a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

Welcome to Oil Acumen. All Oilers, all the time... Occasionally other stuff.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

10/29/11 By The Numbers: After Ten Games

Ten games into the season the Edmonton Oilers are 6-2-2, good for first in their division and in the Western Conference. Let's have a look back at the 2009-10 season, where the Oilers started 6-3-1.

- This year the Oilers have put 255 shots on opposing nets, while in 2009-10 the Oilers managed 249. That's just 6 more this year over the first season the Oilers finished 30th.

- 298 shots have found their way to the Oilers' net, and in 2009-10 the Oilers allowed 338. That's 40 fewer shots this year than 2009-10.

- All told, the Oilers had a -89 shots for/against differential in 2009-10, and this year they are at -43.

Unless the team can start consistently outshooting their opponents, there's a very good chance that the wheels will fall off this early season success. Based on these numbers, things aren't as bad as that 30th place team from two years ago, but they aren't good enough to have sustained success.

- This year the Oilers have scored 8 powerplay goals on 44 opportunities, which is 18.2% efficiency. In 2009-10 the Oilers had scored 10 powerplay goals in the first ten games, or 23.3% of the time.

- This year the Oilers have allowed 4 powerplay goals after being shorthanded 43 times, which is a 90.7% kill rate. In 2009-10 Edmonton allowed 9 powerplay goals after being shorthanded just 39 times. That's just 76.9% efficiency.

- 20 goals have been scored by Edmonton this year, while the Oilers scored 37 in ten games back in 2009-10.

- This year the Oilers have allowed 14 goals, and the 2009-10 team allowed 30 in ten games.

- The Oilers have scored on 7.8% of their shots this year, while they scored on 14.9% of their shots in 2009-10.

Clearly these are two very different squads. The team was scoring at an inflated rate in 2009-10, which also bloated their record. They were allowing a lot of shots and goals against but their scoring was keeping their heads above water. When the goal scoring came back down to earth, the team went into the tank.

This year the Oilers are scoring a modest amount of goals, with totals that are certainly sustainable, and may even improve. The goals and shots against will tell the tale for Edmonton this year. They won't always get stellar goaltending, but they have done a better job of limiting the opposition than they did after ten games in 2009-10. The goals against have more than halved from that disastrous season.

One thing to remember is that the Oilers played 3 road games out of the first ten in both 2009-10 and this season, which means they had home ice advantage much more often than not. Last year the Oilers were an awful team even in the early going, and they played 5 road games in the first ten.

Obviously it will take a larger cross section of the season to tell how good this team really is, but it appears to be better than the Oilers who started with 6 wins in ten games and finished 30th. The team is almost certainly not as good as their record - and the standings - indicate right now, but things are improving.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

10/28/11 Measuring Stick

By the narrowest of margins, the Oilers scored a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. Back in July in the "Comparing Rebuilds" series, this blog called the Capitals the closest comparison to the Oilers among teams that have built through the draft. Ovechkin's team, then, truly is a measuring stick for the progression of these young Oilers.

Some notes from the game:

The Oilers were outshot 35 to 19 in this game, but the scoring chances were much closer at 13-18 in favor of the Caps. If the Oilers had lost this game nobody would have been greatly disappointed, especially considering that Washington is the best team in the league. The fact that the Oilers were able to keep this thing even reasonably close is a testament to their improvement.

However, it's also a testament to the amount of penalties that Washington took. When Taylor Hall is allowed 7:02 on the powerplay, most of the time he's going to make something happen with that ice. Eberle had 6:54 and Nugent-Hopkins had 6:16 on the powerplay. Corey Potter spent 6:04 on the ice with the man advantage and took advantage with 2 assists. Potter has had a fantastic start, now having collected 6 points in 7 games.

And let's not forget Khabibulin, who continues to roll along with a 0.97 GAA and 0.964 SV%. If it weren't for back-to-back games, Devan Dubnyk would have a hard time getting into the net. Who would have thought that it would be Dubnyk who would have to showcase himself this season?

- Hall, Eberle and RNH bled chances against badly at 5v5, but their effectiveness on the powerplay makes up for it. It's no wonder that Renney has been starting those three in the offensive zone more than 60% of the time. They got hemmed in by the Caps on several occasions, but Hall and Nugent-Hopkins managed some game saving shot blocks near the end.

- Nugent-Hopkins continues to be on a point-per-game pace. One key difference between him and Taylor Hall was that Hall came into the NHL on a line with Shawn Horcoff and Jordan Eberle. Horcoff is a good player, but he's no offensive dynamo; while Eberle too was a rookie. Nugent-Hopkins' linemates are both experienced NHLers who perfectly complement his skill set. Also, Hall had to play behind Dustin Penner on the depth chart, while RNH has been the Oilers' best option at center from the get-go. That's not to take anything away from Nugent-Hopkins' many obvious talents, but he is coming into a better situation than his counterpart Hall did last year.

- It's early, but Taylor Hall is on pace for exactly 30 goals. He's also on pace to rifle 263 shots on goal over 81 games. That total would have been the 21st-highest in the entire NHL last year. He has yet to go a game without registering a shot, and he's had at least 3 in six of the eight games he's appeared in.

- Speaking of shooters, Jordan Eberle has had a shot in every game this year as well, and at least 3 shots in six of the nine games he's played.

- Alex Ovechkin had 7 shots on goal in this game, but Khabibulin was equal to the task. The final one that rang off the crossbar would have changed this game, but the Oilers got the bounce. That's payback for the one that went in for Heatley. The Oilers will still have four chances to beat the Wild this year, but beating Ovechkin & Co. to end their 7-game win streak is much sweeter. Many fans would take that trade in bounces.

