Know Thine Enemy: The Edmonton Oilers

You know what's great about hitting rock bottom? There's nowhere to go but up.

Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the Western Conference spent the summer sitting on their hands. Except Winnipeg, who did exactly that. Over the past month and a half we've looked at the true enemies of the Dallas Stars... the members of Conference III. However, in a spirit of paranoia, one must admit that the Stars' enemies are not just confined to the Central Division. No, they're everywhere. And so we shift our gaze westwards, to the revamped, downgraded, but now more appropriately named former home of the Stars. The Pacific Division. Saving the best for last, means we start with the worst first. Will the Edmonton Oilers come on down!

Now that we've left the cozy confines of the Central Division and made the move westwards, I'm not sure the ‘Know Thine Enemy' appellation still fits. I mean, I don't know that I can consider the Edmonton Oilers my enemy. I don't hate them enough. Why would I? I don't hate the St. John's IceCaps. I don't hate the Hershey Bears or the Rockford IceHogs. Why would I hate any really good AHL team stocked with a bunch of elite level prospects, all hopefully soon to get their shot with a real NHL team?

*dramatic pause*

I should note however that the Edmonton Oilers are trending upwards. After claiming the number one overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, and the 2011 NHL Draft, and the 2012 NHL Draft, they only picked seventh last year, and third this year! Progress!

So how long does it take for such a wealth of young talent to translate to NHL success? Well, based on the short sample size of the modern-day Edmonton Oilers, the answer would be never.

However, it's ever so slightly possible that in Edmonton, home of the perpetual rebuild, a culture shift is happening...

Biggest Splash

On August 5th, the Edmonton Oilers signed/hired Tyler Dellow. Is that really their biggest splash? Well, kind of. We're all tired by now of hearing which top Edmonton draft pick is going to be vying for Rookie of the Year honors. We've become inured to young flashy talent in Edmonton. Old news. But hiring a blogger to fill some unspecified role in the organization?! If that's not a splash, I don't know what is. Tyler Dellow formerly ran the site, a haven for #fancystats geeks everywhere. So what does he bring to Edmonton? Well, presumably this means the Oilers management have decided that this year they should try to identify problems on their team. Whether they fix them becomes the next question, but hey. Acceptance is the first step.

This news, along with the mysterious abduction of Extra Skater a couple weeks ago (now reported to be saving the Toronto Maple Leafs from further humiliation), would make it appear that bloggers are now poised to take over the NHL.

Fancy stats for the win.

Care to Talk About Ice Level?

Fine. Although I maintain the changes in the front office will be important, they don't necessarily affect faceoff win percentage. Of course, the acquisition of defenseman Nikita Nikitin won't affect that much either, but then, that's not why the Oilers traded with the Columbus Blue Jackets for his rights and then signed him to a two-year deal. Two goals and 13 assists in 66 games last year isn't anything to write home about, but then the Oilers don't exactly need any more offensive firepower. What they need is a shutdown defenseman. Nikitin, it's your time to shine.

In fact, following that theme of big signings of unglamorous players, the Oilers also brought in Teddy Purcell, via a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning for Sam Gagner. Gagner, as you all know, had a memorable career in Tampa Bay before being traded to Arizona. Purcell, however, has made it through the remainder of the summer and is still an Oiler. Way to go, Teddy. So what does he bring? Well, perhaps I was a little hasty in calling him unglamorous. He did have 42 points in 81 games with the Lightning last season. I don't need to remind you where that would have placed him on the Stars in scoring. So his arrival means an interesting logjam in the top-six winger department. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and David Perron presumably aren't going anywhere, so does that leave Nail Yakupov as odd man out? And who takes Gagner's place as second line center? Wait a minute... Didn't the Oilers take a center in the draft? With rather a high pick?

Leon Draisatl, no pressure, but there are going to be demands placed on your 18-year old shoulders like, right away.

I took the liberty of bringing in Copper & Blue blogger Ryan Batty, a font of Oilers' knowledge, to hear his thoughts on Draisatl playing in Edmonton this season.

