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

Welcome to Oil Acumen. What follows is NHL and Edmonton Oilers information that goes beyond the newspaper.

Oil Acumen doesn't break the story; it breaks the story down.

Friday, 27 January 2012

01/27/12 The Story of How We Got Here


When Steve Tambellini took over as General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was already on the verge of collapse. The Springfield Falcons were built well enough before he took over to finish the year in last place in the AHL, while the Stockton Thunder were 8th out of 9 teams in their Conference (but only the 9th team misses the playoffs). The previous management had left the Oilers virtually bereft of organizational depth and there was next to no NHL-calibre talent in the system. Of the regulars on the 2008-09 Springfield Falcons, only Gilbert Brule, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk are in the NHL today.

The Lowe era was so casual about player development that they didn't even have an exclusive AHL team in 2005-06; instead splitting their prospects between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Iowa Stars, where they saw limited playing time.

In his first year as Oilers GM, the team Tambellini started the year with were all holdovers from the previous management. That team was not good enough to make the playoffs, and Tambellini's first major move (Cole and a 5th round pick for O'Sullivan and Kotalik) didn't put them over the top. In 2009-10, just three Oilers regulars were Tambellini acquisitions: O'Sullivan, Comrie and Khabibulin. A season ending injury to the starting goaltender and a load of mediocre players torpedoed the season, and Oilers management was forced to accept that it was time to rebuild.

The old, underachieving core was jettisoned but the options in the system for replacing them were extremely limited. The Springfield Falcons were also in last place for a second straight year; with Dubnyk, Petry and Peckham being the only players from that team who have become legitimate NHLers. Jordan Eberle was the only impact player to join the Oilers in 2010-11 who was acquired in the Lowe era. Lubomir Visnovsky, who will be 36 this August, was replaced by Ryan Whitney who will be 29 on February 19th of this year. Tambellini acquisitions Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi joined the ranks in 2010-11, as did Ryan Jones, Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer and Colin Fraser. Khabibulin returned from injury and put in a nightmarish season and the Oilers finished 30th again.

This year things were supposed to be better. 17 of the players currently on the roster are Tambellini acquisitions, and they have had varying degrees of success. The defense was not constructed properly and lacked experience, and the only possible reason for this is to give the organization's own young defenders more playing time. Whether that is best for their development in the long term remains to be seen, but it has been a major factor in the Oilers' struggles this season. Another round of useless players was removed from the third and fourth lines and replaced with ones that have better track records; including Belanger, Eager and Hordichuk. Despite some of their difficulties this year it's hard to argue that they aren't a better group than Zack Stortini, JF Jacques and Andrew Cogliano. The Belanger signing wouldn't have been necessary if Tambellini had simply held on to Kyle Brodziak, which is one of the most glaringly bad and needless trades of his tenure. But at the end of the day the Oilers are still too young, too inexperienced and lacking in depth to compete at the NHL level.

The AHL level is a different story, however. The Oilers' AHL franchise was brought out of dormancy in 2010-11 and relocated to Oklahoma City. Todd Nelson was hired as head coach, and the team was stocked with quality free agents that will help transition the team until the Oilers' own draft picks are ready to take the reigns. The Barons made the playoffs in their first year and are currently in first place in the AHL.

It hasn't all been roses, though. Tambellini was part of the embarrassment that was the nixed Dany Heatley trade as well. Given the established fact that the Oilers had very limited depth, trading Ladislav Smid, Andrew Cogliano and Dustin Penner at that time could have been disastrous. Not only that, but Heatley is not currently worth Ladislav Smid, Colten Teubert, Oscar Klefbom, plus second and third round picks; which is what the Oilers ended up with. In fairness, however, Tambellini is the one who acquired those assets as well.
Nikolai Khabibulin has been better this season, but overall his signing has been a mistake, and the Kyle Brodziak fiasco has already been covered. The handling of the Sheldon Souray situation was odd, but his grievances went all the way back to his first year in Edmonton when Kevin Lowe was at the helm, so losing Souray was probably inevitable.

Below is a list of Steve Tambellini's key moves since taking over:


- Traded Mathieu Garon to Pittsburgh for Ryan Stone, Dany Sabourin and a pick that became Tobias Rieder
- Traded Erik Cole and a 5th round pick (Matt Kennedy) to Carolina for Patrick O'Sullivan and a second round pick. This pick was traded to Buffalo for Ales Kotalik
- Traded Kyle Brodziak and a 6th round pick (Darcy Kuemper) to Minnesota for fifth and sixth round picks that became Kyle Bigos and Olivier Roy
- Attempted to trade Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid to Ottawa for Dany Heatley
- Signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year contract at $3.75 million per year
- Waived Rob Schremp
- Signed Mike Comrie
- Traded Denis Grebeshkov to Nashville for a pick that became Curtis Hamilton
- Traded Lubomir Visnovsky to Anaheim for Ryan Whitney and a pick that became Brandon Davidson
- Claimed Ryan Jones off waivers
- Traded Steve Staios to Calgary(!) for Aaron Johnson and a pick that became Travis Ewanyk
- Acquired Colin Fraser from Chicago for a 6th round pick that became Mirko Hoefflin
- Traded Riley Nash for a pick that became Martin Marincin
- Traded Patrick O'Sullivan to Phoenix for Jim Vandermeer
- Bought out Robert Nilsson
- Waived Ethan Moreau
- Signed Kurtis Foster
- Did not re-sign Marc Pouliot
- Forced Sheldon Souray to toil in the AHL on loan to Hershey
- Traded Dustin Penner to LA for Colten Teubert, Oscar Klefbom and a third round pick in 2012
- Bought out Sheldon Souray
- Signed Taylor Fedun
- Signed Lennart Petrell
- Traded Colin Fraser and a 7th round pick in 2012 to LA for Ryan Smyth
- Traded Kurtis Foster for Andy Sutton
- Signed Corey Potter
- Signed Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Eric Belanger and Cam Barker
- Signed Yann Danis
- Traded Andrew Cogliano to Anaheim for a second round pick in 2013

Does this man deserve a contract extension? He inherited a team that was never going to go anywhere and then tore it down as any GM would have had to. He's helped to turn the drafting and development side of the organization from an absolute joke to a very respectable facet. He removed the old players who were part of the problem and acquired assets that will be part of the solution. But he's made mistakes along the way as well, and nearly a very big one with Heatley. The embarrassment of Heatley refusing to waive his no trade clause doesn't sting as badly as that deal would have if it had actually gone through.

