2008-09 Team Preview: Edmonton Oilers
Jimmy Jeong/Getty Images
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunPeople in Oil Country are pumped and they have reason to be.
The Edmonton Oilers look poised to make a big jump this season, thanks to a young core seasoned from last season's apprenticeship and the offseason additions of Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky upgrading an already dangerous offensive squad.
After missing the playoffs for two straight seasons after their surprising Cup finals run of 2006, the Oilers have a realistic shot at getting back into spring hockey. A lot will depend on how Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson fare in goal.
Oilers coach Craig MacTavish had the best seat in the house last season as the young-and-gun Oilers, particularly in the second half, began to jell as an offensive machine. Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano brought the fans out of their seats.
"We've always been competitive, but we've never seen the offense that we had last year for a while," MacTavish told ESPN.com. "Just the way the goals were being scored, it was pretty exciting hockey."
At only 18, Gagner surprised many by making the team out of camp and putting together a solid, 49-point season. The upside is through the roof. But can he avoid the sophomore jinx?
"When you get a guy like Sam and they have a destination in mind for themselves, they're just not going to be denied," said MacTavish. "He knows he's going to be a star player and that's the destination and he's going to do everything he can to get himself there ASAP."
The addition of lightning-fast Cole fits right into Edmonton's modus operandi. Look for him to partner up with Horcoff and Hemsky on a dangerous first line.
The Oilers shipped out the frustratingly inconsistent Joni Pitkanen to Carolina in the Cole deal and replaced him with a more polished version of the slick-skating, puck-moving defenseman they were looking for in Visnovsky (who has 166 post-lockout points).
"[Visnovsky] is tailor-made for the style of play that we foresee for our team," said MacTavish. "It's a puck-possession team that can make some plays and reboot the puck when you need to. You combine that with [Denis] Grebeshkov, [Tom] Gilbert and [Ladislav] Smid, who is still developing, and [Steve] Staios just continues to get better, and, of course, [Sheldon] Souray -- we're going to have a good defense."
Souray was almost a total write-off last season thanks to a shoulder injury. If he can stay healthy, talk about a lethal one-two punch on the power play with Visnovsky teeing up Souray's blast.
And don't forget about Grebeshkov, who, at 24, is just coming into his own.
"Grebeshkov is probably the guy that flies under the radar when you're talking about our younger guys," said MacTavish. "He's got great ability."
This is where the Oilers could leak. Garon had a breakthrough season in 2007-08, although he tailed off at the end. Roloson, who turns 39 on Oct. 12, had a disappointing year.
"We're looking for an improvement in Rollie and hopefully Garon can just play like he did last year," said MacTavish. "He ran into a little injury problem at the end. And then, we've got [Jeff] Deslauriers waiting in the wings. Kelly Buchberger had him in the minors and he was, in his mind, the best goalie in the American League. He's got all kinds of talent, too."
Because Deslauriers, 24, can't be sent down without clearing waivers, the Oilers may break camp with three goalies. Stay tuned on that one.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Edmonton was the addition of new GM Steve Tambellini to the front-office picture. It's not that now-team president Kevin Lowe wasn't doing a fine job in Edmonton (he'll still have his fingerprints all over the organization), but the team's new owner has given him the freedom to add to his front-office bench strength and Kevin wasted no time securing one of the best and brightest minds in the game.
The story in Edmonton continues to be its youth. Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Kyle Brodziak, Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov are budding stars in the making. Dustin Penner will also have a better season as he can settle down and play hockey rather than having to worry and talk about his monster offer sheet.
Newcomers Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky are great additions. Cole is one of the best competitors in the game and will provide leadership to the young forwards. He is all about heart and desire, and his work ethic will be contagious. Visnovsky will not only help with production from the back end, but also with grit and team toughness. A healthy Sheldon Souray will improve the blue line and power play. If the goaltending can hold up, look for the Oilers to be right in the thick of the race.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
• Oilers Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Search: Oilers IN REVIEW
• Record: 41-35-6
• Division: Fourth in the Northwest
• Conference: Ninth in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• There's nothing like a huge test right off the bat. The Oilers play 12 of their first 15 games of the season on the road. Crazy.
Experience: 7 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• MacTavish, one of the NHL's longest tenured coaches, begins his ninth season behind the Oilers' bench. The past two seasons tested him as his team went from Cup finalist to rebuilding squad. But MacTavish used those rebuilding years to mold his young core. Steeped in Oilers tradition, MacTavish bucks the trend of most modern-day NHL coaches by not trying to limit his team's offensive creativity in the name of a defense-first mentality. It's good ol' Oilers hockey and it's fun to watch.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Erik Cole
Arrived from Carolina via offseason trade. He's got 81 post-lockout goals, but must prove recent injuries haven't slowed him down.
F -- Shawn Horcoff
Entering his eighth season with the Oilers. Was on his way to a career season with 50 points in 53 games before a shoulder injury shot him down. Can he get to 80 points this season?
F -- Ales Hemsky
Entering his sixth season with Edmonton. Has led the Oilers in scoring three straight seasons and he's still only 25.
D -- Lubomir Visnovsky
Arrived from L.A. via offseason trade. Beginning the first season of a five-year, $28 million extension he signed in L.A.
D -- Steve Staios
Entering his seventh season with the Oilers. The unheralded 35-year-old is fearless and a great role model for his younger teammates.
Answer: In a division that has Roberto Luongo, Niklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff, the Garon/Roloson tandem doesn't look nearly as good on paper. But if Garon can duplicate last season's efforts and Roloson can have a bounce-back season in the twilight of his career, the Oilers should be OK.
Bust: Dustin Penner, LW: Penner falls from the first line to third line because of Erik Cole's arrival and coach Craig MacTavish's insistence on keeping the Kid Line intact.
Fantasy outlook: Edmonton has become a sexy pick to make the playoffs, and perhaps win the Northwest Division, because of the acquisitions of Cole and Visnovsky and the expected improvement of the Kid Line. A healthy Shawn Horcoff and Sheldon Souray will also help the Oilers make those predictions come true. Edmonton's major uncertainty is goaltending. Mathieu Garon, 30, took over the No. 1 job from Dwayne Roloson, 38, and the hottest hand will get the most starts this season. They'll be hard-pressed to improve upon Edmonton's fifth-worst goals-allowed total (251) last season. -- Jim Wilkie