Despite the fact that the Oilers have been outshot in their last two games by a wide margin, Edmonton actually out-chanced Vancouver 18-15 on Tuesday and kept the scoring chances close against Washington. Thursday's result could just as easily have gone the other way, but the Oilers probably deserved the win against the Canucks. Fantastic goaltending has helped a great deal, but the Oilers don't look significantly worse than their record. In a seven game series against Washington the Oilers wouldn't stand a chance, which is a measure of how far they still have to go. However, there are signs of marked improvement that - so far - don't seem to be abating.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

10/25/11 The Potter Experiment

For the moment, let's all forget about the fate of some other defensemen who wore #44 for the Oilers, and assume that Corey Potter's career is going to follow a kinder, friendlier path. Just who is this Potter fellow anyway?

Quick bio for those who don't know:

- Born in Lansing, Michigan on January 5th 1984, which makes him 27 years old
- Drafted in the 4th round (122nd overall) in 2003 by NYR
- Some notables who were selected after Potter in 2003: Kyle Quincey, Lee Stempniak, Brad Richardson, Bruno Gervais, Joe Pavelski, Kyle Brodziak, Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Moulson, Jaroslav Halak
- Potter is 6'3" and 206 pounds

So what took Potter so long to reach the NHL? There were a number of factors. Tom Renney said Potter simply got caught in a numbers games in New York, but the 2003 draftee didn't turn pro until the 2006-07 season. He played 4 years for Michigan State University before that, picking up 44 points in 150 games.

Interestingly, Potter's totals were modest - to say the least - in his first three years of CCHA hockey with MSU. Over that span he collected just 22 points in 105 games. Then, in his final year there he picked up 4-18-22 in just 45 games (also the highest single season number of games played in his career to that point).

He debuted with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL in 2006-07 scoring 6-13-19 in 43 games and earned a 30 game callup to the Hartford Wolfpack of the American Hockey League. While there he bagged 2-8-10. In 2007-08 he played his first full year in Hartford, scoring 5-27-32 in 80 games, as well as a sparkling plus-33 rating. However, he showed a propensity to take penalties and had 102 PIMs that year. His PIMs decreased every season from that time on, until he got them down to 52 PIMs last year with Wilkes-Barre.

Over Potter's AHL career, he's collected 28 goals and 111 assists for 139 points in 321 games (0.43 p/g), and posted a  plus-88 rating. He was never a minus player in any of his AHL seasons.

So far Potter is averaging 3:36 of powerplay time per game with the Oilers, which is more than any other player on the team, and just 1:21 of penalty kill time, which is good for 11th. He's 8th on the Oilers in even strength ice time per game at 14:58, which is 6th among the 8 defensemen Edmonton has used. Only Andy Sutton and Theo Peckham have averaged less ice time at even strength. All told, he's averaging nearly 20 minutes per game, but a decent chunk of that has been relatively cushy powerplay time.

He's played well enough to deserve to be in the Oilers' lineup, but his presence also helps to shift everyone else back into their proper positions. Ladislav Smid, for example, averaged 45 seconds of PP time per game last year, and needless to say that's not Laddy's area of expertise. Sometimes there simply was no other option. Smid also played 2:40 of PK time per game in 2010-11. This year Smid has played only 3 seconds on the powerplay per game, while he's averaged 4:32 on the PK. That's thanks in part to the fact that the Oilers can deploy Potter for some of the softer minutes, and that Potter has been very capable in how he's used that time.

Five games is a very small sample size, but Potter may be a player who is ready to step in full time. He's not so much a late bloomer as he is a seasoned veteran - he simply didn't learn the ropes in the NHL like other players often do. It should be noted that that method of developing D-men has served Nashville well, and has contributed to their seemingly never-ending pipeline of quality blueliners. After another thirty games or so we'll know if Potter is legit.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

10/23/11 By The Numbers: The Oilers So Far

Now that we are seven games into the season, we are starting to get a picture of what this Oilers team is going to look like. Here is a brief look at some of the underlying stats from this year and how they compare to last season's 30th place squad.

- The Oilers have fired 226 shots on goal this year, which is up from 192 at this time last year. That may seem a little strange, since the Oilers are playing a more defensive style of hockey this season, but they are actually getting more pucks to the net.

- They have allowed 186 shots against this season, which is down from 233 after the first seven games in 2010-11.

- All told, the Oilers currently have a +40 differential of shots for and against, while at this time last year they had a differential of -41.

- Right now the Oilers are scoring on around 5% of their total shots on goal. Last year at this time, they were scoring on 10% of their shots. If the Oilers had scored on ten percent of their shots this season, they would already have about 23 goals, rather than the 12 that they do have.

- In 2010-11 the Oilers had allowed 25 goals after seven games, which is an abysmal 3.57 Goals Against per Game. This year, the team has allowed 10 goals in seven games, which is good for 1.43 Goals Against per Game. Expect that number to climb a little over the course of the year, but reducing the GA/G by 2.14 is an excellent sign early on.

- At this time last year, Taylor Hall had just one assist in his first seven games. This year he's got a goal and 4 assists in 6 games.

- Jordan Eberle had 5 points by the seven game mark last year, including 3 goals. He's got 5 points this year too, but their all assists.

- Ales Hemsky played in Edmonton's first 7 games last season, scoring 3 goals and 5 points. This year he's got into only 2 contests and picked up one assist so far. Oilers record without him in the lineup this season: 2-2-1.

- Magnus Paajarvi had 2-2-4 in the first seven games of last season, as well as 21 shots on goal. This year he's got no points, and has directed 16 shots on goal.