The biggest problems with this Oilers team have always been that there was no elite talent, and there weren't enough NHL players in the pipeline. Those are problems that Tambellini has taken steps to correct. It's a job that's going to take several years, so we shouldn't be surprised that the team is still losing; especially when injuries strike as they have for the past three years.

Trust in a GM should always been limited to a certain extent, but so far things seem to be going according to the rebuilding plan.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

01/25/12 The Curious Case of the Third and Fourth Lines


The Oilers should be proud of their effort in the last two games, but once again the boxscore was all zeros for the third and fourth lines on Tuesday. For some reason, the bottom two lines simply cannot score. What's the deal?

When Eric Belanger was a member of the Minnesota Wild he was a 13 goal man. He lit the lamp 13 times in each of his three seasons there, and scored another two after being traded to Washington in 2010. The veteran center hasn't had less than 13 goals in a season since he had 9 with the Thrashers back in 2006-07, but that was in just 24 games (a 30 goal pace!). It was a good bet that he would be exactly what the Oilers needed for their third line, but this season he's got just one goal and ten measly points in 45 games.

At 57.7% Belanger's faceoff ability has been exactly as advertised, and he has averaged 2:37 of penalty kill time per game, which has helped to steady the once-abysmal PK. Amazingly, he's averaging 1:42 of powerplay time per game as well, and yet he's still stuck on just the one marker that came on a lucky wrap around bounce against Carolina on December 7th.

After a 15 goal, 34 point rookie season, Magnus Paajarvi has seen his scoring grind to a halt as well. It's been 35 games since he's found the back of the net, going all the way back to April 6th of last season. His four assists in 33 games this year has him on pace for just 8 points if he finishes the year in Edmonton.

Considering how much promise the third and fourth lines had coming into the season, it's amazing that the players who have played regularly in those slots have combined for just 24 goals 55 points. If you remove Ryan Jones from that equation, the others have a combined total of just 12 goals and 34 points.

So what's happening here?

Some of it is bad luck. Belanger had 13 goals on 127 shots last year for a very reasonable 10.2% shooting percentage. This year he's got one goal on 74 shots. Magnus Paajarvi hasn't scored on 61 shots this year, while he's averaging almost two shots per game. He's not attacking the net enough, but you'd think he would get lucky eventually.

One way or another a few of these numbers will even out. The goal totals from the bottom two lines are not representative of their quality. Players can't keep shooting and shooting and failing to score forever, can they?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

01/22/12 A Question of Depth


"Every team goes through injuries," said Ladislav Smid back on January 18th. The problem with the Oilers is that they lack the ability to replace the players that they have lost, and they're still a number of years away from being able to. Until that changes, this team will continue to lose.

The players that are pictured above look like a formidable group, don't they? One day they may all play a part in the Oilers' future success, but as of now Taylor Hall is the only one in the NHL and the others really aren't close. From left to right, Jeremie Blain is plying his trade in the QMJHL this year, Pitlick is a rookie in the AHL, Martin Marincin is still in the WHL and Ryan Martindale is playing in the ECHL. Curtis Hamilton (not pictured) is also an AHL rookie this season. None of those players is ready to step in for an injured NHL regular.

From 2006 to 2008 the Oilers made just 16 selections in the NHL Entry Draft, and given the crapshoot-like nature of the event that's not a recipe for a lot of organizational depth. Jordan Eberle, Theo Peckham, Jeff Petry and Sam Gagner are NHL regulars from those draft years, with Linus Omark, Philippe Cornet and Teemu Hartikainen trailing behind. That's only part of a team and two or three players that are capable of filling in when injuries strike.

The Oilers are starting to see the fruits of the 2009 Draft in Paajarvi and Lander, but nobody else from that class is near the NHL at this point and it's arguable whether or not either of the first two belong with the Oilers just yet. And as encouraging as it was for the Oilers to make 20 selections in the last two years with many tracking well, the fact remains that most of them are still a long way from being able to impact this team.

At the moment this rebuilding thing appears to be a failure because the fans and the team have gone through so much painful sucking. But the fact is that it's still too early to judge. Building depth takes time, and not enough of it has passed. Laddy Smid is right: every team does go through injuries, but the ones the Oilers have suffered have been crippling. There's no team in the NHL that could absorb the loss of three of their best offensive players and their top two defensemen, but how teams can deal with it depends on the quality of the trailers they've got in the organization.

The Oilers are always going to suffer injuries (hopefully not as badly as the last few seasons), but one day they will have the ability to replace the players they've lost. That will be enough to keep them in the playoff hunt while their injured players convalesce, and by that time the Oilers' regulars will be even better than they are now.

Whether or not Renney or Tambellini are right for this rebuild is not a question that is being answered here, but there is one thing to keep in mind:

No matter who is in charge, this team doesn't have the depth to be competitive. Decide for yourself whose fault that is, but the only thing that's going to fix it is time.

Friday, 20 January 2012

01/18/12 Trading Khabibulin Part Two: Los Angeles


Earlier today, Darren Dreger answered a question from an Oilers fan who wondered if Nikolai Khabibulin could be traded at the deadline and if there was any way the Oilers could acquire Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles. Amazingly, Dreger didn't shoot it down.

Before proceeding, let's be clear: Darren Dreger did not suggest that the Oilers and Kings are talking about a trade involving Bernier or Khabibulin. What he did say was that a deal of Khabibulin for Bernier would make sense if it was part of a larger equation, which probably includes Ales Hemsky.

