The big question in Edmonton is the same question the team has faced every year since the 2005-2006 season. The question is whether the Edmonton Oilers will make the playoffs or not this year.
Reasons They Will Make the Playoffs
After missing the playoffs for the past 3 seasons, something had to give in Edmonton. They had the world’s first mutual firing of longtime head coach Craig MacTavish and quickly hired Pat Quinn (and Tom Reeney) to replace him. I like this move and I think Oilers fans will rejoice in the coaching change. No offense to Mac-T on this one, but he had clearly lost the dressing room and the team seemed very out of sync towards the end of the season last year. Quinn will bring new life to the team and will create higher levels of accountability for each player.
Up front, I think the Oilers have a tremendous level of skill. Their top 9 forwards are as fast as any team in the Western Conference and at the very least, this should keep their games entertaining to watch. Among forwards, the players to watch will be Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner. Cogliano and Gagner both regressed last season after making large impacts in their rookie seasons two years ago. They’re also both RFA’s at the end of the year so I’m expecting them both to put up solid seasons. This counts double for Sam Gagner, who really, really struggled last year. Dustin Penner, a.k.a The Enigma, is entering a true make-it-or-break-it season. He’s the big man up front and with all of Edmonton’s skill, he can be that player that cleans up in front of the net and scores tons of garbage goals. If Penner can do his best Dino Ciccarelli impression, Edmonton fans will forget all about the disappointment of his past few seasons. I think Penner will benefit tremendously from the coaching change. It seemed like Penner was getting publically called out every few weeks last year, so a clean slate will be a nice change for him. I also think he plays at his best with a chip on his shoulder, and that whole Dany Heatley saga this summer should provide adequate fuel for that fire.
Reasons They Won’t Make the Playoffs
Looking at Edmonton’s blueline, it looks pretty strong. Their top 4 include Sheldon Souray and a healthier Lubomir Visnovsky. Tom Gilbert is coming off a strong season and Ladislav Smid may just be one of the best kept secrets of the Western Conference. Injuries will play a key factor, especially if Souray or Visnovsky get hurt and miss significant amounts of time, as the depth of the Oilers defense isn’t quite as deep as other teams in the west. This could put the playoffs out of reach, as it’s worth noting that Edmonton have 5 road trips of at least 4 games in length this year. Their top 4 blueliners log huge amounts of icetime and unless Edmonton can remain extremely healthy, it could make for a really rough season.
My other main concern is the lack of size for Edmonton’s forwards. I was puzzled by the signing of Mike Comrie because it seemed like they already had too many small players. Comrie is one of 5 players who are 5’11” or smaller and play on the top 3 lines. And this doesn’t count Shawn Horcoff or Ales Hemsky, which makes me wonder how much punishment these small forwards can take. Aside from Penner, I’m not sure who will play enough minutes to be able to competently stand up for the little guys. Again, with so many lengthy road trips, these smaller forwards will need to keep their heads up and their feet moving.
This will be tough to read if you’re an Oilers fan, so I’m sorry in advance. Honestly, it’s not that the Oilers aren’t talented enough to be in the playoffs – I think talent-wise, they’re there. The problem is the depth of the Western Conference. You can break the teams up into three different groups (in not particular order):
Playoff Bound: Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver
On the Bubble: Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, L.A., Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis
Golfing in May: Colorado, Phoenix
The top 6 teams in the West are virtual locks to make the playoffs. Then you’ve got your ‘bubble teams’. Of those teams, I think most people, myself included, are expecting St. Louis to get back into the playoffs this year, and I think Columbus will get in as well. When you look at the teams Edmonton are competing against, it’s hard to imagine one of the aforementioned clubs not making the post-season. The bottom-line is that Edmonton are going to need to have a terrific season just to out-do one of those teams and make the playoffs. If there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that the race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be an absolute battle-royale in the Western Conference. Perhaps the Oilers should rent Top Gun to learn how to dog fight, because that’s what it’s going to take. Ultimately, I think the Oilers will remain in the hunt until the end of the regular season, but I just can’t see them squeezing past teams like St. Louis or Columbus.
Your Reporter in the Field,