After finishing dead last in the NHL for two consecutive seasons, expectations regarding the Edmonton Oilers heading into the 2011-2012 campaign are fairly low. The Oilers suffered a number of injuries to key players last year, including a shoulder injury to team-star Ales Hemsky, which limited him to only 47 games. Captain Shawn Horcoff also played in 47 contests due to a persistent knee problem, and former Stanley Cup winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin missed a number of games with nagging back issues. Khabibulin was also involved in some legal troubles regarding a DUI charge. The Oilers have undoubtedly had a dismal go of things the last few years, but the team must forget about their past failures and look forward to a season that could finally bring an end to their losing reputation.
There will be a battle as to who starts in net. Last year’s starting net-minder, Khabibulin, should be recovered from his common injury problems but the Oil might decide to give the starting job to youngster and former first round draft choice Devan Dubnyk.
This off-season, General Manager Steve Tambellini aqcuired two defensemen who may or may not fit into the Oilers’ long-term plans. Tambellini traded Kurtis Foster along with his hammer of a slap-shot to the Anaheim Ducks for Andy Sutton and his anvil-like body checks.
Sutton is feared in the corners and in open-ice, while remaining solid defensively in his own end. The Oilers also signed former 2004 third overall pick of Chicago, defenseman Cam Barker after he was placed on waivers by the Minnesota Wild. Edmonton is hoping Barker will find the offensive flair and defensive stability that Hawks scouts saw in 2004.
Sticking with the team after last season will be assistant captain and top defenseman Ryan Whitney. Whitney was injured for most of last seasons, but still managed to post 25 assists in just 35 games played. The two-way d-man will look to duplicate his stellar point-per-game numbers starting in game one of the regular season.
Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, and tough customer Theo Peckham will shore up the top six defense men. Providing a stable alternate option on the back-end is former Michigan State University Captain Jeff Petry. Petry had a fairly solid showing in the 35 games he played for the Oilers near the end of last year.
The most exciting part of the 2011-2012 Oilers is their offensive line-up. Edmonton is now faced with converting that excitement into wins this coming season. The team could ice two number one overall picks in their top-six group of forwards, but in all likely hood CHL All-Star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will return to his junior team in Red Deer, Alberta.
Even without the prized prospect, the Oilers will boast a projected top-line made up of former 35-goal scorer and fan favorite Ryan Smyth, face-off ace and Team Captain Shawn Horcoff and a forward Joe Sakic once called the most skilled player in the NHL, Ales Hemsky. Horcoff, once a Hobey Baker finalist in the CCHA, took Edmonton to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 as he posted 19 points in 24 games skating as the Oilers’ top center during that run. Since that run in 2006, the Oilers lost Raffi Torres, Fernando Pisani, Sergei Samsonov, Michael Peca and a number of other key contributors from that season. Now the team has been taken over by the NHL’s youth movement.
The Oilers’ second line will be made up of 2010 number one pick Taylor Hall, 2007 sixth-overall selection Sam Gagner, and right winger Jordan Eberle, former 2010 World Junior Championship MVP. Together the Horcoff and Gagner lines make up a formidable one-two punch that should challenge any given team on any given night.
Edmonton also has a solid third line headed by veteran center Eric Belanger, two-way left winger Ryan Jones and smooth skating sophomore Magnus Paajarvi. The Oilers will have a rough-and-tumble fourth line no matter the coach’s roster decision on game day as the team signed both Ben Eager, Chicago’s Stanley Cup winning enforcer, as well as Darcy Hordichuk who has put up 1,074 penalty minutes in 495 career games.
Head coach Tom Renney will look to bring the Northwest team to the post-season for the first time since 2006. Renney began work in Edmonton in 2009 as an associate coach. He was immediately given the top job after Pat Quinn stepped down following the 2009-2010 year. Renney must control the youthful team’s tendencies to attempt dangerous plays while allowing the players’ skill to shine through the team’s structured veil.
The Edmonton Oilers should challenge for a top eight spot in the western conference if the team can reach its potential. In an episode of CBC’s Coach’s Corner, Jack Adams winner Don Cherry expressed his concern that the Oilers were becoming content with their losing ways. Citing the Florida Panthers, Cherry warned that come the 2011-2012 season the Oilers must be unsatisfied as one of the NHL’s bottom-feeding teams. The veteran presence of Shawn Horcoff, the return of Ryan Smyth, and a full season from Ales Hemsky will help bring stability to the team’s lineup and hopefully bring a playoff contender to the City of Champions.