In this situation the Kings would land one of the bigger top six forward names out there for the second year in a row, as well as a Stanley Cup Champion in Khabibulin. The current Oilers netminder wouldn't be relied upon to be the starter in LA, but he is decent insurance for a playoff run. Hemsky is obviously the real prize here, as the Kings would add some more punch to their anemic offense.

The Oilers would be acquiring a 23 year old goalie that may be ready to grab a starting job full time. Bernier is having a difficult season this year with a 2.73 GAA and 0.895 Sv%, but over the course of his career his numbers are better at 2.60 GAA and a 0.908 Sv%. The sample size is small, however, with Bernier having appeared in just 41 NHL games. Bernier was the starter in Manchester of the AHL back in 2009-10, where he posted an impressive 0.936 save percentage and 2.03 goals against average. The young goalie is a restricted free agent after next season and currently carries a cap hit of $1.25 million, which is a $2.5 million savings over Khabibulin.

Jonathan Bernier is two years younger than Devan Dubnyk, but he does have slightly better numbers, and being young means that he fits into the long term rebuilding plan. That would allow the Oilers to let Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz cut their teeth in lower leagues and get the seasoning that they will need going forward.

Do the Oilers win this deal, or could they get more for Hemsky?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

01/19/12 Trading Khabibulin


Another day, another loss. But of course, the one bright spot was Nikolai Khabibulin and his 0.974 save percentage on a night where he didn't get a lot of help. Is it time to sell high and move Khabibulin and his contract to a new home?

With a 0.921 Sv% on the year to go along with a 2.36 GAA and 11-14-4 record, Khabibulin has seen his stock rise dramatically. However, the case for trading him begins with the fact that the Bulin Wall won't be here when the Oilers become a good team (assuming that ever happens, of course), and that he is unlikely to be able to sustain his high level of play.

Those are Khabibulin's best numbers since 2001-02. The only time he's come close was with Chicago back in 2008-09 when he had a 0.919 Sv% and 2.33 GAA. Over the course of his career Khabibulin has a 0.908 Sv% and 2.71 GAA, which is about where his numbers have landed on average over his time in Edmonton. That's not enormously better than Devan Dubnyk's career numbers at 0.906 Sv% and 3.01 GAA. Dubnyk hasn't shown enough evidence that he is a starting goalie in the NHL, but his overall stats aren't that much of a downgrade from Khabibulin's.

At 39 years old, Khabibulin is not the future. The Oilers won't be good enough next season to need him for a Cup run, and extending him beyond his current contract is extremely risky and unlikely to be the right move. One way or another, Nikolai Khabibulin is nearing the end of his tenure in the Oilers' crease.

With that said, the Oilers are in a position to see what his value is on the trade market. There are a few teams out there that could use some goaltending help. The extra year on Khabibulin's contract means that he may have some appeal even to teams that are already out of the playoff picture this season, like Tampa Bay and Columbus.

The Bulin Wall may not fetch a prospect or pick that could turn the Oilers around, but it would open up $3.75 million in cap space. Right now his play makes that number look like a steal, but when his stats average out it won't be as flattering.

Khabibulin's value is unlikely to ever be higher than it is now, and eventually the Oilers will part ways with him for nothing. If he's going to be traded, now is the time.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

01/17/12 Shoooooot!


On Tuesday night the Edmonton Oilers were outshot for the 27th time this season in just 45 games. They've outshot their opponents 13 times and tied in shots the rest. Injuries and misfortune aside, this team simply does not shoot enough.

When outshooting the opposition the Oilers are a .500 team at 6-6-1, but when they are outshot their record is much less kind at 8-17-2. Edmonton is sitting in 29th in the NHL in total shots for and also in shots for per game. Why is that significant?

Aside from the obvious implications of the Oilers' record when outshooting their opponents, the top ten teams in shots per game are all sitting in playoff position right now.

Obviously, shots on goal are affected by a team's ability to spend time in the offensive zone, so it makes sense that the best teams would be closest to their opponents' net more often than to their own, and that that would be reflected by the number of shots they take. The Oilers do not have the personnel to dominate zone play just yet, and so they aren't getting enough shots on goal.

However, the Oilers have outshot some very competent teams this year, including Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Boston, Ottawa, and Colorado; to name the more prominent ones. The Oilers are certainly banged up and they missed Taylor Hall in a big way on Tuesday, but going forward this team must be composed of players that are going to put pucks on net.

Interestingly, the Oilers' highest shooting players are some of their newest ones. Well, sorta.

Ryan Smyth is new again and he's leading the way in shots with 117 in 45 games. After that it's the H2E line. Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are second through fourth in total shots on goal this year. Aside from Smyth they are the only Oilers who are averaging more than two shots per game with 3.3, 2.3 and 2.1 shots per game respectively.

In the last four years the winner of the Stanley Cup had no fewer than seven players averaging 2 shots per game or more, so the Oilers have some work to do.

Monday, 16 January 2012

01/16/12 Hall Heating Up


Taylor Hall is like a freight train. He had a bit of a slow start to the season with 11 points in his first 17 games, but ever since the blowout in Chicago where he scored his second career hat trick he's been gathering momentum. Now that he's moving, he's really moving.

Before his injury, Hall had 7-11-18 in 22 games, and 60 shots on goal (2.7 per game). Since returning, he's put up 8-6-14 in 14 games and has 57 shots on goal (4.1 shots per game).

Including the 9-2 drubbing of the Hawks, Hall has scored 12 goals in his last 19 games played and collected 20 points.

Hall has only been held without a shot on goal three times all year. In fact, November 26th was the last time Hall didn't register a shot in a game, which was when he was felled by his shoulder injury and only played 7 shifts. When he's in for the entire game, he shoots. Under those circumstances he hasn't been held without a shot since November 8th, which is a stretch of more than two months and 22 games. He's leading the team in shots on goal as well, despite the fact that the next-closest Oiler (Ryan Smyth) has played eight more games than Hall has.

Early in the season in seemed that Tyler Seguin had ended the debate about which of the two players was better, as he was absolutely lighting up the league. But Hall is quickly closing the gap on the young man who went directly after him in the 2010 draft. Seguin has 17-21-38 in 40 games this season (0.43 goals per game and 0.95 points per game). Hall has improved to 15-16-31 in 36 games (0.42 goals per game and 0.86 points per game), and he's doing it all on one of the worst teams in the NHL, which has also been ravaged by injuries.

After a hot start, Seguin has got 6 goals and 17 points in his last 25 games, while Hall has been moving in the opposite direction. Both are great players and well deserving of their draft position, but determining which is best isn't as clear as it was earlier this year.

Without a doubt, Taylor Hall has been the Oilers' best player for quite some time, and definitely since Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle went down with injuries. He's taken control of this team and his passion is on display every night. Hall is coming into his own.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

01/15/12 Defense Wanted. But Who?


The buzz around the Oilogosphere today has largely been about the Oilers' defense, or lack thereof. There's talk of dealing away this year's first round pick in order to find a high quality defender, which is an idea that is rightfully gathering steam. But who would it be? Below I've compiled a list of teams that have defense to spare and would like a nice boost in their attack (which one of Yakupov, Grigorenko, Forsberg or Galchenyuk could provide as early as next year).

Eastern Conference


New York Rangers: The Rangers are tops in the East right now by virtue of their goaltending, having allowed just 86 goals all year (2.05/game). Marian Gaborik already has 23 goals, but he also leads the team in points with just 34 in 42 games. The Rangers do not have a player on a point-per-game pace and could use another strong attacker to put them over the top. Any potential deal with this team will have to wait until after the season is over because Sather won't want to mess up his team too much before the playoffs.

In return for their first round pick the Oilers could request Michael Del Zotto, who is finally living up to his draft pedigree (20th overall in 2008). This year he's got 5-18-23 in 42 games, and an impressive plus-24 rating. Another potential target could be Marc Staal, who, though injured, is in his fifth NHL season and has been one of that team's best for a long time. The presence of both of these players in New York may make one of them expendable. Neither is the "rake redux" that Lowetide talks about at OilersNation, but they would make for good Whitney insurance.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers need help with secondary scoring in a bad way, but if things continue on an upward path they won't have a shot at the top players in this year's draft. Three of Florida's last five drafts have seen them take a defenseman with their top pick, and they also added Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski in the off season. Huberdeau and another top prospect would make for a quality second line next season.

The Oilers would probably be looking at Erik Gudbranson in exchange for their pick, but Dmitri Kulikov could also be a good starting point. Gudbranson has the pedigree to be a top guy, but he's unproven in the NHL. Kulikov is in his third season and has tremendous offensive instincts, but that hasn't translated to big numbers at the NHL level just yet. That said, he's on pace for a career year with 4-17-21 in 42 games, and has almost reached his offensive output from all of last season (26 points in 72 games).

New Jersey Devils: With Patrick Elias in the twilight of his career and the potential to lose Zack Parise very real, the Devils would undoubtedly like to dip into the high end of this year's draft. The problem with a deal here is that New Jersey doesn't have much that is of equivalent value to the Oilers' pick, except for Adam Larsson. It seems highly unlikely that the Devils would be willing to part with the young Swede, so a trade with this team is a non-starter.

Toronto Maple Leafs: If the Leafs don't do any damage in the playoffs this year they may want to add more scoring. After Lupul and Kessel the dip in production from the forwards is steep. There are a lot of good support players on this team, but they could use another lethal threat to balance out two lines of attack. A potential number one center like Galchenyuk wouldn't hurt.

The return is simple: the Oilers would probably want Luke Schenn. Schenn is in his fourth NHL season but he's only played 274 games in the league (remember how it's taken Smid 300+ to become the player he is). He still has plenty of room to round into a complete player, and would easily be one of the Oilers' best right now.

Washington Capitals: The Caps are sixth in Eastern Conference scoring as of this writing, but the always enigmatic Alexander Semin could be in his last days in Washington. His contract expires after this season and for a team as close to the cap as Washington tends to be, it would be nice to replace him with an equivalent talent who is considerably cheaper.

In return for their top pick the Oilers might target John Carlson or maybe Karl Alzner. Carlson in on pace for career-highs in goals (10), assists (33), and points (43), and over his short NHL career of 146 games he's got a plus-32 rating. At just 22 years old he could anchor the blue line for years to come. Alzner is similar in that he's just 23 years of age, but he doesn't bring as much offense as Carlson. In fact, Alzner has just four goals in his 175 career games, but he's been a plus player in each of the last two years and a plus-22 in his career. At 6'3" and 213 pounds he's a fairly formidable presence on the backend.

Winnipeg Jets: Of all the teams in the East, the Jets may need a star forward the most. Blake Wheeler is their leading scorer with 32 points in 44 games, and as a team the Jets are 11th in goal scoring in the Eastern Conference.

There's little doubt that the Oilers would target Zach Bogosian or Tobias Enstrom in a trade with Winnipeg, as Dustin Byfuglien is unlikely to be moved. 21 year old Bogosian has played 241 NHL games and was on pace for a career high in points (37) before getting hurt on Tuesday. So far this season he's managed to bring his glaringly bad plus/minus back to reasonable levels. Enstrom has missed some time with injury this year, but he's a premiere offensive-defenseman; having collected 50 or more points in back-to-back years. Last season he managed the feat in just 72 games.

Buffalo Sabres: Another team that could use more balanced scoring, the Sabres don't boast much beyond Pominville and Vanek. Derek Roy is their third-leading scorer with 25 points in 42 games. Brad Boyes, who is having a miserable year, comes off the books after this season, and that could make room for the Entry Level Contract of a budding offensive star.

It may take more than just a high draft pick, but it would be nice to see the Oilers target Tyler Myers. He just signed an extension with Buffalo, but the Oilers may still be able to make a good offer. Also, when new and enthusiastic ownership comes in, they can sometimes tend to meddle more than they should, which might make a deal like this possible. Myers is 6'8" and 227 pounds and he's still only 21 years old. Six-foot-eight! He's also got 92 points in his 186 games, along with a plus-6 rating on some average teams.