- Linus Omark didn't get into the NHL lineup until December 10th of 2010, but in his first seven appearances he managed to put up 5 points. Assigning him to OKC seemed to light a fire under him last year, but it isn't an option this season, because if he's not playing in the NHL his contract allows him to go to Europe if he chooses to. He'd still be Oilers property, but he couldn't return this season.

- Shawn Horcoff already had 3 goals and 5 points by this time last year, but he's had to settle for 4 assists so far this year. Last year he had ten shots in 7 games, while this year he has only 8. The captain has been good this year, but he'll need to shoot a lot more than that if he expects to get off the schneid.

- Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have each got 20 shots on goal in 13 games between them, but only one goal has come out of those shots. The fact that they are putting lots of rubber on net means that both will break out eventually.

So far the the Oilers are doing a better job than last year at generating offense, and limiting that of the opposition. The fact that their scorers haven't been scoring is more a measure of luck than effort, because the big guns (Hall, Eberle, RNH) have all been doing good things offensively, and these numbers reflect that. Even Paajarvi has not been as bad as it looks at first glance. So far his shot totals are down from last season, but his 16 SOG is tied for 4th most on the team. Linus Omark's 7 shots puts him way down the list, and unless he starts to pick up his play he'll have a hard time getting back into the lineup. As yet, his totals are the only obvious disappointment.

When the Oilers start getting bounces, this team will be dangerous.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

10/20/11 Quick Thoughts from Game 6

Well, that was a heartbreaker. Not only did the Oilers let a divisional opponent claw their way back and win a game, they did it for the second time in three days. Oh well, at least Dany Heatley didn't score the tying goal. What's that you say? Ah, crap.

Jordan Eberle had a strong game, despite the fact that he was unable to convert any of his chances. That makes him 0 for 19 shots on the season so far, but he's getting a load of quality looks. Remember last season when Hall couldn't find the back of the net in his first 7 games? It seemed like a long stretch at the time. By the time he got injured and was on pace for 28 goals, no one was thinking about those first 7 games. When Eberle starts scoring, expect them to come in bunches.

- By this time last year, the Oilers were 2-4-0, with 21 goals against. So far this year the Oilers have allowed just ten goals, which is a dramatic improvement. Unfortunately, it's only resulted in a slightly better record, because the team isn't scoring. After six games in 2010-11 the Oilers had scored 15 times, while this year they've managed to score just 10 times. Yes, this defensive style isn't the most exciting to watch, but it's keeping the team in games much more effectively than what we saw last year. The Oilers have lost all of their games this year by one goal or in the shootout, and they should probably have won two of those games. In Game Six last year the Oilers were blown out 6-1 by San Jose, and they had lost each of their three previous games by 2 goals.

- Anton Lander made a great case for remaining in the NHL after this game, but it isn't likely to matter. Lander will more than likely be demoted to the AHL before Saturday to make room for Sam Gagner, but he looks like he's starting to get the NHL figured out. Lander is a determined player, so expect him to light up the American League in an effort to earn a callup.

- The Oilers have yet to drop below .500 this season, and hopefully the return of Gagner against the Rangers will extend that streak. So far the pattern has been W-L-L-W-L-L, so a win is all but guaranteed! ... That's how these things work, right?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

10/19/11 Where Are They Now? The Picks from the Penner Offer Sheet

Pictured above is Kirill Petrov, who was one of the players selected with picks that would have belonged to Edmonton, were it not for the signing of Dustin Penner to an unmatched offer sheet in 2007. The Oilers surrendered three picks for Penner - a first, second and third rounder in 2008. How are the resulting players doing, you ask?

Petrov was selected by the Islanders in the 3rd round, after Anaheim traded the Oilers' compensatory pick to them. The Russian had 4-6-10 in 6 games at the 2010 World Junior Championships, which was tops on the team, and added a plus-7 rating. Despite this, his stock had been dropping like a stone until this season. He wasn't getting a lot of opportunity to play for the powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, and found himself demoted to that team's affiliate for most of last season. He made good use of his time there, however, scoring 8-11-19 in 47 games. As a result of his demotion, he did not appear in the Islanders' list of top ten prospects in the 2011 THN Future Watch.

This year Petrov has started strong, scoring 7-3-10 in the first 15 games; this time with Kazan. The KHL is by no means on par with the NHL, but so far Petrov is showing that he can be an effective scorer in Russia's highest league.

Justin Schutlz

Justin Schultz was selected by the Ducks with the Oilers' second round pick, and has been a fast riser in that organization. He finished last season with 18-29-47 in just 41 games for the University of Wisconsin after posting 6-16-22 as a freshman. Schultz is not a large defenseman at 6'1" and 185 pounds, but he has the offensive tools to make up for it. He's a powerplay whiz, who has started this season with 5 assists in 4 games for the Badgers. Schultz was ranked as Anaheim's third-best prospect in the 2011 Future Watch, and the 59th-best overall prospect outside the NHL.

Tyler Myers
The Oilers' first round pick in 2008 - which was the 12th overall pick - was eventually used by Buffalo to select defenseman Tyler Myers. Myers' story speaks for itself at this point. The 6-foot-8, 227 pound giant has become the cornerstone of Buffalo's defense, amassing 21-65-86 in 167 NHL games. He won the Calder as Rookie of the Year in 2010, and on September 15th of this year Myers was re-signed to a $38.5 million deal spanning 7 years. He has the tools to round into one of the league's best defenders, if he's not among them already.


The jury is still out on who ultimately won the Penner offer sheet, however. The Oilers ended up with the player who went one selection after Myers in that draft, Colten Teubert, once they traded Penner to LA. Edmonton also received a first round pick in the Penner trade - which became Oscar Klefbom - as well as a third round pick in this year's draft.

