I hope that everyone had a wonderful Labour Day. I used the last long weekend of summer to work on my golf game and play a little pick-up baseball, and my body responded by essentially seizing up. It's hard to believe that such a small amount of physical exertion could cause this much stiffness, but there you go. I guess I'm getting older, and while I'm not in pro-athlete shape, I still like to think I'm not in Kyle Wellwood territory yet.
Once again, there's not a ton going on in the NHL right now. I won't get into the Dan Ellis thing, because it's stupid and not news at all. Kovy's contract saga is over (thank the maker for that), and it looks like Kirk Maltby might be getting an offer from the Red Wings soon. Training camp is less than 2 weeks away, and pretty soon we'll be watching pre-season games wondering who's going to get the coveted last forward spot.
We finished up the Central Division last week, and today we will be heading north and west to the...Northwest Division. In case you're wondering the order of these, I am looking at each team in reverse order of where they finished in the standings last year. Without further ado, let's move to the last place team from the Northwest last year.
Arrivals: Kurtis Foster; Colin Fraser; Alexandre Giroux; Jim Vandermeer
Departures: Ethan Moreau; Riley Nash; Robert Nilsson; Patrick O'Sullivan
Last year is a year the Oilers would like to forget. After the past few seasons when the Oilers were at least competitive, they went in the tank last year, finishing last overall in the NHL. The Oilers were not particularly adept at anything beyond getting injured and having their "stars" dramatically underachieve. This year does not promise to be pretty for the Oilers.
Offense: Taking a look at the Oilers' offense, there are very few names that jump out at you as legitimate offensive stars. The offense revolves around Ales Hemsky, probably their best player. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to 22 games last year, although he did score 22 points in those 22 games. The big surprise was Dustin Penner's breakout season where he led the Oilers in scoring with 63 points, making Kevin Lowe look a little smart for signing him to that monster contract as an RFA a few years ago. Besides Penner and Sam Gagner, no player on the Oil ended up with more than 40 points, and there will be a lot expected of the younger players this season. Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are going to both be expected to step up this season, but the Oil are going to be looking for contributions from some rookies, most notably Team Canada WJC hero Jordan Eberle and Number 1 Overall pick Taylor Hall. Hall is going to very likely make the team this season, and being the first pick in the draft automatically carries a lot of pressure. It will be interesting to see how he responds, but everything I've read about him indicates he is a very confident player who should be able to adjust to the demands of playing in the NHL. For me, my eyes will be on Eberle, a guy who scored big goal after big goal for Canada at the WJC the last couple of years, and who has very quickly developed a reputation as being clutch. Those 2 guys should inject some much needed energy and life into an offense that finished 27th in the NHL last year. However, one area where Edmonton could expect to see a boost is offense from their defensemen. Ryan Whitney played well in his first full season, scoring 39 points for a bad offensive team. Sheldon Souray will be expected to stay healthy for the whole season and will be a boon to the power play. The signing of Kurtis Foster is also designed to infuse some scoring into the lineup, as he will be another pivotal player on the power play should Souray not be able to stay off IR this season. Overall, there might be some improvement in the Oil's offense, but not a lot.
Defense: As I said, the defense of the Oilers is not that bad at first glance. They are led by former Penguin Ryan Whitney, who was never seen as a great player in Pittsburgh but seems to be doing well in Edmonton. He's more of an offensive defenseman, but he was a plus player on a bad team last year, and that means something. Souray will be looking to play more than 37 games last year, and if he can do that, he brings a lot of experience to a young team. Tom Gilbert is a relatively unknown blueliner, but he's got some offensive upside. The signing of Foster and the trade for Vandermeer will add some more experience and talent to the defense. Overall, the defense is probably the strongest area of the team, and the team is hoping that this will prevent them from becoming the worst defensive team in the NHL for the second year in a row. They gave up 15 more goals than the #29 team (the Leafs), and if the Oilers want to be even remotely competitive, they are going to have to get better in this area.
Goaltending: Now if there's an area the Oilers need help in, it's in net. The Oil have been and continue to hope that Nikolai Khabibulin can become a legitimate #1 goalie again, but unfortunately his drinking and driving seem to have gotten in the way of his training. If this were the last year of Khabi's contract, I would pencil him in as a Vezina candidate, but since he's safe for a few more years, all bets are off. If Khabibulin is unable to be the guy the Oilers thought he was, then they are in big trouble. Martin Gerber, Jeff Deslauriers, and Devan Dubnyk are all on the roster, but none of them have any enjoyed any real sustained success in the NHL to this point in their careers. The Oil had 3 goalies play significant minutes last year, and none of them did very well. The Oilers are going to have to get decent play from their goalies.
Coaching: Tom Renney took over as coach of the Oilers this past off-season, and he inherits a young team. Renney is a good coach who enjoyed some success with the Rangers for a number of years before being ousted. He's a former junior coach who also enjoyed some significant success on the international stage, winning multiple medals in the World Championships and a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics. His teams have always been characterized as being solid defensively, but there is little flash there. He will be expected to continue the development of the team into making them respectable in the next few years, but there is little pressure on him this year.
Player to Watch: I think it's a safe bet that all eyes are going to be on Taylor Hall this year. He's coming into camp with a spot on the team pretty much locked up, and he's expected to really challenge for the Calder Trophy this year. He's a dynamic offensive player who put up big numbers in junior (106 points in 57 games last year), and he also showed that he can perform in the playoffs, scoring 35 points in 19 games as the Spitfires won the OHL Championship. He's going to be expected to score big points for the Oil this year, with 50 being a benchmark that seems reachable. However, when you check out his Prospect Profile you'll see that his favourite player is Sidney, so my respect for him just went down a notch. Either way, Hall should be an exciting player to watch this year.
Player With Something to Prove: This year has to be the year that Khabibulin proves he belongs in the discussion of better goalies in the NHL. A lot of people forget that he was a huge reason why the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, and he had a big hand in the Blackhawks' turnaround the last few seasons. However, last year was very forgettable for him personally, and with his back problems seemingly behind him, things were looking up. However, there was that pesky "convicted of a DUI and sentenced to 30 days in jail" thing that he has decided to appeal, so the question will be how much of a distraction that is over the course of a season. The Oilers are a young team overall, and Khabi is one of the main veterans on the team and someone the younger guys will be looking up to. This year could go a long way to restoring a lot of people's opinions about him.
Why They Can Win the Division: Not a chance in hell. None. Zero. Nil. If the Oilers win the Northwest, I will personally fly to Edmonton and have my picture taken with the Gretzky statue. Naked.
Why They Won't Win the Division: This is still a pretty bad team. They are definitely in transition right now, and the process of restoring respectability to the franchise of the '80s begins this year. Unfortunately, even in a weak division like the Northwest, there's no hope for them. I think if they can stay out of the basement in the Western Conference, the season will be considered a success.
My Prediction: This team is years away from being mediocre, although they are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately for their fans, they can expect another long season resulting in a lottery pick. However, if history tells us anything, in 3-4 years, the Oilers will parlay those picks into a Stanley Cup championship, and will then have to sell off the depth players that got them there. Either way, the only highlight for me regarding the Oilers is the H2H2 game on March 11, when I hope to witness my first ever Wings victory at Joe Louis Arena (don't ask me about the only other game I've seen at the Joe - I still have nightmares about it - ok, ask me if you want). Ultimately, this team will be finishing towards the bottom of the NHL standings, but for some reason, the Wings will have problems with them.