Montreal Canadiens: This team could use an offensive star because they best they can muster is Tomas Plekanec and Erik Cole, who are first and second in points with 31 and 30 respectively in 44 games. P.K. Subban is the only player that might work in a deal, but he's unlikely to be moved. Beyond that, Montreal doesn't have much the Oilers will value as much as that first round pick.

Western Conference


St. Louis Blues: The Blues have scored by committee this year, with no player on a point-per-game pace but five who are on pace for 20 or more goals. Unfortunately, the Blues already traded a high profile defenseman in order to improve their offense and may not be inclined to do the same again. Kevin Shattenkirk would be a welcome addition, but he alone isn't necessarily worth this year's first round pick.

Chicago Blackhawks: One more high end offensive talent could put this team way over the top for years to come. The Oilers might ask for Niklas Hjalmarsson, but he alone may not get a deal done involving the Oilers' high first rounder. The emergence of Nick Leddy means the Hawks have a little wiggle room on the defense, so there's some potential for a trade if it's right. Edmonton would love to get Brent Seabrook away from Chicago, but he's probably not going to be moved.

Nashville Predators: This is perhaps the most interesting team of all. The Preds certainly lack an elite offensive talent, and right now they're being led in scoring by defenseman Shea Weber. That's a testament to the quality of Weber as a player but also an indictment of the offensive capabilities of the rest of the team.

Weber is a Restricted Free Agent after this season, and the contract negotiations between him and his team were not easy during the summer. If it turns out that he doesn't want to commit to Nashville in the long term, he could fetch one hell of a package. Part of such a deal could be the Oilers' pick, which may be as high as first overall. Obviously it will take more than that, and it's not a highly probable scenario in the first place, but it's worth at least asking about if the Predators are afraid that Weber won't sign long term and they'll lose him for nothing after next season.

Also interesting in Nashville is Ryan Ellis, who has posted 2-2-4 and a plus-2 in his first 8 NHL games this year. The former World Junior captain had 101 points in just 58 games for the Windsor Spitfires last year. He's a former teammate of Taylor Hall, and looks like he's ready for prime time. At 5'10" and 179 pounds he's a bit slight, but makes up for it with his exceptional offensive abilities.

Los Angeles Kings: This is the lowest scoring team in the league right now, and though they're strong at center they could use some more punch on the wings. One of the top guys in this year's draft would instantly make the Kings a solid contender for years.

The only player who would be worth a very high draft pick and who also may be available is Jack Johnson. Johnson has scored 7-13-20 in 45 games this year and is a minus-7. He has a good range of tools but has yet to really put it all together as yet. He's played 327 NHL games, so it's starting to look like he may just be what he is and no more than that. Johnson has never had a year with positive plus/minus, and he's an ugly minus-85 over his career. Still, he brings physicality and some offense from the backend, and he carries a very affordable $4.357 million cap hit. Certainly couldn't hurt the Oilers' blue line.

Phoenix Coyotes: Another team without much scoring punch, and many of their best offensive threats are almost ready to ride off into the sunset. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is probably an untouchable player in Phoenix, but he may be less so than Keith Yandle. Ekman-Larsson has got 7-12-19 in 45 games this season after posting 11 points in 48 games last year. His season-over-season improvement is enough to think that he could be a superb talent, especially because his team isn't that gifted offensively. Because of that the Coyotes will probably hang onto him, but Yandle is their key defender and they lack an elite forward for the future, so there's an outside chance of a deal here.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks will eventually need to replace Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake, but they'll probably already have a pick in the top five to draft an impact forward. Cam Fowler has 58 points in 119 NHL games but he's also a minus-40 in that time. He's probably not going anywhere. Luca Sbisa is interesting, but it's too early in his career to assign him too much value.

***

As far as I can see, those are the teams for whom it would make sense to make a sizable deal with the Oilers. There will probably be some deal that comes out of left field now that I've written this, but those seem to be the players that the Oilers could target.

Friday, 13 January 2012

01/13/12 Right Now, The Oilers Are The NHL's Worst Team


Over the weekend there should be a shocking upswing in the sales of large, head-sized paper bags in Edmonton, as the Oilers have been the worst team in the NHL over the last twenty games. That's right! Nobody - not even Columbus - has had a worse record over their last 20 than the Oilers.

Columbus is 6-12-2

Anaheim is 8-9-3

The Islanders have gone 9-9-2

Carolina? They've gone 7-10-3

Tampa Bay went 6-12-2 over their last 20

Montreal is 6-11-3

Winnipeg has been pretty good at 11-8-1

Buffalo has slid some with a 6-10-4 record over the last 20

and Phoenix has had a record of 7-9-4

And our Edmonton Oilers? Well, they've had a record of 4-14-2 in their last twenty games. They've scored 3 or more goals ten times in that span, and more than 3 just four times. The Oilers have scored 48 goals in those twenty games, or an average of just 2.4 per game, while allowing 67 goals (3.35 per game). Including Friday night's fiasco they've been shutout twice.

The teams listed above are currently the bottom ten in the league. If things continue like this the Oilers shouldn't have any problem finishing 30th and possibly becoming just the second team in history to draft first overall in three consecutive years.

The good news is that the only other team to do that was the Quebec Nordiques from 1989-1991. The bad news is that none of those three first overall picks were members of the eventual powerhouse Colorado Avalanche. As a matter of fact, none of them ever won Cups with any team.


Tonight, the Oilers are just one point out of 29th, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are only 7 points behind. When some injured players come back for the Oilers things might get better, but by then it might already be too late.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

01/12/12 Hollywood Hemsky?


So Dean Lombardi apologized for his Bernie Madoff comments during Mulletgate and that's got David Staples at the Cult of Hockey wondering if it's no coincidence that this about-face is happening just 46 days before the trade deadline. It's especially fishy as the Oilers happen to have a certain offensive winger who may or may not be available in a trade, and the Kings happen to be the lowest scoring team in the league.