On the other hand, the Oilers' rebuild would be greatly accelerated at this stage if it had a player like Myers in the fold, along with another high-end defensive prospect close to a pro debut. Of course, there's no guarantee that the Oilers would have taken any of the players that were selected with their picks, but the point is that those players were available.

The Oilers got 155 points over 4 seasons out of Penner, and they also ended up with the two 1st round picks and a 3rd round pick in exchange for 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks in 2008. On the surface it appears that the Oilers won, but much will depend on how Teubert, Klefbom and the as-yet unused 3rd round choice pan out. Right now, all three of those assets couldn't get you Tyler Myers alone, which means that the Oilers are likely to have lost in the end.

Monday, 17 October 2011

10/17/11 Glimpses

Are we seeing a glimpse into the future of the Edmonton Oilers? The Oilers came out and played an almost perfect game on Monday night, which is something that hasn't happened in Oil Country since... Well, since... Hmm...

The photo of Ryan Smyth above came from the last time the Oilers were in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The blast from the past is injecting some life into this team, and he's teaching the kids all the right habits along the way. Here are some other notes from the game:

Jason Gregor made a great call when he predicted that Nugent-Hopkins would improve his faceoff stats in Game 4. Gregor thought RNH would win 5 of 11 draws, while in actuality the youngster won 5 of 12. That's a large improvement over his 2 for 15 showing on opening night, just 3 games ago. Before the Draft, people said that there was nothing that Nugent-Hopkins couldn't do once he put his mind to it, and he's made strides in proving those people right when it comes to his only real weakness in faceoffs. He's now a modest - but improved - 24% overall.

- The last time the Oilers limited an opposing team to 12 shots on goal was way back on March 1st of 2006 in a baffling 4-2 loss to St. Louis. The Oilers have now outshot the opposition in 3 of the 4 games to start the season.

- In 2009-10 the Oilers started the season 2-1-1, which lead many to believe that the team was playoff bound. They ended up finishing 30th and selecting Taylor Hall. Some key differences between this team and that team? Most important are the resulting 1st overall picks that came from those 30th place finishes, but here is some raw data:

In those first 4 games of 2009-10, the Oilers outshot the opposing teams just once; in a 4-3 loss to Calgary. They mustered 105 total shots on goal over those four games, and allowed 118. So far this season the Oilers have 112 shots on goal and have allowed 107.

The Oilers have been shorthanded 20 times and allowed 3 PP goals against (PK of 85%). In the first four games of 2009-10 the Oilers were shorthanded 15 times and allowed 4 PP goals against (PK of 73.3%).

The point here is that the underlying flaws in the team were present even while it was winning back in 2009-10. The Oilers started that year 6-3-1 despite only outshooting the opposition once in that span. So far this year the underlying stats are more favorable. Of course there's no guarantee that the trend will continue, but getting Gagner and Whitney will almost certainly make the Oilers better.

- Horcoff and Belanger are both North of 60% in the faceoff circle. Having Belanger on board means that Horcoff doesn't have to take all of the difficult draws anymore, which can only help him. So far he's at 62.6%. Belanger has been a massive addition for the penalty kill, and Steve Tambellini gets a gold star for picking him up. The former Coyote spent 4:03 on the PK in Game 4; more than any other Oilers player. Nashville's powerplay went 0 for 5 on the night, and the last three opportunities didn't even result in a shot on the Oilers' goal.

- Ryan Suter played 28:17 in this game and was strong for almost all of it. He took two penalties, but despite playing nearly half the game he ended up Even on the night. Sound like someone the Oilers could use? Nashville has the look of a team that isn't going anywhere this season, and if they don't make the playoffs or exit in the first round, Suter might jump ship via Unrestricted Free Agency. This will be the year that UFAs start looking at Edmonton as a realistic option, but Suter might price the Oilers out of the market for him. If he wants Shea Weber money - a $4 million bump from his current stipend, up to $7.5 million - the Oilers would be wise to let him sign elsewhere. All these kids are already going to need raises in a few short years.

- As great as this win was, it's important to remember that it's only Nashville. They can't score at the best of times, and Martin Erat and Mike Fisher were both out with injury. The real test is tomorrow. Not because Calgary is any good, but because it'll be a hard fought affair and the Oilers will be a little tired. If we see an effort that even approaches what we saw tonight, it may signal the start of something special.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

10/16/11 Odds & Ends: Ottawa Trade Rumor, Game 3, Ballard

Normally there is no reason to believe anything that Eklund says over at Hockeybuzz, but if there's any truth to this rumor, it could be interesting indeed. Ottawa is deep in high end defensive prospects, and the Oilers have forward depth, so there may be a deal here.

Pictured above is Jared Cowen, who was selected 9th overall in 2009. He almost certainly would have gone higher in that draft if he had not been injured part way through his draft year. The 6'5" and 235 pound Cowen had 18-30-48 in 58 games last year with the Spokane Chiefs, and was a fantastic plus-44.

If the term "major swap" is accurate, only a player like Cowen would qualify. It seems unlikely that the Oilers would be willing to make a move for Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba or Chris Phillips, so that leaves one of the Senators' three rising defensive stars. Erik Karlsson must be considered untouchable, and Ottawa traded for Rundblad, which means they must have faith in him.

Keep in mind that there is no reason to believe that Cowen is available, but the Senators are one of the few teams with enough young defensive depth to make a trade possible. If something did happen the price would be high, which would qualify this as a major deal.

- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins settled the issue of whether or not he'll be staying in the NHL on Saturday. The fact that he's 7 for 38 in faceoffs matters less and less the more that he scores. After having no shots in game 2, RNH had six in game 3. He's got a shooting percentage of 44.4%, so expect his scoring to come back down to Earth in the coming weeks. The good news is that he's got the tools to set up his linemates and put up points even when he isn't scoring, so his production doesn't necessarily have to slow if the goals dry up.

Again the Oilers fell flat in the third period. After outshooting the Canucks 12-8 and 14-9 in the first 40 minutes, the Oilers managed just 4 shots in the third. They still outshot Vancouver 30-26 and didn't get blown out by the Stanley Cup Finalist, which is enough to keep fans happy for now.

RNH has been stealing all the headlines, but there's nothing wrong with Hall and Eberle's point production so far. Both have 3 assists in the first 3 games.

- Ryan Keller has 2-4-6 in 4 games with the Barons down in Oklahoma City, and if he keeps it up he may earn himself a callup ahead of Teemu Hartikainen when injuries strike. Hartikainen has 1-1-2 in the first four contests on the farm.

- The Canucks would like to move Keith Ballard, but they may find that difficult considering his monster contract. Ballard might be able to help the Oilers blueline, but 4 more years at $4.2 million per is too much to commit to.

Friday, 14 October 2011

10/15/11 The Best of Both Worlds

On one hand, everyone wants to see the Oilers improve this year. On the other hand, one more lottery pick wouldn't hurt; especially if it was a defenseman. So how many wins can the Oilers improve by and still end up in the lottery? Let's take a gander, shall we?

To many fans and analysts, another lottery pick seems almost assured for the Oilers. It's a difficult notion to argue, and it could end up being for the best, but it's hard to fathom how dreadful another season like the last two would be. It would be nice to see them do better than 25 wins. In the picture above, we can see that the 26th place Ottawa Senators finished 2010-11 with a record of 32-40-10, which is 7 more wins than Edmonton had last year. Seven more wins would be very welcome in Edmonton, and even with those Ottawa finished comfortably inside lottery position.

Over the last ten seasons, the average point total of the team finishing 26th in the NHL was 73.1 points. However, the parity of the NHL has changed things since the lockout. In 2005-06 the Boston Bruins finished 26th and had just 29 wins. The next year, Chicago finished 26th with 31 wins. The year after that, the Islanders finished 26th and had 35 wins. From 2007-08 to 2009-10 the three teams that finished 26th each had 79 points, and since the lockout the average point total of 26th place teams was 76 points. For the Oilers that would represent an improvement of 14 points over last season, or around 7 more games in the W column.

For the Oilers to improve this season by 6-10 wins would - sadly - be a morale boost for the fans. It's not an unrealistic expectation, and it would still leave the Oilers in a position to hit the Draft Lottery. Even if they don't win the lottery, the Oilers will still be able to draft an impact player.

The fact is that the Oilers will be lucky to finish 10 wins ahead of where they were last year, so this article may seem silly by the end of the season. But the Oilers really can improve and still be big players at the draft.

10/14/11 Growing Pains

For twenty whole minutes the Edmonton Oilers looked like a good team. Then it all came flooding back. Here are some notes from Game Two:

- Ten shots on goal in 45 minutes of play is a dismal total from a team that is supposed to be stacked with offense, but that's all the Oilers managed after the first period. Ales Hemsky leaving the game didn't help, but this team has enough skill to win a game without him. It was to be expected that the Wild would come out stronger in the second after being dominated in the first, but the Oilers had no excuse for mustering just one shot on goal in the third.

- Speaking of a lack of offense, the Oilers now have 2 goals in as many games.

- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins showed some more subtle flashes of brilliance in this game. His work in the corners was solid and he won battles for pucks. He also showcased his ability to strip opposing players of pucks in a way that makes it look all too easy. He's NHL ready, but he also showed a few warts. RNH went 1 for 8 in the faceoff circle, and he also did not register a shot on goal.

- After two games Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger are 62.5% and 51.4% on their draws, respectively. Anton Lander improved to 41.7% after 12 faceoffs in two games.

- The Oilers have yet to score a powerplay goal in 7 opportunities, but their penalty kill is operating at 91.7%; having killed 11 of 12 penalties so far.

- Ryan Smyth is on pace for 41 goals!

The Oilers have a knack for teasing the fans with glimpses of what they can be, and then regressing. It shouldn`t be surprising considering how young the team and the season are, but somehow it always is. It should be noted that the Oilers are without Gagner and Whitney and are 1-0-1. But even if the Oilers had won this game, the consistency of effort would still be alarming.

Last year the Oilers won Game Two against Florida, despite being largely outplayed and being outshot 28-13. Three goals on just four second period shots, coupled with a standout performance from Khabibulin carried them to an undeserved victory which temporarily masked how many holes there still were.

The Oilers could have won the second game of 2011-12, but they wouldn`t have deserved to. It`s like a broken record to keep saying that they must play a full 60 minutes, so maybe we should just ask them to win two periods. That should be enough for them to at least get better, and maybe even break the now-17 game losing streak in Minny.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

10/11/11 Precedent for a Turnaround

Most in the hockey world are skeptical about the Oilers' chances of returning to the playoffs this season, and after two 30th place finishes they should be. It is uncommon for a very bad team to get good from one year to the next, but it is not unheard of.

In 1991-92 the Quebec Nordiques finished 21st in the NHL (2nd last) with a record of 20-48-12 and 58 points. Only the San Jose Sharks were worse. The Nordiques were coming off last place finishes in each of the three previous years, and they had not made the playoffs since the 1986-87 season. Then, in one of the greatest turnarounds in NHL history, the Nordiques made the playoffs in 1992-93 with a record of 47-27-10 and 104 points. That's a quantum leap of 27 wins and 46 points in just one year.

