Oilers May Be Ahead of Schedule

The Edmonton Oilers were the last team to get its season started, but the opponent Sunday night could not have been more appropriate.

The Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Rexall Place coming off road wins against the “better” western Canadian teams, Vancouver and Calgary. To qualify, the Pens were without Evgeni Malkin on Sunday, who is apparently suffering from a lower-body injury. Of course Sidney Crosby was also out, as he has been for a long time despite the inane daily questions about his return. Marc-Andre Fleury was spelled by backup netminder Brent Johnson.

But the actual game was well-played by both teams, and it was something of a measuring stick for the rebuilding Oilers, who make it difficult to not compare them with those Penguins of the mid-2000s. That team was famously bad for a good while, which allowed them to draft in consecutive summers:

2003: Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall)
2004: Evgeni Malkin (second overall)
2005: Sidney Crosby (first overall)
2006: Jordan Staal (second overall)

The Penguins grew together and let their stars mature, and the results turned around strikingly quick. The team of course made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08, and won the Cup the following season. Most pundits agree that a hockey team is better off being strong down the middle of the ice than on the outside (if you have to pick only one), and having three centers of the ilk of Malkin, Crosby and Staal was something that proved to be a winning formula.

Fast forward a few years and we take a look at the Edmonton Oilers. The team has been locked in various levels of the basement since making that stunning run to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2005-06. That run was led by Chris Pronger, who was granted a trade to Anaheim just weeks after the Oilers lost Game 7 to Carolina. Pronger and the Ducks went on to win the Cup the very next season, while the Oilers finished 25 points out of fourth place in the division.

The awfulness that has taken place on the ice in Edmonton since has not been without some silver lining though. Being very bad means drafting very high, and here’s what the Oilers have done with their first-round picks since that dreadful season of 2006-07:

2007: Sam Gagner (6th overall)
2008: Jordan Eberle (22nd overall)
2009: Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (10th overall)
2010: Taylor Hall (1st overall)
2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall)

All five of these players are still with the Oilers, and the most recent four all played Sunday night against the Penguins. Nugent-Hopkins scored a backhanded rebound to tie the game with under five minutes to go. The assist went to Hall, who was very threatening throughout the game, although was unable to beat Brent Johnson with any of his team-leading five shots on goal. The Oil’s version of Crosby and Malkin skated together through much of the game with fellow former first-rounder Ales Hemsky (13th overall in 2001), who has long been Edmonton’s best scoring threat when healthy, and accounted for the shootout winner.

You may notice that unlike the run of high picks in Pittsburgh, there was no goaltender on this list of depression era first-rounders in Edmonton. That’s because Sunday night’s winning tender was selected by the Oilers in 2004 with the 14th overall pick. Devan Dubnyk finally got his shot to work the crease on an opening night, and he was nothing short of excellent, allowing just one goal — an early power play blast by Kris Letang. Dubnyk spent last season playing in far too few games thanks to the big money contract on the books for Nikolai Khabibulin, who played 47 games to the tune of an embarrassing .890 save percentage to go along with a 3.40 GAA and a 10-32-4 record.

Conversely, Dubnyk made the most of his 35 starts by posting a respectable .916 save % to go with a slimmed down 2.71 GAA and a record of 12-13-8. Based on the numbers of each goalie, there is absolutely no case that can be made for Khabibulin getting a 47-35 split. None. It was insane then, it is insane now, and it will be insane if Dubnyk isn’t given at least 50 starts this season. The Wall may have only been starting because of his contract figures, but the outcome wasn’t necessarily bad for Edmonton, as his league-worst numbers allowed them to lose the games necessary to end up with the top overall pick (Nugent-Hopkins), which just happened to save the day last night and will be a huge factor in determining whether the Oilers are able to follow the blueprint left by those Penguins.

I’m not saying that Edmonton is going to win the Stanley Cup in the next three seasons, or even make the playoffs this year, but they have the high-end pieces in place that allows them to have a higher potential ceiling than teams that are forced to develop stars out of lesser draft picks. When healthy, Hemsky is one of the best scoring right wings in the league. We don’t know how good Hall and Nugent-Hopkins will be or how quickly they’ll get there, but last night showed more than just flashes of brilliance.

And on defense, the team is still awaiting the return of their smooth-skating high point total man Ryan Whitney, who coincidentally was a high draft pick himself: fifth overall in 2002 by, yep, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whitney was traded during the season that the Pens went on to win the Cup, but he was a solid part of their resurgence. In his absence, normal playing partner Tom Gilbert will have to step his game up much like Dan Girardi will for the Rangers in the absence of Marc Staal. Big minutes, blocked shots, solid checking and offensive support are the plan for Gilbert, and I think the big man can cover the void just fine for a while. The promoted man in Whitney’s absence is Theo Peckham, who is a physical fan’s delight. Peckham’s offensive game is not much to speak of, but he is the kind of defenseman that makes opposing forwards no longer eager to play against Edmonton, and every team needs a guy like that.

A final parallel to the Penguins of old is the fact that the Oilers are in the midst of a very important deal for a new arena. The waters have been muddied, but most in the know expect the deal to get done sometime soon. Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun wrote a very good article detailing the situation, and how Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz may be a hindrance to the deal getting done by using bully tactics. I’m not going to pretend to know Katz or anything about what’s going on upstairs, but the Jones article is a recommended read for those interested.

I very much enjoyed the Penguins – Oilers game last night, and expect both teams to deliver a lot of entertaining hockey this year and for years to come.

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