Yes, you read that right. Even after acquiring Mike Richards in the off season the Kings are last in the NHL in total goal output with 90 in 43 games. A 2.09 Goals per Game average is not going to win you many hockey games, and that's precisely why the Kings are sitting in eighth place in the West instead of being comfortably inside the playoffs as many predicted before the season. Right wingers Dustin Brown and Justin Williams are both having off years and have combined for just 17 goals so far.

Ales Hemsky won't bring a lot of goal scoring to any team's lineup, but when he's on his game he can be a strong catalyst to help other players find the back of the net. Hemsky may not be having a great year, but things have reached the point in LA where something must be done to spark that offense, and that could make number 83 an attractive option.

Just how attractive remains to be seen. Obviously Dean Lombardi is keenly aware of how badly he got burned in the Dustin Penner trade last season, and he won't be in any hurry to repeat that mistake. On the other hand, this was supposed to be the year that the Kings really took a step forward. Certainly home ice advantage was in the plan, and nothing less than winning one round in the playoffs will do in order to call 2011-12 a success in LA. If the Kings merely sneak into the playoffs they'll be in tough against teams like Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit, so Lombardi might want to make a move soon so that his team can make up as much ground in the standings as possible.

We know for certain that the Kings have interest in Hemsky. The winger was definitely in the conversation at last year's trade deadline, but a suitable deal was never on the table for either side. The Oilers wanted Brayden Schenn and Lombardi wisely declined to make that deal, opting instead to use his prized prospect to bring in the aforementioned Richards. Now that Hemsky is a pending UFA and not lighting it up offensively, the asking price will be greatly reduced. So much so that a deal could very well be struck.

The Oilers already plucked one defense prospect out of LA's system with the acquisition of Colten Teubert, and Hemsky could allow them to add another. The Kings' prospect depth is still heavy on defensemen, which may make Viatcheslav Voynov available.

Voynov, the 32nd overall pick in the Eberle draft (2008), has collected 4-6-10 and a plus-2 rating in 24 games for the Kings this year. Already in his third full season for the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL last year, Voynov posted 15-36-51 and a plus-21, as well as 2-3-5 in 7 playoff games. At 5'11" and 193 pounds, he doesn't have ideal size for a defender, but the Oilers sorely need offense from the backend. With Peckham, Teubert, Smid, Plante, Musil and Klefbom in the system, there's enough size and strength to afford the Oilers a quality offensive D-man.

The Oilers may want more than just a prospect for Hemsky, but Voynov would be a good starting point to a deal. He has tools that the Oilers need and he's ready for the big show right now. If Edmonton were to get him their blue line might not look half bad in the not-so-distant future.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

01/10/12 Will This Drafting Thing Really Work?


Suppose for a moment that the Oilers get another pick in the top five this year. Not a big stretch, I know. How do teams fare when they pick first overall and then in the top five routinely? Let's find out.

First we have to set some parameters, but it's not as boring as it sounds. The story hasn't finished yet for teams that picked in the top five in 2009 or later, so I've looked at 30 years of drafts before that (1979-2008). In order to be included, a team must have had three picks in the top five within 5 years, and at least one of those picks must have been first overall.


There are ten teams that fit those criteria, starting with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1984-1988. The results range from Stanley Cup Championships to absolutely abhorrent. Of those teams, four won Cups as a direct result of their high picks, four were terrible or mostly terrible and two became elite teams that have yet to win anything. The teams and their picks are as follows:

Pittsburgh: 1984-88; Mario Lemieux, Craig Simpson, Zarley Zalapski, Chris Joseph
Quebec: 1988-92; Curtis Leschyshyn, Daniel Dore, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Eric Lindros, Todd Warriner
Ottawa: 1994-96; Radek Bonk, Bryan Berard, Chris Phillips
Tampa Bay: 1992, 93, 95; Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton, Daymond Langkow
Atlanta: 1999-02; Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen
New York Islanders: 1996, 97, 99, 2000; J.P. Dumont, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, Rick DiPietro, Raffi Torres
Columbus: 2000, 02, 03; Rusty Klesla, Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev
Pittsburgh (again): 2002-06; Ryan Whitney, M.A. Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal
Washington: 2004, 06, 07; Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner
Chicacgo: 2004, 06, 07; Cam Barker, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane

The Islanders also selected Wade Redden second overall in 1995, giving them seven picks in the top five in just five years. Unfortunately for them, Mad Mike Milbury was in charge. Just look at the players that team would have had if they hadn't all been traded away. Well, except DiPietro of course, the worst selection of the bunch. It's safe to say that this would have at least been a decent team otherwise, so we'll just write them off.

Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Columbus were all utter failures based on these picks. There are some good players in there but those three teams only made the playoffs once each with these players as their core. Astute management is still a must, but it doesn't help that one of Atlanta's first overall picks was a bust. So too was fourth overall pick Nikolai Zherdev for Columbus, who was one of just three in the top five for that team. He had 27 and 26 goal seasons for the Jackets, but only played four seasons there and has been out of the NHL two of the last three years.

Aside from those, all of the teams listed ended up at least being competitive, but not always solely because of their top five selections. However, most of these players either ended up forming the core of their teams, or were traded for players that did.

Still, there are no guarantees when it comes to the NHL draft. If the Oilers manage to get out of lottery position next year that will give them only three picks in the top five during the rebuild. Jordan Eberle helps, and so may some of the other later picks, but Edmonton cannot afford to whiff on this coming draft. The fortunes of Atlanta, Columbus and Tampa Bay underscore that notion.

The Atlanta Thrashers picked first overall twice in three years and never went anywhere, so the Oilers and their fans must beware. The good news is that Taylor Hall will be fine and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins already has more points than Patrik Stefan had in any one season, save for 2003-04. When the Nuge returns he should surpass Stefan's single-season career high of just 40 points.

Drafting an impact player this June could be the difference between a long-competitive Oilers team and an ever-floundering one. Keep in mind also that every single one of the teams listed above that also won a Stanley Cup traded at least one of the players they selected in the top five. Other than Washington, all of the teams traded at least one of their players from the top five, so good management can also be the difference between success and endless failure.

