10/11 finish: 62 points, Dead last
Key Players: Hemsky, Horcoff, Whitney, Eberle, Hall
Additions: Sutton, Eager, Barker, Smyth, Hordichuk, Belanger, RNH
Subtractions: MacIntyre, Reddox, Fraser, Stortini, Jacques, Foster, Vandermeer
Cap Position: About $8M in space
Projected finish: in the conference’s bottom four
It’s neither rivalry nor spite that compels me to say the Oilers are – or at least were – awful. They’ve been the worst unit in the entire NHL for two years running and were only marginally better than that for several seasons prior. The period between Edmonton’s unlikely cup run and now has been the gloomiest valley for a franchise that experienced a lot of peaks in it’s history. One wonders how long the city’s memories of former glory will continue to sell hope for the club and it’s decision makers.
The high water mark for Edmonton last year came in game one, when they defeated a sleepy and hapless Flames team 4-0. A lesson in extrapolating from small samples, Oilers fans and journalists alike were agog at the sight of Jordan Eberle stick-handling through sprawling blueliners and roofing it against an apparently defenseless Kiprusoff. "The Future is now!" seemed to be the theme echoing in the ears of Edmonton’s aging rivals.
The wheels fell off for Shelbyville pretty quickly after that. By January, half the roster was injured and Oiler fans began to take a particular interest in Red Deer Rebels games. With the likes of Horcoff, Hemsky and Whitney on the shelf with long-term ailments, Edmonton’s line-up got younger and thinner – an impressive feat for one that was already amongst the youngest and thinnest in the league. Then most of the kids got injured. ‘Twas a mediocre AHL team taking the ice in Oilers jersey’s by the end of the year.
As a result, the club was legitimately bad from just about every angle. They scored the fewest goals in the West (193), had the lowest GD in the league (-76). Their shots/fenwick/corsi ratios were .459/.455/.463. They were the only team to record less than 30 wins in 82 games (25). They would have to improve by 20-points just to finish 13th in the west. It’s a long road back to respectability.
Aiding Tambellini in his rebuilding efforts (read: dive to the bottom) was the continued obsolesce of his once highly celebrated signing, Nikolai Khabibulin. Since being inked to a four year, $15M +35 contract, The crumbling Bulin Wall has easily been one of the worst puck stoppers in the entire league. That is, when he hasn’t been injured or committing felonies, of course. Because NHL GM’s aren’t the most frugal lot there is always a few candidates for "worst recent signing", but the Khabibulin gambit has to remain one of the least laudable in recent memory. His age, the price paid, the length of the deal, the evidence of his medicority and the availability of other, cheaper options rendered that acquisition a grand error the second the ink was dry on the paperwork.
There are some rare blossoms of good news poking up through the wreackage for Oilers fans though. Eberle and Hall are already two of the best forwards on the team and they’re only now taking their first few uncertain steps in the league. The club should improve this season through their youngsters natural progression; doubly so if the team can remain relatively healthy (although that has become the Oilers eternal lament in the post-lock-out NHL for whatever reason).
The summer acquisitions of Belanger and Smyth add a couple more quality, ES veteran players to a line-up that needs them like Glen Sather needs a stern accountant. I don’t have much time for a guy like Ben Eager, frankly, but he’s a better approximation of an NHL-caliber hockey player than the lumbering Steve MacIntyre ever was, so there’s a bit more to the bottom of the rotation as well.
Finally, Devan Dubnyk wasn’t on a lot of calder lists this off-season, but he did manage to usurp the doddering Khabibulin by the end of the year. If he plays 60+ games and can maintain a mediocre-but-still-vastly-superior-to-the-incumbent ES SV% of .920, Dubnyk could save the club more than 20 goals against.
It’s probable the Oilers bottomed-out last year and are in for a bit of a regression back to the mean in 2011-12. The enduring, repeated failure has netted the club some kids worth talking about and there has also been some decent additions to the roster besides.
They still need to improve vastly in order to be merely bad, so I think we’re still a few seasons away from the Oilers triumphant return to league’s upper echelon – a future assumed fated in some circles but one that remains more than uncertain currently. That said, if Edmonton manages to finish ahead of a few clubs this year, including one or more of their NW division rivals, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked.