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

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

09/03/14 Forecasting the Oilers' 2014-15

It's prediction time! I reserved my judgement on the Oilers' off season movements until this late time in order to evaluate the full picture. Here's yet another writer's predictions for what's in store for the Oilers in the coming year.

As we've all had plenty of time to digest the various additions and subtractions that the Oilers and their counterparts have made, I'm going to try to steer away from boring you with yet another rundown of all the gory details. Rather, today I'm going to focus on what seems to be a concerning underlying strategy for building this team.

It seems, to an outsider at least, that no matter who is actually at the helm of our beloved Edmonton hockey club, a certain blind optimism runs deep. It's not the first time this has been talked about, as this tweet from Jonathan Willis back in June of 2012 illustrates. It was the final year of Steve Tambellini's tenure as general manager, and then, as now, the organization went into the year with fingers and toes crossed that everything would go right for them.

"Basically, if everything goes right the Oilers are golden on 'D'. But planning for the best case scenario is a bad way to run a team" - Jonathan Willis, June 2012 

Back then, it was a shaky defense that was the obvious Achilles heel for the team. If everybody performed up to their maximum potential, it was possible that the personnel on the back end would be good enough. Of course, they didn't and they weren't.

The defense isn't all the way there yet, but now it's the center depth that is of greatest concern. Once again, we're heading into a season knowing that the team is simply too thin at a critical position for it to compete.

I'm fully on board with the notion that Sam Gagner was not and may never be the solution to a team's need for a second line center, and it's clear that things in Edmonton were becoming strained. I'm not down on Teddy Purcell, either. Still, it's a bit strange to deal Gagner with no backup plan in sight, and at his lowest value ever. Some argue (with some truth) that Gagner is not really a center at all, but he's shown more at the position than most of the current alternatives.

The addition of Leon Draisaitl makes this situation a tad easier to swallow, but he is an entirely unknown quantity at the NHL level. The Oilers gambled on a young fresh-from-the-draft center once before and were rewarded in the short term,  but that same stunted player was just pushed out the door in order to repeat the process all over again.

As it stands now, the Oilers are one Nugent-Hopkins injury away (God forbid) from a wasteland up the middle. And regardless of the Nuge's health, we know that over a long season there will be slumps and setbacks with nothing but question marks to pick up the slack.


The most obvious name here was David Legwand, who was willing to take a two year, $6 million deal in a Canadian market. Derek Roy or Mike Ribiero might also have worked in a pinch. Of course, it's impossible to know all the ins-and-outs of signing players like this, or how hard the Oilers looked at them, if at all.

One thing that we can be sure of, however, is that the Oilers didn't necessarily need the big blockbuster move to fill a need at the center position. The idea should simply have been to buy time for Draisaitl to develop and be impactful later, rather than expecting him to fill a major role today. If it was a priority, it could have been done.

Despite Kevin Lowe's statement that they expect to be in the conversation for 7th or 8th in the West - a leap over six or seven teams - most observers feel that that's not realistic. With all the pitfalls that we've seen in Edmonton when it comes to rushing players straight from the draft, why fall into that trap yet again on a season that is unlikely to mean anything in the long run?

Other Areas Of Concern 

I recognize that there have been major improvements to the Oilers, despite the fact that I may sound like I'm piling on a heaping helping of negativity. The defense should no longer be nearly as shaky as it has been lately; the wings are nearly as solid as you can get; and even if the addition of analytics doesn't put the Oilers over the top, it will at least ensure that they don't fall behind the rest of the NHL. These are all good, positive steps.

However, the other area of concern is in goal.

A huge portion of the Oilogophere (including me) backed Devan Dubnyk last season, and got burned by his performance. That's nothing compared to Oilers management, which came to more or less the same conclusion and then watched the season promptly fall apart.

Ben Scrivens showed enormous upside last season, but he still has 67 fewer games in an NHL net than Dubnyk did heading into 2013-14. Scrivens is certainly preferable to a player like Jonas Hiller, and I hope that he continues to round into an NHL starter, but many more games will be needed to determine that with any certainty.

Where Will They End Up?

Offensively, the Oilers boast numerous elite players. But it's hard to say how much Hall, Eberle and The Nuge can improve on last season's point totals, at 80, 65 and 56 points respectively. Even with those numbers and a surpsingly strong season from Perron, the team was near the bottom of the league in goals. Can they put it together this year and start blowing the competition out of the water?

This is where the lack of center depth becomes a big concern, especially if Nugent-Hopkins misses any time (please, no).

Calgary should be a gimme for the bottom of the West this year, but even tenth could be pushing it unless everything goes according to plan. There are always one or two teams that surprise with how bad they finish - lately the Oilers have been one of them every season. The reason is that they always look good on paper going into the grueling 82, but they can't survive the curve balls that come their way.

My worry is that this year will be no different.

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