The scouting side looks like it's well in hand, but there won't be a verdict on the management team for a few more years.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

01/08/12 Detroit and Hemsky


This article is one of many that has speculated about a trade involving Ales Hemsky and the Detroit Red Wings. Hemsky has often been linked to the Red Wings this season, but is there a deal that makes sense? Probably not.

The last article among those links points out that Detroit would be unwilling to part with their top prospect Brendan Smith in exchange for Hemsky. Smith is a former university standout who was selected 27th overall back in the Gagner draft (2007) and is regarded as a high end offensive-defenseman. He posted 12-20-32 in his first full AHL season last year, and had improved to 5-12-17 in 28 games this year. He earned a three game callup to the Red Wings where he notched two assists.

The Oilers will be looking to improve the backend if they move Hemsky out of town, but if Detroit keeps Smith off the table it will be hard to find a deal. Smith is the only defenseman in the Red Wings' top ten prospects, according to the 2011 THN Future Watch, and there isn't really one on the roster that fits except maybe Jakub Kindl. Kindl earned his first full NHL season this year after being drafted in 2005 and has posted 8 points in 32 games with a plus-8 rating. He's solid enough, but doesn't necessarily fill the Oilers' needs.

The Wings have over $5 million in cap space heading into the deadline, so they have plenty of wiggle room to add a scoring threat and one more top-six forward is exactly what they need.

If the Red Wings were willing to part with Gustav Nyquist (9-21-30 in 30 AHL games with Grand Rapids) or  Tomas Tatar (10-19-29 in 34 AHL games) there might be the beginnings of a deal, but it would not really give the Oilers what they need. Such deals are only likely to happen if the Oilers had another bigger deal in mind that would occur later. That's not such a bad idea, since it would give the Oilers plenty of assets to acquire a defenseman who is even better than Brendan Smith.

But the sheer amount of moving parts make this scenario unlikely. Also, there will undoubtedly be other teams who are willing to give up more for Hemsky than the Red Wings will. If Detroit stands pat at the deadline they still have a good enough team to run with, which is not the case with other teams who would love to add a top-six forward.

***

Check out Oil Acumen on The Copper and Blue's Mid Season Roundtable.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

01/07/12 The Halfway Point


We've arrived at the half way point of the season and it's already over once again. Here is a look at why that is the case, and also the points pace of some of the Oilers' notable players.

Last year the Oilers were 13-21-7 after 41 games on their way to another 30th place finish. This year they are sitting at 16-22-3, which is improvement, right? Right?!

The Oilers are 28th in the league in Shots For with 1084 so far. The league leaders are the Canucks, who have taken 260 more shots than Edmonton with just one more game played. The Oilers are a lowly 29th in Shots For Per Game with 26.4. Only Anaheim is worse. If you want your players to take a minimum of two shots per game, the only Oilers players with acceptable totals so far are Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Smyth and Hall. Only Smyth hasn't been hit by the injury bug, and hopefully Eberle's damage isn't too severe.

Things are a little better defensively, with the Oil sitting in 25th in Shots Against and 20th in Shots Against Per Game. They need more from Devan Dubnyk, and his 3.15 GAA and .903 Sv% combined with a 5-10 record. If, for argument's sake, we assume Khabibulin's numbers would be the same if he had played every game this year, he would have allowed about nine fewer goals than Dubnyk, which has to count for a few wins and points in the standings. As it is, Khabibulin has appeared in 26 games and allowed 59 goals, while Dubnyk has appeared in 17 and allowed 50.

The powerplay is still a point of strength, sitting 2nd in the league at 21.3%. Last year the powerplay finished with just 14.5% efficiency, so fans should count their blessings on that score.

The penalty kill is still respectable at 83.8% and ninth place, which is almost 7% improvement over last year's 29th-ranked PK at 77%.

It's the five-on-five Goals For/Against Ratio that has started to slip. The Oilers are 20th in that regard at 0.90. For some context, the Boston Bruins are sitting at 2.09 currently and are first in the league 5X5.

Pace:

Jordan Eberle (assuming that he doesn't miss any time, which seems unlikely) is on pace for 34 goals and 86 points.

Taylor Hall: 31 goals and 65 points

Ryan Smyth: 30 goals and 64 points

Nugent-Hopkins (assuming that he misses ten games): 25 goals and 66 points

Horcoff: 16 goals and 44 points

Jones: 24 goals and 40 points

Gagner: 11 goals and 44 points, although he could finish higher because he's collected 18 of his 20 points in his last 21 games played

Gilbert (assuming that he returns next game): 6 goals and 31 points

Hemsky: 7 goals and 35 points

Potter: 8 goals and 35 points

Belanger: 2 goals and 20 points

The Oilers have four players who can still hit 60 or more points, and that's not including Gagner who has been on fire of late and has really seized the opportunity that's been presented to him. Last year the Oilers finished with one 20 goal man (Hall) and this year they have five players on pace for 20 and three on pace for 30. The way Taylor Hall has played recently it won't be out of the question to see him score more than the 31 goals he's on pace for. There's a clear need for an offensive-defenseman, but Gilbert and Potter are having respectable years offensively. Notably, Nugent-Hopkins is still on pace for 60+ points even with a substantial injury factored in, which means that he should still be headlining the Calder conversation if he can resume his previous pace. Hopefully Eberle's stellar season won't be derailed.

The season may be over, but at least we have some stars-in-the-making to watch down the stretch (injuries notwithstanding). Last year no Oilers player scored more than 43 meager points, so count your blessings even if the team does finish in the lottery yet again.

Friday, 6 January 2012

01/06/12 Questioning The Coach


Coaching an NHL team is a difficult job, and I can never claim to have it on my resume. Well, it's on my resume, but it's a lie. Having said that, I'm not alone in having a few questions about the decisions that Tom Renney has been making behind the Oilers bench.

There was an interesting article on The Copper and Blue after the Oilers' loss to the Sabres on January third. It's true that it's difficult to get the matchup that you want while on the road and getting players into the right circumstances can be tricky. Nevertheless, Renney's continuous deployment of his fourth line in the Buffalo game lead directly to the Oilers loss. It was as though he believed that the arrival of Josh Green on that line was somehow going to make it better, in spite of the evidence that he was witnessing in the game. Why Green (who finished the night a minus-4) wasn't stapled to the bench after the third goal is beyond comprehension.

