departure, however, is that of Ryan Smyth.
Smyth was a true Oiler, and would have spent his entire career here had he not been foolishly traded years ago. Sadly for him, he left the LA Kings the year they won their first cup. He could’ve ended his career with a contending team but came back to a bottom feeder for his love of the team. He felt the team would see post season play after he returned, but it never came to pass. So, if those veterans are gone, are their replacements a noticeable improvement? See below for more.
Defensively, the Oilers shed players but none of them were major losses. Anton Belov was sent packing after trying out the NHL for a year, but he is not coming back. Denis Grebeshkov was another of Craig MacTavish‘s reclamation projects, but he flopped like Chris Farley into a swimming pool. Philip Larsen bolted to the KHL; he showed flashes of brilliance last year but never found a solid role here.
Corey Potter was let go by way of free agency, Nick Schultz was traded for a fifth round pick and Ladislav Smid was traded to the reviled Calgary Flames. The Smid trade led to much controversy last year. The Oilers were already thin on D and it was a ballsy move to shed salary in such a way. MacT was looking for insurance down the middle by acquiring Roman Horak in the transaction but he too went back to the KHL. Laurent Brossoit, former Oil King, was an asset the team got back, but like most young goalies, he has yet to convince anyone he can bring it in the majors.
As those last three names indicate in the list above, some turn over in goal occurred as well. Devan Dubnyk was given the gold key to the executive washroom this year and he famously dropped the ball. Between himself and his workout buddy Jason LaBarbera, they managed only four wins in the first month, putting the season on mothballs before it even really got underway. MacT replaced them initially with Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov had become a bit of a punchline after his buyout and subsequent stint in the ECHL, but he proved he still has game. The Oilers got a pick for him and then he went onto propel the Minnesota Wild into the post season.
Benoit Pouliot, Teddy Purcell and Leon Draisaitl are the trio that are de facto role fillers for those guys. Trouble is, Draisaitl may not be ready for primetime. That still leaves room for one more role player that is needed. Obviously, as discussed ad nauseum by bloggers and media alike, the Oilers are painfully thin at centre; that means Mark Arcobello has a chance to be a footnote in NHL history or the second coming of Martin St. Louis. He was fast and small and still remains one of the game’s best players at nearly 40 years old. I think he has the raw talent to make it work, but his chemistry with fellow linemates is of utmost importance for this experiment to succeed. For a time last season, Arcobello was mentioned in Calder talk before Sam Gagner came back. He could spoken about in similar tones this year if he repeats his efforts. Let’s not forget, too, that he has established chemistry with Justin Schultz, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from his time in the AHL as well.
The blue line in Edmonton is better heading into this season. Mark Fayne, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, is a shut down type of d-man. He effectively fills the role vacated by Smid and Schultz, and seems to be heading for a Top 2 role in Edmonton. The fact he will find himself in the first pairing speaks to a remaining lack of elite defensive talent in Oil Country, but his numbers point to a player who should make a difference. Nikita Nikitin was added by a trade/free agency hybrid and signed for big money over two years. He is being viewed as a risk, but really, he is likely to be a second pairing puck mover–he has upside; youth, experience and size, all of which make him a better option.
Beyond that, Martin Marincin was a late season call up who ended up becoming the best thing about the blue line at the end of the season. Himself, along with Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference will fill the rest of the roles required. Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Brad Hunt and Brandon Davidson are all considered hot to trot and will see playing time this year as the inevitable injuries mount.
The biggest positive for the Oilers on the blue line is that the players they have are better suited to the roles they will be asked to play. Andrew Ference was never meant to be our top defender, but there he was in the top pairing. The new blood ought to realign the defence so that players are operating within their wheelhouse rather than learning the game while more skilled teams beat them on the scoreboard.
Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens are now the men entrusted with keeping pucks out of the net. Ask any Oiler fan and they will tell you both netminders are better in almost every way than the Dubnyk/Khabibulin tandem that helped the Oilers be bottom feeders these last few years. The numbers aren’t dramatically different, but their lateral movement, quickness and team spirit are much stronger.
In coming editions of our season preview, we will go in depth. While you can look at my Edmonton Oilers A to Z series for individual profiles on each new player, we will be bringing you our take on the possibilities that lie within this renewed group. The team is most certainly better, but how much better remains to be seen.
Just please be better than the Calgary Flames.
Tags: Ales Hemsky Andrew Ference Ben Scrivens Devan Dubnyk Edmonton Oilers Jason Labarbera Jeff Petry Justin Schultz Leon Draisaitl Mark Arcobello Mark Fayne Nikita Nikitin Preview Promoted Ryan Smyth Shawn Horcoff Viktor Fasth