Friday, September 3, 2010

The NHL's Most Intriguing Teams- Part 1 of 10, The Edmonton Oilers

September is barely upon us, but it is never too early to start looking towards the NHL season. For the preview this year, a single column would feel incomplete, and to go through all 30 teams could get a bit tedious (Today, the New York Islanders. They sucked last year. They are going to suck again. Tomorrow the Carolina Hurricanes). Instead, let’s narrow it down. For the 2010 NHL preview, we will take a look at 10 teams that could be interesting in the coming season, working in reverse order of how they did last year. Today, a team that interests the hell out of me, even if their ceiling is probably a 7-8 seed and a first round exit.
Intriguing Teams of 2010:
10. The Edmonton Oilers
Draft pick Taylor Hall has earned some exciting comparisons.
First things first: the Oilers are not a contender. The fact that this series starts off with them is not to say that they are. Far from it. In fact, if you gave me even odds for the Oilers to miss the playoffs, that is a bet that I would take in an instant. Yet they lead the feature on the third of the league that interests me the most. At best they are, as I said above, a fringe playoff team, and a couple of years away.
Still, they are two things that many teams in the NHL are not, and those two things make them pretty intriguing, even if they don’t make Edmonton ‘good.’
First of all, the Oilers are something that is surprisingly rare in a sports world that we like to think is founded on unpredictability and surprise. They are a complete wild card. Sure, there is a team or two each year that rises up to make a playoff run, and another that falls below where we think that they will finish, but usually there are some signs, and almost never is it a team that was legitimately considered one of the worst that makes the playoffs, or a true title contender that misses them. The vast majority of the time, these teams will come from the middle pool of 9 or 10 teams that could go either way.
With the Oilers coming off of a season that saw them finish in last place, and an offseason in which they didn’t pick up any notable names through trades or free agency, you can’t say that they are ‘expected’ to make a jump, either. Still, they are a team that could be significantly better, and even a playoff team if some things go right for them (and yet they are a team that could find itself atop the draft again next year). The reason for this instability is the second thing that makes them so interesting.
It isn’t just where the Oilers will finish that is so unpredictable. How they will do it is equally unknown. Consider, if you will, what the lines will look like on opening night, should I be given control of the team’s front office and coaching staff between now and then (note to the Oilers current front office- I’m available).
(Another quick note, if that actually happened, I would also go to Russia and physically threaten every member of the Salavat Yulaev Ufa front office until they signed a transfer agreement to return Robert Nilsson, but I will leave that out of this hypothetical.)
Gagner – Penner – Hemsky
Hall – Eberle – Horcoff
Paajavri Svensson – O’Sullivan – Brule
Omark – Fraser – Stortinin
Whitney – Vandermeer
Strudwick – Souray
Gilbert - Plante
A few things probably stick out about that. First of all, you probably haven’t heard about half the names, and some of those are italicized. The italics are rookies, and that is the main takeaway here. The Oilers are young. Very young. The thing is, though, they have drafted really well, and they have first rounders who are expected to be impact guys from the last three drafts ready to come up to the NHL this year in Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajavri Svensson, and Taylor Hall.
Without exception, this is the best group of NHL ready rookies in the league. Hall is a potential superstar, Eberle has proven himself to be a guy who comes up big when it matters in the last two world junior tournaments, Paajarvi is supposedly the best forward to come out of Sweden in the last few years, and Omark did THIS (and THIS, and THIS). All in all that leaves a squad that will be exciting for the novelty of seeing the new guys at the very least.
Looking at the actual quality of the lines, you know that you have one of the best second lines in the league…as your first line, two potential all-stars who could also potentially bring very little to the table this year on your second line, which is a 100% unknown, another player like that on your third line, joined by two guys who will see their offensive roles diminished by the influx of young talent and the return of Alex Hemsky. Finally, the Oil have the token tough guy in Stortini, and potentially the most exciting fourth liner in the league, in Linus Omark, who's flashes suggest that he might be able to fill a bigger role if need be. (Also, Colin Fraser, who I can’t really think of anything to say about).
On defense, I love the acquisition of Whitney, even though Visnovsky was good for them, and had to have been tough to part ways with, Souray wants to be traded, but I don’t think has much value at this point, so I will just factor him in to the second pair which is serviceable. The third pair is then another rookie, former first round pick Alex Plante and perpetual prospect, Tom Gilbert, who is entering what feels like his 6th year as a young defenseman (he is actually 27 years old, but for whatever reason I still think of him as a young guy).
Goal is the major question mark. They have two guys who are in the prospect/player limbo state in Devan Dubnyk and Jeff Deslauriers, both of whom could be serviceable, or cold be crap. Finally, they have veteran Martin Gerber in camp to compete for the job, but none of those options inspire confidence, and between the lack of a stalwart and a D core that doesn’t turn heads, it could be a rough go for the Oilers in their own end this year.
With all the youth being carried by Edmonton, they become an interesting team. It is going to be near impossible to say how they are going to be, and where their production, apart from the first line, is going to be coming from, but the fact is, they are going to be one hell of a fun team to watch. At the beginning of the year, the draw of Hall, Eberle, Omark and Pajaarvi coming into the league and trying to compete will make them interesting. If Hemsky, Gagner and one of the rookies can make a jump, they will be a lot better than they were last year without their best player, Alice- er, uh, Ales Hemsky (an aside, in the 2008-2009 season, I went to about 20 Sharks games, including games against the Penguins and the Capital, and Hemsky may have been the most impressive player that I saw in person that year- he is that skilled).
The amount of young talent is staggering. If they keep this core together and add can manufacture a better D corps, the journey from the basement to the top of the league will be a short one. No one is going to pick this team to win the Stanley Cup now, but no team has a higher ceiling to improve in 2010-2011 than the Edmonton Oilers.

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