Aside from that, there's the matter of ice time. Early in the year Renney clearly felt the need to shelter his young players with mostly offensive zone starts, and it seemed to be working because the team was winning. In fact, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and Hall still have the highest percentage of offensive zone starts among the regular forwards. There's nothing wrong with giving the kids the best opportunity to succeed, but the trouble is that the whole game isn't played under favorable circumstances; especially for a bad/young team.

Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall are obviously two of the Oilers' absolute best players, and they should receive ice time accordingly when it's deserved. Eberle is currently sitting in 6th among Oilers forwards in even strength ice time per game, even though he is clearly the most potent offensive threat. Taylor Hall is fourth. Predictably, Horcoff, Hemsky and Smyth are averaging more. But in what way is that coaching to win? Eberle and Hall have got to be handed the reigns at some point and be given more time to do their thing on the attack.


It's understandable to shelter Nugent-Hopkins because he is a raw rookie, and when he was playing with Hall and Eberle that meant the latter two were sheltered by default. Now that the rookie phenom is out for a month, it will be interesting to see how Renney distributes the ice time. The two games since RNH went out have not been encouraging. In those, Smyth played 18:33 and 23:31. Hemsky played 18:59 and 18:05.

Eberle played just 15:04 in Buffalo and 17:28 in St. Louis, while Hall was on the ice for 21:37 and 17:15.


I would be better able to understand giving ice time to the veterans over the young players if the team was winning, but it isn't. One way or another, something has got to change. Yes, the young players are still putting up points, but imagine what they could do with more time 5x5. Even if they get overwhelmed, is it going to be any worse than losing 14 of the last 20? At least if the win/loss ratio was exactly the same, we'd be more entertained.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

01/04/12 Hemsky to Florida?


Ales Hemsky was mentioned in The Hockey News' Rumor Roundup on Monday, as Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News thinks that Hemsky would be a good fit in Florida. If the time has come to trade the skilled winger, Florida very well could be the place. But what would be the return?

The Panthers have been getting a lot out of their top forwards this season, with their first line already combining for 105 points. Beyond Fleischmann, Versteeg and Weiss, however, the offensive well is bone dry. Their fourth-highest scoring forward is Tomas Kopecky with 15 points in 38 games. Adding John Madden may help a little, but the 38 year old had just 25 points in 76 games last year for the Wild. The Panthers need a scoring forward to help them end their playoff drought, and Ales Hemsky could be their man.

A Hemsky trade would give the Oilers the chance to bolster the blue line, and the Panthers may have just the player do help do that. Colby Robak is a 6-foot-3, 207 pound defender who went 46th overall to Florida in the Eberle Draft (2008).

Robak in an effective puck mover and a solid two-way defenseman who is honing his game in the American Hockey League. As an AHL rookie Robak posted 7-17-24, minus-12 in 76 games. This year he's improved to 5-14-19, plus-12 in just 33 games and was just named to the Western Conference All-Star Team.

The AHL states that "of the 562 players to take part in the AHL All-Star Classic since 1995, more than 93 percent have competed in the National Hockey League." There's a difference between competing in the NHL and being a difference-maker, but it's certainly a good sign for a 21 year old player like Robak.

His career stats can be found here. Notably, he put up a team-best plus-56 rating and 66 points in his last year with Brandon of the WHL. 

Robak may not be the answer for the Oilers by himself, but he has the look of a solid defense prospect and he's not far from the NHL. Any deal with the Panthers should be centered around this player because Hemsky does not have the value to fetch a top prospect like Gudbranson or Huberdeau.

It's looking more and more like Hemsky will be traded somewhere, so let the idle speculation begin!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

01/03/12 Trading The 2012 First Round Pick


That loss to Russia put the Oilers' loss earlier in the evening in perspective. It was a valiant effort by the Oilers on Tuesday despite fatigue and a depleted lineup, but this appears to be a team destined for another finish near the bottom. But could Edmonton trade the resulting high draft pick? And just as important: should they?

The young man pictured above on his draft day is Eric Lindros, who was selected first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991. After refusing to play in Quebec he was traded to Philadelphia for a monster package that was a big reason that Colorado won two Stanley Cups. Lindros, meanwhile, never won one.

In exchange for Lindros the Nordiques received:

Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, two first round picks (one of which became Jocelyn Thibault who was part of the package for Patrick Roy) and $15,000,000 cash.

Trades of that magnitude are probably a thing of the past; not least of all because it would be too difficult to balance out the cap hits. On the other hand, if a team were to trade Russian sniper Nail Yakupov, how much could they get for him?

Suppose for a moment that the Oilers drop all the way to 30th for a third straight year, or they finish in the bottom five and win the draft lottery. A lot would have to go right (or wrong, depending how you look at it), but the Oilers could find themselves in a position to draft a winger who is seen as a future superstar. Before going to the World Juniors, Yakupov had amassed 21-32-53 in just 26 games with Sania of the OHL, and he's also a plus-21.

But if one thing has been made clear over the course of this season, it's that the Oilers aren't one more sniper away from contending for a playoff spot. If the Oilers had the chance to get their hands on Yakupov, they may be better off trading him for a package of players and prospects that could help them in more ways than Yakupov could.

In fact, an argument could be made for trading any of the top rated forwards if they are the best available when Tambellini steps up to the podium in June. The Oilers need an array of help and they have good enough forwards to make this kind of move.

Every NHL team would love to have one of the forwards that will go high in this year's draft - including the Oilers - but if Edmonton can turn that forward into an actual NHL-calibre defense, then it's at least worth looking at. If by chance they have the first pick overall, the bounty could be all they need to round out this team.

Despite all that, it sure would be hard to pass on Yakupov after that performance against Canada in the WJC (and those numbers in Junior). All the Oilers' losing could eventually become a win-win. Maybe.