Thursday, April 23, 2009

For Now, This is Our Playoffs

Horcoff, Roloson to lead on Team Canada

With the Edmonton Oilers on the outside looking in -- for the third year straight -- the attention of Oilers fans should now be shifting toward the World Championships.

The World Championships have long been treated as Oilers brass as a stand-in for playoff hockey. And perhaps for good reason. The World Championship of Hockey are as close as hockey offers to a best-on-best format outside of the Olympics or the World Cup.

Horcoff and Roloson are two of just nine veteran team Canada hands on this year's squad, which favours youth over experience, yet somehow left Sam Gagner off the team.

Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff will certainly be looking toward Horcoff and Roloson to play leading roles on the team. Roloson is the most experienced goaltender in the tournament. For now he shares the crease with Josh Harding of the Predators and Chris Mason of the St Louis Blues.

While the World Championships may lack the glitz and glamour of the Stanley Cup playoffs, national pride is still on the line, which makes it all the more important for Canadians to watch, even despite the early-morning time slots of the games.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Garth Snow, Are You Listening?

According to Johnathon Tavares, one of his favourite players growing up was Patrick O'Sullivan.

If New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow decides to hold on to the first overall pick and draft Tavares, a trade for O'Sullivan seems like a good way to welcome his new superstar to town.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who's Next?

With Craig MacTavish clearing out his desk at Northlands Colliseum, it would be incredibly unjust if he were departing the team alone.

Some of the players should, like MacTavish, be finding themselves with new teams next season. Unlike MacTavish, some of them may not be fortunate enough to land on their feet.

Player to leave - Robert Nilsson

After spending two seasons on the Oilers' second line, Robert Nilsson has yet to exceed 10 goals in a season. That would be acceptable from a third-line player. Not from someone with ambitions to play on the second line.

Nilsson has a tremendous skill set. What he sorely lacks is a work ethic to compliment it. Like his father Kent Nilsson, Robbie Nilsson is best described as a "floater" -- someone who would rather give up the puck than take a hit to make a play.

With no Mark Messier on the team to coerce him into playing the gritty, hard-working style that is so necessary for NHL success, Nilsson should be considered a lost cause.

He's a cheerful guy -- he always seems to be smiling, and seems to really enjoy life. But in the NHL you don't reach the 30- or 40-goal plateau -- something Nilsson should be aspiring to, given his skill set -- by grinning your opponents into submission. Players have to be willing to grimace a little bit and fight their way into the slot.

If Nilsson isn't willing to do this, the Oilers need a player who will.

His ideal replacement - Jordan Eberle

Jordan Eberle will do precisely that, and he has a World Junior Championship gold medal that proves it.

When Sam Gagner arrived on the Edmonton Oilers last season, he did so in the wake of a dominating performance at the Canada/Russia Super Series.

Jordan Eberle is coming of a dominating performance of his own at the Juniors, and 74 points (36 goals, 39 assists) for the Regina Pats. To round off his list of accomplishments for the year, he briefly joined the Springfield Falcons and scored nine points (three goals, six assists) in the same number of games.

As his already-legendary goal against Russia in the dying seconds of the semi-final game against Russia demonstrates, Eberle is a clutch player the likes of which the Oilers haven't had at forward since the departure of Mike Comrie.

Player to leave - Dustin Penner

As Don Cherry noted in a recent coaches corner segment, the Oilers have lacked one important thing: grit. The Don argued that the Oilers haven't been a hard team to play against, and it would be hard to disagree with him.

When it comes to grit, it's hard to overlook the presence of a big player who all too often declines to play physically. One of the knocks against Penner is that he doesn't have a pronounced enough mean streak. It's been said that Penner should be the kind of player that an opponent thinks twice about going into the corner with because no one knows what he's going to do.

(In actuality, players should think twice about going into the corners with a player like Penner because they know what he's going to do -- hit them very, very hard.)

Penner was supposed to be the Oilers' prized new power forward -- they certainly gave up enough to get him, and paid him amply. Penner was supposed to be a big-bodied, hard-working player with excellent hands to boot. Instead, Penner turned in one good season -- 25 goals in 2007/08 -- before turning into an extremely disappointing player.

While another chance shouldn't be ruled out based on past success -- that 25-goal season shouldn't be forgotten, nor should his Stanley Cup ring -- a question remains regarding whether or not the Oilers would be able to find a trade partner willing to take Penner off their hands.

