Edmonton Oilers season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:34 PM ET
ESPN.com

Edmonton Oilers

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Everyone's been feeling sorry for the Oilers because players couldn't wait to get out of town at the end of their run to the Stanley Cup finals. Not having Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek and even Dick Tarnstrom along the Oilers' blue line certainly creates a pretty significant dilemma for coach Craig MacTavish. But what many people have overlooked is that the Oilers may not need anyone to play defense if the offense makes good on its potential.

Remember the days when the Oilers used to win 6-5 and never worried about having a team GAA over 4.00? Well, no team in the NHL will ice a more potentially potent forward group as the Oilers. And with stable goaltending, the kind that eluded them for most of last season, the defensive foibles that seem certain to plague them may be less dire than predicted. Even if the City of Champions has become the City of No Return.

Offense: Let's count the potential 25-goal scorers: Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Petr Sykora, Joffrey Lupul, Jarret Stoll, Fernando Pisani. OK, that's pretty good. No question, the Oilers will miss Pronger and his multifaceted game. But get over it. If the Oilers can use this offensive arsenal to get after opposing teams early in games, it will take a great deal of pressure off the defense. And with that much speed and talent rolling through the first three lines, the Oilers should not only create an abundance of scoring opportunities, but also draw a boatload of penalties. With Lupul, who is a 40-goal man waiting to happen, and the rest, the Oilers' power play should jump in efficiency from its 14th ranking a season ago. Marc-Andre Bergeron (35 points last season) will get lots of power-play time in the absence of Pronger and Spacek.

Defense: Having enjoyed success with a bona fide stud on the blue line, the Oilers will try and replicate the success of Carolina and Buffalo -- both teams also had success without such a player along their respective blue lines. The key will be in trying to move the puck quickly to the aforementioned speedy, talented forwards and keep opposing teams from exploiting a lack of depth along the Oilers' blue line. Steve Staios and Jason Smith will shoulder a significant burden in terms of ice time and leadership. They'll get some help from undervalued Daniel Tjarnqvist, who had a solid season in Minnesota. Those three will have to set the tone for youngsters Bergeron, Matt Greene and Ladislav Smid, who comes over in the Pronger deal and is a bit of an unknown. It's not what it was a season ago, but it's not as bad as people have suggested.

Goaltending: Part of the reason the defensive woes might not be as crucial is the presence of Dwayne Roloson and Jussi Markkanen. Roloson, of course, was on a collision course with a Conn Smythe Trophy (or at least a large portion of the playoff MVP vote) when he went down in Game 1 of the Cup finals. Markkanen came in and did yeoman service as the Oilers erased a 3-1 series deficit to force a seventh game vs. Carolina. If Roloson, in his first real starting role during the regular season after splitting time in Minnesota with Manny Fernandez, and Markkanen can provide the same level of goaltending they did in the playoffs, they will help ease the adjustment period for the new-look blue line.

Coaching: Craig MacTavish went from a guy ready for the high-dive three-quarters of the way through the season to a man with a long-term deal. A trip to the Stanley Cup finals raised MacTavish's stock dramatically and he should have little trouble getting people's attention in the dressing room this season. The challenge will be in instilling a belief that the defections of Pronger et al have nothing to do with them or their chances of success this season, but rather the results are up to them. The Devils had to contend with this dynamic early on last season after losing Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, and it was a difficult chore.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
6th The Oilers' past success in the face of failure (they made the playoffs during the last week of the regular season) should help them ride out some early bumps. They return to the postseason finishing second in the Northwest and sixth in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. Never mind the fact that some players (and/or their wives) found Edmonton uncomfortable, the city was insane with excitement over the Oilers' unexpected playoff run and that insanity will carry over into the coming campaign.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The offseason defections of Chris Pronger, Sergei Samsonov, Michael Peca and Jaroslav Spacek will hurt and might put The Oilers on the list of other season-after disappointments. Edmonton has cap room to make late-season reinforcements once again. It also has a quality goaltender (even for fantasy) in Dwayne Roloson and a deep offense that features Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Oilers:
1. Rob Schremp, 20, C, London (OHL)
Statline: 57 GP, 57 G, 88 A, 74 PIM
2. M.A. Pouliot, 21, C, Hamilton (AHL)
Statline: 65 GP, 15 G, 30 A, 63 PIM
3. Andrew Cogliano, 19, C, Michigan (CCHA)
Statline: 39 GP, 12 G, 16 A, 38 PIM
4. Devan Dubnyk, 20, G, Kamloops (WHL)
Statline: 27-26-1 record, 2.54 GAA, .912 SV%
5. J.F. Jacques, 21, LW, Hamilton (AHL)
Statline: 65 GP, 24 G, 20 A, 131 PIM
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Edmonton Oilers
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record41-28-13 (95 points)
DivisionFinished third in Northwest
ConferenceFinished eighth in West
PlayoffsLost 4-3 to Carolina in Cup finals

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Rob Schremp
It might be a long shot, especially given the Oil's offensive depth, but the 20-year-old had 145 points as a junior last season and is a talent.
Winger: Alexei Mikhnov
He's one of the lesser players who "escaped" the Russian elite league in the same fashion as Evgeni Malkin (except with a lot less cloaking and daggering). The 24-year-old is 6-foot-5 and an unknown quantity, at least for the moment.
Defense: Ladislav Smid
Speaking of unknown quantities, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Smid may be the dark horse in the Pronger trade. Lupul we know about, but if Smid can eat up some quality minutes, then the Pronger deal isn't as hard to stomach.
Goalie: Dwayne Roloson
Roloson returned much more quickly than expected from knee surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in the playoffs. He will, however, turn 37 early in the season and MacTavish must not wear him out.

Key Moves
When you trade the best defenseman in hockey, that's a key move. Signing Daniel Tjarnqvist late in the going was a nice, underappreciated move. The Oilers won't miss Sergei Samsonov, who never really quite fit in. And in spite of his popularity, Georges Laraque's departure opens up another spot for a young player, likely J.F. Jacques.

SportsNation
Rating the Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers finished eighth in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Oilers in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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