How on Earth did this happen? Here is a look at the scoring depth of each Nordiques team from one year to the next:

Rank1991-92 Players Points1992-93 PlayersPoints
1 Sakic29-65-94, plus-5Sundin 47-67-114, plus-21
2 Sundin 33-43-76, minus-19Sakic48-57-105, minus-3
3 Nolan 42-31-73, minus-9Duchesne20-62-82, plus-15
4 Paslawski 28-17-45, minus-12Ricci27-51-78, plus-8
5 Hough 16-22-38, minus-1Nolan36-41-77, minus-1
6 Tartarinov 11-27-38, plus-8Kovalenko27-41-68, plus-13
7 Lapointe 13-20-33, minus-8Young30-30-60, plus-5
8 Smail 10-18-28, minus-11Rucinsky18-30-48, plus-16
9 Gusarov 5-18-23, minus-9Kamesky15-22-37, plus-13
10 Kamesky 7-14-21, minus-1Lapointe10-26-36, plus-5

The Nordiques improved from a -63 goals for/against differential in 1991-92 to +51 in 1992-93. They allowed only 18 fewer goals from one season to the next, but they scored almost 100 more; improving from 255 Goals For in 1991-92 to 351 GF in 1992-93. The chart above shows the reason for this. 45 points was 4th-best on the team in 1991-92, but would only have been the 9th-highest total in 1992-93.

The group on the left has two 30 goal scorers, and three 70+ point players, while the group on the right has four 30 goal scorers and five 70+ point players. The group on the right has seven players with 20 or more goals.

Mike Ricci, Andrei Kovalenko, Scott Young and defenseman Steve Duchesne were all new additions to the 1992-93 squad. Duchesne and Ricci came over from the Eric Lindros trade, Young came over from Pittsburgh in a trade, and Kovalenko was a rookie who had been drafted by the Nordiques in 1990.

This 1992-93 team is still a lot different than the one that eventually won the Stanley Cup in Colorado in 1996, but it does represent a massive improvement over the previous year and a playoff appearance that was anything but assured.

So could the Oilers do something like this?

There certainly is potential for the Oilers to score a lot more goals this year than they did last year. The addition of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should add a few goals, and so will healthy seasons from Whitney, Hemsky, Gagner, Hall, and damn near everyone else. The natural progression of the youngsters could add a lot of goals. Edmonton finished last year with just one 20 goal scorer in Taylor Hall, but this year they should be expecting at least 20 from several of their players.

Having Whitney back (eventually) will be equivalent to an off-season addition, but otherwise the defense and goaltending are more or less the same. If the Oilers are going to make a run at the post-season it will have to be a lot like Quebec's run in the early 90s. That is to say, it will be the Oilers' scoring that carries them. They probablly won't score 100 more goals this year than they did last, but they should score a lot more. Whether or not it's enough to push them into the playoffs remains to be seen.

It's not out of the question.

Monday, 10 October 2011

10/10/11 Breaking the Ice

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins refuses to let himself not be the story. With his first NHL game, goal, and the Oilers' opener out of the way, the ice has been broken. Here are some notes about the game:

David Staples at Cult of Hockey liked Nugent-Hopkins' game so much that he gave him a score of 9 out of 10, or very nearly a perfect game in Staples' view. He certainly was dominant for stretches and created a load of scoring chances. Even better, he managed to score his first NHL goal with three defenders draped on and around him, which puts another nail in the coffin of the belief that he's too small.

However, there was one area where Nugent-Hopkins will need to be much better: the faceoff. RNH won just 2 of the 15 draws he took last night, or 13.3%, and just 1 of 4 on the powerplay. Having said that, faceoffs were perhaps his only weakness, which is fantastic for an 18 year old in his first NHL game.

- Anton Lander will need to be better on draws as well, having won 3 of the 9 he took. With the way Nugent-Hopkins is playing, it's almost certain that Lander will be sent down to Oklahoma City when Gagner comes back. That's probably the best thing for him, considering that he played just 9:20 last night, the least of any Oiler save for Darcy Hordichuk who was on the ice for 59 seconds in total.

- On the bright side of the faceoff equation, Shawn Horcoff won 17 of 26, good for 65.4%; while Eric Belanger was 9 for 18 in the dot. These two pivots will make for very good 3rd and 4th line centers when Gagner returns.

- Jeff Petry played 21:34 in this game, second only to Tom Gilbert's 26:33. Petry was a plus-1, had 4 shots on goal - one of which was very nearly the game winner - and looked comfortable in this large role.

- The penalty kill looked much improved over last year (but beware small sample sizes), despite allowing one goal against in 8 opportunities. That's thanks in large part to the work of Theo Peckham, Ladislav Smid and Shawn Horcoff, who played 9:43, 9:49 and 8:27 of PK time respectively. This accounted for nearly half the total ice time of Smid and Horcoff and more than half of Peckham's.

- In other news, the Barons lost their first game of the season 7-0 last night. At OilersNation, Lowetide discussed the inexperience of the Barons' blueline. Acting quickly, the Oilers placed Taylor Chorney on waivers today for the purpose of assigning him to the farm team. His 146 games of AHL experience and 56 in the NHL will make him the second most experienced player on the Barons' backend. Needless to say, that's a problem. Chorney may help, but he's collected a minus-60 rating over his time in the AHL. The loss of Fedun is already being felt in OKC. The Oilers will likely make a minor league trade for an experienced defenseman in the near future.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

10/06/11 Gagner on the Move?

One Tweet that Sam Gagner could be a target of the Toronto Maple Leafs does not necessarily make it so, but Damien Cox has been around the game - and the Leafs - for a long time. There may be something to this. On the other hand, Darren Dreger says that Gagner's name hasn't been in any discussions. Even if the Leafs are interested, it doesn't mean that the Oilers would move him.

If we accept the statements of both Cox and Dreger, it means that the Leafs are interested in Gagner and that the Oilers are interested in acquiring a defenseman, and not that the Oilers are interested in moving Sam Gagner to Toronto.

Going forward Tambellini is aware of the need for another top-2 defenseman on this Oilers team. Thanks to the addition of Nugent-Hopkins and the emergence of Anton Lander, Tambellini may consider Gagner to be his best potential trade bait when it comes to acquiring the defenseman he needs. As such, it wouldn't make sense to trade Gagner at this time, when his value is middling at best. What these rumors may tell us is that Gagner's current value around the league is on par with the spare parts on Toronto's defense. If Gagner manages to put together a career year then the Oilers would miss out on a lot of value by trading him now.

Burke is aware of the weakness of the Oilers' situation, and so is the rest of the NHL. These rumors are a fine example of why now is not the time to try to trade for a defenseman. The pieces that the Oilers might be willing to part with (Omark, Gagner) have a low value relative to what Edmonton needs, and other GMs might try to take advantage of a knee-jerk response to injuries and shallow defensive depth.

In this case Tambellini will show his effectiveness as a GM if he doesn't make a move.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

10/04/11 Looking Ahead: 2012 Draft Eligibles

With Oilers fans, management, and media all focused on the need for an impact defenseman, it may be a good time to face the hard truth: the Oilers' best bet for getting that defenseman will probably be through the top of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Here is an early look at who is available:

Ryan Murray (pictured above) has already had his name thrown around with all-time great Scott Niedermayer. As a WHL rookie with Everett, Murray scored 5-22-27 in 52 games during the 2009-10 season, and finished as a plus-33. The Silvertips plummeted from 46 wins that year to just 28 last year, but despite that, Murray had 6-40-46 and was plus-18 in 70 games. He made his WHL debut in the 2008-09 playoffs, where he collected one assist in 5 games, but has since scored 10 playoff points in 11 games over two seasons.

Oilers fans will get a close look at the 6 foot, 185 pound Murray during the World Juniors this year, where he is sure to be a major contributor to Team Canada. He's a left-handed shot, so if the Oilers took him another lefty would probably have to go, but the Oilers' defense is far from set for the future. Barring an injury or total collapse, expect this player to go in the top five.

Matt Dumba
Don't let the name fool you - this Nugent-Hopkins teammate is one smart hockey player. Matt Dumba was named WHL Rookie of the Year last season, and if he continues to progress he'll easily be a top ten pick at the draft. Red Deer lists him at an even 6 feet and 173 pounds, which makes him another slight defender, but he is apparently a solid physical player. How that translates to the NHL against bigger competition remains to be seen. As a rookie he managed 15-11-26, plus-23 in 62 games with the Rebels and 2 more goals in 9 playoff games, finishing with an even rating. Dumba should definitely be in the Oilers range at the draft.

Griffin Reinhart
An Oil Kings connection, Griffin Reinhart will turn 18 in January of next year, but he's already a 6'4" and 208 pound monster. As a rookie with the Oil Kings last year, Reinhart collected 6-19-25 in 45 games and was a plus-7. Offense may not be his calling card at the next level, but Reinhart is apparently very mobile despite his massive frame. Those combined attributes are rare, and could make for an excellent defender one day. Dear old dad, Paul Reinhart, played 648 NHL games for the Atlanta and Calgary Flames, as well as Vancouver. Paul had 560 points in his career, and is only 5'11", so Griffin may not exactly be a chip off the old block, but having an NHL dad can't hurt. Like his dad, Griffin will be a first round pick.

Nick Ebert
The 6-foot-1, 195 pound Ebert played in the USHL at just 15 years old, but has since moved to the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. As a rookie last season Ebert collected 11-30-41 in 70 games and was a minus-1. So far this year he's got 4 assists in 6 games and is a plus-1, and a strong season could see him jump way up the draft board.


There are numerous other defensemen that could easily go in the top ten at this year's draft. Among those are Morgan Rielly and Derrick Pouliot, as the WHL churns out a strong D crop in 2012. As the season goes on we'll see who the true top players are, but all of this is good news for the Oilers. This draft is extremely deep in defensive prospects, which means that even if the Oilers finish outside of the lottery they will have a shot to draft a very good defenseman.  If, by some miracle or horror, the Oilers pick first for a third year in a row, they'll be able to select Nail Yakupov and add his tremendous scoring ability. If they don't want to do that, Edmonton could always trade down and select a defensman a little later in the draft, while getting enormous value in a trade.

This is the bright side to another season of injured and lackluster defense, sub-par goaltending and rookie growing pains. At this point Oilers fans will take what they can get, but what they get may just be a whole lot.

Monday, 3 October 2011

10/03/11 Getting Blue from the Buds?

In a way, all these injuries to the Oilers' defense could end up being a good thing. It's put the focus of the fan base squarely on the organization's defensive depth and the need for a trade that will solidify the backend. The trade may not happen right away, but at least management knows that the fans know that the defense is lacking. So who might the Oilers be after?

Jonathan Willis gave his two cents about why Toronto's Carl Gunnarsson may be a good fit in Edmonton. There isn't much more that needs to be said about the merits of acquiring this player except perhaps what it would take to get him.