His ideal replacement - Ryan Smyth

If the Oilers need more grit from a skilled player, Ryan Smyth fits the bill.

Smyth will do absolutely anything necessary to win a hockey game. And while his will to pay the price to play where ugly goals are scored is his greatest strength, many people all too often forget that Smyth is very skilled player as well. He doesn't do so nearly as often as a Hemsky, but Ryan Smyth can score pretty goals, too.

It would take a very attractive package to convince the Avalanche to part ways with Smyth. Although with Joe Sakic probably set to retire this year, the Avalanche will probably be in need of some skilled forwards, particularly centremen.

While Robbie Schremp has never cracked the NHL as an Oiler, it's hard to believe that a team like the Avalanche wouldn't take a look at his skill set and think he might be worth gambling on.

A Penner-Nilsson-O'Sullivan-Schremp package would provide the promise of a blockbuster, and the Oilers would at least secure considerable insurance should Ales Kotalik decide not to return to the Oilers.

But for the likelihood of this particular deal being possible without requiring a significant portion of the Oilers future in return -- something along the lines of Sam Gagner or Andrew Cogliano -- this is probably just wishful thinking. For all the good it would do, the Oilers would be better off pursuing the Islanders' first-overall draft pick.

At least then they'd be making Brian Burke mad.

Player to leave - Patrick O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan will be a Restricted Free Agent this summer. But with only six points (two goals, four assists) in 19 games with the Oilers, he may not be worth re-signing.

At 5'11" at 190 pounds, O'Sullivan doesn't bring any of the grit to the team that the Oilers sorely need. This is a player who simply has to score, but failed to deliver.

As part of a package deal, O'Sullivan could bring a considerable return.

His ideal replacement - Todd Marchant

With the departures of Marty Reasoner and Jarret Stoll, Shawn Horcoff was left alone as the Oilers' lone reliable face-off man.

One look at the Oilers' face off numbers this year reveals this particular glaring inadequacy in their game.

By adding the 35-year-old Marchant the Oilers would certainly be taking on some age -- generally not the best idea if it can be avoided. But the Oilers would also be adding a surplus of experience (including the Stanley Cup experience they'd be giving up in ditching Penner), and bringing back a player who remembers what it's supposed to mean to be an Oiler.

It would also add another player with clutch play credibility. Marchant's Dallas Stars-killing goal in game seven of the 1997/98 opening playoff round remains the stuff of Oilers legend.

He can probably get back to the 20-goal plateau again if reunited with Ethan Moreau.

Player to leave - Marc-Antoine Pouliot

Pouliot has a tremendous skill set, but seems to be missing something. It's becoming increasingly evident that Sidney Crosby amplified Pouliot's playing ability to a significant degree during their time together in Rimouski. Perhaps the Penguins would be willing to consider a Pouliot/Crosby reunion, or the Wild may want to see if he can help spark the long-expected emergence of his brother Benoit.

But the Oilers shouldn't expect too much in return for this player. He's simply too marginal to be worth making a long-term investment in.

His ideal replacement - Dean McAmmond

A capable face-off man who excels in defensive-zone faceoffs, McAmmond could come in handy for a team with a bad habit of giving up the puck in the D-zone. At 36 McAmmond would continue a trend of adding more age to this team -- himself, Marchant and Jason Strudwick could form something of an old mans' club -- but his solid defensive skills have long been incredibly unappreciated.

In fact, McAmmond has bounced around the NHL as a player who was often probably unnecessary to make the deal. Calgary sent him off to Colorado as a bonus in the Morris/Dury deal, just as the Oilers paired him with Boris Mironov as part of their deal for Dan Cleary and Chad Kilger. He was also victimized by a rule forbidding teams from re-acquiring players they'd too recently traded when the Flames picked up back up at the 2003/04 trade deadline, only to be forced to bench him during their memorable playoff run.

Currently earning $900,000, McAmmond can be secured relatively cheaply. He's also another player who should remember what it's supposed to mean to be an Oiler. With the team in the state it's currently in, that may be as good a reason as any to bring him back.

Player to leave - Robbie Schremp

Parting is sweet sorrow. For many Oilers fans, seeing Schremp depart to another NHL club would be fairly sweet. For those who can appreciate his stellar skill set, it would be sorrowful.

Schremp will be 23 on the day the 2009 free agency period begins. Under the current CBA, Schremp can delcare himself an unrestricted free agent at age 27.

If Schremp hasn't made the Oilers for a full-time gig yet, it may be better to ship him away to a team that will play him. At least then the Oilers will receive something back for this considerable asset.