Yes, for better or worse, Draisaitl will make the Oilers this season. And the story will be that he earned his spot, that it wasn't just given to him because of where he was drafted. But look at a depth chart, how could he not make this team? His foot would have to fall off, and even then his odds would probably be no worse than 50/50. In the end I think he'll score something in the neighbourhood [sic: silly Canadians] of 15 goals and 35 points, and he's going to play a lot more than he should. But that's the Oilers way.

'The Oilers way.' I get depressed just thinking about that phrase.

Moving on though from untested young players, there's more. The Oilers had two real needs entering this offseason, forward depth and defensive defensemen, and lo and behold, they made multiple moves to fill them. Aside from the signing of Nikitin, Edmonton also acquired Mark Fayne in free agency to bolster the defense, and gave a nice, tidy 5-year contract to forward Benoit Pouliot. Pouliot and Yakupov on a third line together? One could do worse.

Oh, and before you get too concerned, everybody's favorite ex-Texas Star Luke Gazdic re-signed in Edmonton for two years.

Eulogies for the Departed?

Ryan Smyth retired! Did you know he first played in the NHL in 1994? That's an awful long time ago. Joining him and Gagner in the "recently ex-Oilers" club is less recently ex-Star Philip Larsen. Larsen intriguingly made a run for the KHL over the summer. You can't trust these Danes...

Ryan Jones also left via free agency. You know him. You must. Left wing? Scored six points in 52 games last season? If Extra Skater were still up I could check his #grit stats, but as it is I'm just going to have to assume the Oilers aren't too torn up about his departure. Same with Steve MacIntyre, Taylor Fedun, Mark Fraser, and Denis Grebeshkov. Who are these people? And why have I spent so much time trawling the transaction list of the Edmonton Oilers?

Anything Else of Note?

While he wasn't an offseason acquisition, the late-season trade for Ben Scrivens was a significant upgrade after Dubnyk's implosion. Although, as this article points out, at the beginning of last season Dubnyk's numbers and career looked rather similar to what Scrivens' do now.

*ominous music begins playing*

The short of it is that Edmonton have taken some steps in the right direction, but when the motorcade departed without you and you have to resort to hitchhiking, it might still take some time to catch up. The high-end talent is there, but without the supporting pieces. Too bad Patrick Roy's not available. Rumor has it he's pretty good at taking offensive threat, and not much else, and creating a winner. Oh, and goaltending. I suppose he had that...

* * *

For those of you who tend to just skim through my ramblings looking for the useful information, you can stop now. You've reached the good bit. The rest of the interview with Oilers fan/masochist Ryan Batty. My questions, his answers:

1) Why?! An offense powered by Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov, the three first-overall picks from 2010-2012, plus Jordan Eberle and David Perron, and yet Edmonton finished 25th in goals per game last season. I look at those names and I don't entirely understand why the Oilers couldn't produce something similar to the Avalanche. I mean, a young, incredibly skilled team with awful possession stats? Recipe for success in Colorado. So what was missing in Edmonton? Lack of a system? Lack of a veteran presence beyond Perron? What gives?

Wow, you don't want to ease into this, do you? Fine then, the problem last year was Ales Hemsky, simple as that. Sure, he's got a ton of skill and is insanely fun to watch, but he just doesn't have the heart needed to pull the Oilers out of the NHL cellar. The guy was routinely first off the ice at practice. I mean come on, where is the desire to win? I'm glad the Oilers traded him for draft picks, our future is already brighter. Good luck building a winner with him.

Seriously though, the problem last season was the same as the problem the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, there just weren't enough good players on the team. The top end talent is certainly there, but management has been completely unable to surround them with players who are in any way capable of helping to transform this team into a contender. Some look at the team and see a lack of size, they applaud moves like claiming Luke Gazdic off waivers despite the fact the team is brutal when he's on the ice. Others see a lack of veteran leadership, which Andrew Ference was going to correct, unfortunately he's nothing more than a third pairing defence man at this point in his career. And perhaps both size and leadership are issues, but at it's core the problem is so much simpler, just not enough good players.

2) Part of the overall problem last season was goaltending. But the Oilers enter this season with Ben Scrivens pegged as the starting netminder. He had a pretty impressive few games after the mid-season trade from LA, but then sample size, small, etc. etc... Expecting great things from the Professor? Or merely content to assume it'll be an upgrade over the implosion of Devan Dubnyk last year?

I think Dubnyk is an NHL calibre goalie. Going into last season he seemed to have his career headed in the right direction, he'd been improving throughout his career, and was, as far as I was concerned, a reasonable gamble to give the Oilers average, or slightly above average, goaltending. What happened was anything but and as a result it'll be nearly impossible for Scrivens to not be an improvement over Dubnyk this year.

That said there are still a lot more questions than answers between the pipes for the Oilers. Yes, Scrivens has posted some nice numbers, but he's only played 72 games so we just don't know enough about him yet to really know what his true skill level is. Personally I'm hoping for league average from him, basically exactly what I had hoped Dubnyk would provide. If the Oilers can get that from Scrivens (and Fasth) then they can start worrying about the holes elsewhere in their roster.

3) Because of the Oilers, the world of no longer exists. What are your thoughts on the hiring of fancy statistician Tyler Dellow, and by extension, your thoughts on Dallas Eakins in his second year behind the bench?

I think the move is a good one. If you've read his stuff then you know that Dellow is a smart person. Now his online ... um ... style, may not have been to everyone's liking, but there is no denying that he has some very innovative ideas about stats in hockey and how video can compliment them. Given access to the NHL quality video analysis, and possibly additional data, can only help to improve the quality and value of his work. I'm glad the Oilers were the team that finally took a chance on him.

Now as for Eakins, even if you don't like Dellow, you should still like this move because it points to a coach that is trying to improve. Eakins made mistakes in his first season behind the Oilers bench, and at times was considered to be arrogant (I never understood that). Bringing in a person like Dellow shows that Eakins is willing to consider ideas other than his own, and is willing to think outside of the box in an effort to find something, anything, that'll work for the Oilers. I really do think that he's a smart person and that given time he will figure it out, but that needs to happen soon because this is a results driven business and so far the results haven't been good.

4) The Oilers are a young team. That'll tend to happen when so many high draft picks reach the NHL quickly. We talked about Leon Draisatl skating in Edmonton this season. What other prospects are knocking on the door?

The other prospects that will see some time in Edmonton this season are Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom; both are defencemen. Marcin finished last season with the Oilers and put up some very solid possession numbers along the way. He'll be back in Edmonton when the puck drops on the new season. Klefbom is a little further behind Marincin (not something I'd have expected at this time last season) but is another strong prospect, one who will probably arrive in Edmonton after Christmas, sooner if injuries become an issue. In Edmonton injuries are always an issue, so expect to see him playing here by the end of October.

5) And lastly, Western Conference cellar dwellers for a while now. Turning a corner? Light at the end of the tunnel? Nowhere to go but up? Where do you predict the Oilers finish in the standings this season?

No higher than 12th. They've got to be better than Calgary, they just have to be. After that though there is a long way to go before the club can be considered just bad instead of truly terrible. There have been improvements on the blue line, and as I said earlier, the goaltending will be better this season, but that is only going to translate into five or six more wins. If they could find a way to fill the hole in the middle of the second line with someone other than Draisaitl without creating a hole somewhere else, then I could see them finishing around 9th or 10th, but I don't think that will happen and the playoff drought will be at nine seasons when all is said and done.

Where will the Edmonton Oilers finish in the 2014-15 Pacific Division Standings?

1st- Ben Scrivens is this year’s Semyon Varlamov, Leon Draisatl is this year’s Nathan MacKinnon, and the Oilers make a run all the way to a first-round playoff defeat by the Wild.85
2nd- Hell freezes over and hosts the Winter Classic.11
3rd- Pigs really do fly.38
4th- California secedes from the Players’ Union and Edmonton finish fourth behind Phoenix, Vancouver, and Calgary, missing out on a wildcard spot by a scant 30-points.47
5th- A surprise move to the Flortheast Division sees Edmonton bank on points against the only two teams worse than them and sneak into the playoffs as an Eastern wildcard.116
6th- World-wide oil prices plummet and the team folds midway through the season, but with enough points still to edge the Canucks for 6th.171
7th- Everybody hates a realist.182