Brian Burke isn't under pressure to move a player like Gunnarsson. If the Oilers were after Mike Komisarek and his $4.5 million cap hit, the deal would probably happen instantly. As it is, Gunnarsson's cap hit is just $1.325 million for the next two years and then he's an RFA. The Leafs have 7 NHL-quality defenders on their current roster, but Jake Gardiner is a raw rookie and keeping some veteran insurance can't hurt.

Incidentally, after a series of trades involving the Oilers' 2008 first round pick that Anaheim acquired after the Penner offer sheet,  then-GM Brian Burke used the 17th overall pick he ended up with to select Gardiner. The race is now officially on between Gardiner and Eberle (former 2008 first rounder acquired from Anaheim in the Pronger deal).

Would Burke trade Gunnarsson for a Tyler Pitlick or Curtis Hamilton type? Unlikely. Fans in Leafland are getting impatient and if Burke is going to trade a roster player at this point, it's probably going to have to be for a player that can step in and make an impact. Are the Oilers ready to part with such a player? Maybe, but one would think that their eyes are fixed on bigger, better targets than Gunnarsson if players like Omark or Hartikainen are in the discussion.

Matt Lashoff
Staying with the Leafs, by tomorrow morning we'll know if anyone has put in a claim on Matt Lashoff, who was waived by Toronto on Monday. Until November 1st the Oilers will have first dibs on any player who goes across the waiver wire (by virtue of finishing 30th last year). The 6'2" 204 pound defenseman is just 25 years old, and has played in only 74 NHL games. He's a former 22nd overall pick, but he hasn't figured out the NHL just yet. It will cost the Oilers $600,000 to give him an NHL season. The only problem is that he's another contract, and the Oilers are already near to the limit on those as it is. That, and he's yet another left handed shot on the blueline.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

10/01/11 Two Big Questions After Friday's Game

It's been easy to root for Taylor Fedun. An Edmonton product, his showing at training camp had been a very pleasant surprise, and a much needed one for a thin Oilers blueline. Sports is performance based, which is why Fedun had so many fans in his corner, but now is a time where every hockey fan will be behind him hoping for the best possible outcome. We all hope that he will make a full recovery and return to hockey if he so chooses, but a full recovery will do.

This incident opens up two questions about the future. One concerns the NHL as a whole, and the other concerns the Oilers.

First: why hasn't the NHL adopted no-touch icing? It would seem obvious that skating at full speed directly toward the end boards while tangled with another player is not a good idea, and certainly not a safe working enviroment for players. By not changing this rule, the NHL is keeping an already hazardous game more dangerous than it has to be.

There is always the potential to negate an icing call in order to create a scoring chance, but it's a rare thing at best. Even when it does happen, it doesn't guarantee a scoring opportunity, let alone a goal. Mostly, touch icing wastes a few seconds on the clock while a defender skates back - seconds that could be used by that team in the offensive zone after the faceoff. With no-touch icing, the play is stopped and restarted faster because there is no need to see who will touch the puck first.

That one-in-a-hundred scoring chance is the reason that some are opposed to no-touch icing, which is an understandable rationale. On the other hand, if players could bat the puck in with a high stick we'd see more scoring chances as well. Some things must be taken out of the game for the sake of player safety. With how dangerous the NHL is becoming, the safety of players on both sides should be everyone's chief concern. Not every icing call causes an injury, but every race for the puck puts players in a dangerous position.

Fans were beginning to like watching Taylor Fedun, but they'll be lucky to see him again a year from now at best. Hopefully it won't take a star player getting hurt for the NHL to change its mind on this issue. And hopefully if Fedun is a star in the making, this incident won't prevent him from getting there.

Secondly, what are the Oilers going to do with the blue? Part of the reason that Taylor Fedun's strong play had been so important is because the Oilers blueline desperately needed a young defender to take a step forward. It now looks as though the blueline will be without Smid, Chorney, Fedun and Whitney for the start of the season. Whether or not Fedun and Chorney would have made the team is not as important as the fact that one of them would probably have replaced Smid.

It now appears that the Oilers will start the season with Gilbert, Barker, Sutton, Petry, Peckham and Potter. The silver lining here is that Colten Teubert could see a recall as the 7th defenseman, and with a group as green as this there's every chance that he'll see some NHL action before long. An injury prevented him from getting a fair shake in camp and now injuries have opened the door for him. The downside is for Oklahoma City, which is losing the guys that would have made up the core of its defense in Fedun, Teubert and potentially Potter and Petry. By default, Cam Barker is going to be asked to play more minutes than will be ideal for the type of player he is. The bottom line is that the Oilers are now extremely likely to stumble out of the gate.

Because of that, some are calling for Tambellini to start making some moves to bring in a defenseman. This is something that must be done at some point in time, but the time may not be now. First of all, the Oilers shouldn't be too eager to deal away their young forward depth because they don't yet know what they've got with the likes of Omark and Hartikainen, et al. Secondly, if Friday's incident has taught us anything, it's that depth is more important than ever at all positions.

But more important than any of that is the fact that the other 29 NHL general managers are dealing from a position of strength right now. On a personal level the other GMs will feel for Tambellini, but they aren't about to gut their teams for his sake. Half way through this season is about the time that the other GMs will know what players they are comfortable with dealing - even if they are highly regarded players. That is the type of deal that Tambellini should pursue; not a knee-jerk reaction to injury. Also, by that time the Oilers should have at least a healthier defense, which means Tambellini won't get fleeced in every deal he tries to make.

Friday's incidents have left some enormous questions, but answering them won't happen in the same amount of time it took to create them. Fans should be patient with the Oilers, but banging the drum of change with the NHL.