Oilers fans probably shouldn't be nearly so eager to see Schremp depart, but this is a matter of simple pragmatism. Having an unbelievably talented player like Schremp languish in the AHL doesn't do the Oilers any good. Seeing as how the club apparently won't play him, they may as well trade him.

Regardless of who stays and who goes, Oilers fans should expect the team to look very different next year. More toughness, passion and defensive reliability are sorely needed to temper the team's youth up front.

The Oilers will likely be slightly older next year, but hopefully they'll be ready to reestablish the team identity that has been sorely lacking this season.

Whomever is suiting up for the Oilers next season, fans have the right to expect those players will be willing to work hard for the privilege.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It Had to Happen

Oilers need a change

"We both agree that it is time for a change," said Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini today, as he explained why the Oilers have chosen to fire head coach Craig MacTavish.

"This is the right thing for Craig, and the right thing for the Edmonton Oilers," Tambellini explained. "This does not absolve the players and their performance, or lack thereof."

This should set the laundry list of Oilers who have yet to live up to expectations of them -- Dustin Penner, Robert Nilsson, and Marc-Antoine Pouliot chief among them.

And while MacTavish's firing has been seen on the horizon since the Oilers' disastrous home loss to the Buffalo Sabres, when Oilers fans chanted "fire MacTavish", Oilers fans should be less than jubilant about MacTavish's departure.

Oilers fans have enjoyed a surprlus of say into the personnel of the team over the past several seasons, with questionable results. Oilers fans demanded the removal of Marc-Andre Bergeron, and wound up with Denis Grebeshkov. Oilers fans demanded Joffrey Lupul receive his walking papers, and the Oilers briefly enjoyed the services of Joni Pitkanen before experiencing disappointing experiences with Erik Cole and, now, Patrick O'Sullivan. Oilers fans demanded to be rid of Mike Comrie and have yet to see much in return -- Jeff Woywytka was traded to St Louis in the eternally disappointing Chris Pronger deal, and Robbie Schremp continues to languish in the minors.

If Oilers fans continue to make demands regarding the team's personnel and management continues to grant them, Oilers fans will, at some point, have to face up to the reality that they've been given the team they wanted. If that team turns out to be less than successful, Oilers fans will have to share in the blame.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

Don Sinclair - "Oilers Let MacTavish Go"

All Oil... All the Time! - "Craig MacTavish is Out!"

Jonathon Willis - "Craig MacTavish Relieved of Coaching Duties"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Exercise in Self-Deception

Contrary to what the Oilers website may have to say about the matter, the Los Angeles Kings did not kill the Oilers' playoff hopes.

The Oilers themselves did.

In a game in which the Oilers were fighting just to keep their very narrow playoff hopes alive, the Oilers did the precise opposite of what Craig MacTavish had told them to do. Instead of coming out flying, they came out ill-prepared and gave up the goal that effectively ended their season before the game was even four minutes old.

As they have all season, the Oilers killed their own playoff hopes.

They killed their playoff hopes all season long when they followed numerous winning streaks with losing streaks that were often the same number of games in duration, if not longer.

They killed their playoff hopes when they responded to the knowledge that their fate vis a vis the playoffs was very much in their own hands by posting a three-game losing streak, and losing (to date) seven of their last ten games.

They killed their playoff hopes when they failed to learn how to win the ever-crucial one-goal game.

They killed their playoff hopes with their atrocious penalty killing, and when their key offensive players -- among them Shawn Horcoff, Robert Nilsson and Dustin Penner -- failed to pull their own weight.

This in a year when the Oilers were expected to contend to possibly win their division.

The sense that something is missing at the core of this Oilers hockey team can no longer be overlooked. Steve Tambellini and Kevin Lowe will have some serious questions to be answered this off-season.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Does This Look Familiar?

Sam Gagner, April 4, 2009:

Ales Hemsky, October 24, 2006:

One can only imagine what kind of player Ales Hemsky would be today if he'd had the shoot out to build confidence in his rookie season. Gagner has scored more points during his first two seasons in the league (41 and 49 to date, respectively) than Hemsky did in his first two NHL seasons (30 points in 2002/03 and 34 in 2003/04).

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Coming into tonight's game against the Vancouver Canucks, many Oilers fans probably could have been forgiven for viewing the Oilers season with an overwhelming sense of futility.

With the Oilers dropping three straight with a playoff position on the line -- and particularly, only needing to win to maintain a 7th place finish in the Western Conference -- Oilers fans had very little reason to continue to be patient with this team.

No doubt this is one of the many things that led to the planning of an anti-Craig MacTavish rally today, demanding his termination of head coach.

Accustomed to getting their way in regards to players they become disenchanted with -- Mike Comrie, Cory Cross, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Joffrey Lupul have all felt the sting of this tendency -- Oilers fans seem genuinely perplexed by Darryl Katz's recent declaration that firing MacTavish is not on his agenda.

Even if keeping MacTavish is, arguably, a bad decision fans have to admire Katz's will to stand up to the fans.

With the Oilers chances of making the playoffs extremely slim and their fate no longer in their own hands, many Oilers fans likely expected very little going into tonight's game.

But the Oilers themselves knew what was on the line in this game tonight: the chance to prove that this season, and the two seasons previous, were not futile.

That task isn't over yet, and won't be over until the Oilers deliver on an inspired, passionate playoff drive. But tonight's game was an important first step. Three more wins -- better yet, a playoff spot -- and they have an opportunity to make an important statement.

But they have to play with the passion and determination that they played with tonight.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

Hit the Post - "A Love Letter to the Edmonton Oilers"

Friday, April 3, 2009

Going Nowhere

Darry Katz insists Craig MacTavish isn't going anywhere. The problem is the Oilers may be going nowhere with him

As another NHL season wraps up, it's becoming evident that the Edmonton Oilers will not qualify for the playoffs. Again.

No Oilers fan needs to be reminded that this is the third consecutive season the Oilers will spend their postseason playing golf rather than playing for the Stanley Cup. Few Oilers fans need to be reminded that this season was supposed to be different, for various reasons.

When the Oilers failed to make the playoffs in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons many rushed to credit this on two things: lack of quality players and injuries.

The 2006/07 season began amidst optimism despite the Chris Pronger trade that had left a sour taste in the mouths of so many Oilers fans. The long sought-after Joffrey Lupul had arrived and was expected to be an offensive dynamo for the club.

(Lupul had previously been the subject of an aborted trade for the notoriously-disliked Mike Comrie. Lupul, it seemed, was doomed as an Oiler from the very beginning.)

While Lupul, Petr Sykora and Daniel Tjarnstrom were joining the club, Pronger certainly wasn't alone in departing. Sergei Samsonov, Mike Peca and Jaroslav Spacek all joined the exodus of players leaving for other teams.

The injury bug bit the Oilers hard.

Only seven games into the season Ethan Moreau badly dislocated his shoulder and was gone for the season. Tjarnquist, who seemed to be a promising addition to the already-thin Oilers blueline, played only 37 games for the Oilers.

Hampered by poor defensive play, the Oilers seemed to be going nowhere by the time they traded first Marc-Andre Bergeron and then Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders. Coming in return were Denis Grebeshkov, Robbie Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra. One of these players has exceeded his billing, while one has fallen far short and the third seems unlikely to make the NHL anytime soon.

The Oilers limped their way through the remainder of the 2006/07 season, winning only a handful of their remaining games.

But many Oilers fans were willing to swallow the uninspiring finish to the season under the pretenses of better things to come.

The 2007/08 season was expected to be better.

Lupul was shipped, along with captain Jason Smith, to the Philadelphia Flyers in return for Geoff Sanderson and Joni Pitkanen. Sheldon Souray was signed away from the Montreal Canadiens, and Sam Gagner had such a fantastic showing at the Canada/Russia Super Series that his performance demanded a better look in the big league. Andrew Cogliano had been signed to an entry-level contract, and the Oilers' goal crease was burgeoned with the addition of Mathieu Garon. Dick Tarnstrom returned from Europe to join an Oilers roster that seemed to be ready to make some noise. To top it all off, Dustin Penner was picked off the Anaheim Ducks roster by virtue of an offer sheet that would have been unprecedented were it not for the offer Lowe also made to Buffalo Sabres RFA Tomas Vanek.

Even Anson Carter was signed to a professional try-out, but had his season terminated by a concussion suffered in a pre-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was probably a sign of things to come.

Sheldon Souray was injured early in the season, and would eventually opt for surgery on his shoulder. Shawn Horcoff, despite being on pace for at least 40 goals -- maybe as many as 50 -- had his season ended just after the all-star game when he, too, opted for surgery. Pitkanen would also suffer lengthy injuries that would keep him off the ice for a quarter of the season, and Moreau would also be sidelined for most of the season. Again.

Despite this, the Oilers, bolstered by the late-season addition of Curtis Glencross (who was traded to Columbus in exchange for Tarnstrom) would make a rousing playoff push, and would wind up a mere three points out of the playoffs.

With the promise of new ownership on the horizon, the Oilers traded aggressively in the offseason.

Traded away were the disappointing Jarret Stoll and ever-promising Matt Greene to the Los Angeles Kings for Lubomir Visnovsky. Joni Pitkanen was shifted to Carolina in exchange for Eric Cole. Raffi Torres was shipped to Columbus for Gilbert Brule. Jason Strudwick was signed to a one-year contract.

The Oilers would strike again in the pre-season, picking the 6'5" Steve MacIntyre off waivers from the Florida Panthers.

But Curtis Glencross was allowed to skip across province to join the Calgary Flames, and one of the key components of the Oilers' late-season push -- the dynamic fourth line of Glencross, Kyle Brodziak and Zach Stortini -- had been disassembled.

Edmonton was considered by many to have improved their club so drastically that not only were they expected to make the playoffs, many considered them a contender to win the Northwest Division.

With three defensemen -- Visnovsky, Souray and Tom Gilbert -- who could play up to 30 minutes a game, and the Hemsky/Horcoff/Cole line backed up by the kid line of Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson, the Oilers were expected to be able to hold their own at each end of the rink.

Instead what unfolded was a badly streaky season marred by poor defensive play, atrocious penalty killing and uninspiring offensive play. Eric Cole floundered on the first line while Dustin Penner, demoted to the third, struggled as well.

Both players had been moved to their off-wing.

Visnovsky shone on defense as four Oilers blue-liners -- Visnovsky, Souray, Gilbert and Grebeshkov -- ran up more than 30 points. The lack of offensive support from the blueline that had hamstrung the Oilers in the 2006/07 season seemed to have been rectified.

But by the time Lubomir Visnovsky went down with a torn labrum, the Oilers were expected to be contending to lead the Northwest division. Instead, the team was languishing on the bottom end of the playoff cut, struggling to even maintain their prospects of drawing a first-round match-up against the Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Black Hawks, two teams that had dominated them all season.

Mathieu Garon, who had struggled for the Oilers despite leading them to a shimmering shootout record in 2007/08, had already been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Danny Sabourin and Ryan Stone -- neither players who would crack the roster this season -- by the time it became evident that Dwayne Roloson would play almost the rest of the season unrelieved.

To make matters their utmost worst, the Oilers had absorbed a series of humilating defeats -- 10-2 at home to Buffalo, 9-2 at home to Chicago, and 8-3 to the Red Wings in Detroit -- that clearly demonsrated that this team was not yet ready to join the elite echelons of the NHL.

This season had been expected to be so much different. With player personell and injuries (for the most part) removed as a factor in this season, it's only natural that the eyes of Oilers fans would start to scrutinize the organization more closely to try and determine what's wrong.

Many Oilers fans have looked no further than the head coach, Craig MacTavish.

When given the personell necessary to succeed and given a season mostly devoid of roster-obliterating injuries, this is a year fans should have expected the Oilers to live up to its billing.

When a team comes out and embraces mediocrity as the Oilers have, coahing is a natural place to start the scrutiny.

Which is why it's so difficult to understand Darryl Katz's reaction to some of the speculation about MacTavish's future with the team. Prior to last night's game against the San Jose Sharks, Katz sent a text message to Bob Stauffer informing him that "Craig MacTavish isn't going anywhere."

"He said he was extremely disappointed and somewhat frustrated with the fact we're in the middle of a playoff race and all the discussion and focus was on the future of our head coach," Kevin Lowe would later add. "He found that somewhat odd. He just wanted to suppress that once and for all. It's as simple as that."

As the billionare owner of a successful pharmacy chain, one would expect the realities underlying the situation would be evident to him. If a coach, given all the tools to be successful, can't seem to find success, it's clearly time for a change.

Fans have been soured on MacTavish all season long. Very few individuals face the ire of Oilers fans and remain in place with the organization. Joffrey Lupul, Mike Comrie and Marc-Andre Bergeron stand as examples of how quickly individuals can be shuffled out of Edmonton once the fans turn on them.

Firing MacTavish because so many Oilers fans seem keen to run him out of time would be the wrong reason to fire MacTavish.

The right reason to relieve Craig MacTavish of his coaching responsibilities is that, for three seasons, the team has been going nowhere under him.