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Off-Season Game Plan: Oilers

Scott Cullen
5/6/2009 9:40:36 PM
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Another disappointing season out of the playoffs leaves the Edmonton Oilers anxious to make changes in the off-season, more than just changing coaches.

Off-Season Game Plan examines the Oilers' needs and what they might do to get into the playoff picture next season.

The most glaring shortcoming for Edmonton last season was the lack of progress from their young forwards. Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson were reasons for optimism going into the year and then all three struggled. They weren't alone, but their inability to produce offensively practically left the Oilers without a second line.

Aside from internal improvement, which is a must, Oilers management also recognizes that they may need a different type of player.

"People say we weren't gritty enough as a team. I agree with that," GM Steve Tambellini told reporters at season's end. "Do we need to get stronger? Yes we do. The job now is to think about how much of that can we get from what we have. We'll make that assessment and if we don't have it internally, how do we acquire it?"

Getting big, talented players isn't an easy feat, but the Oilers have some assets at their disposal and Tambellini's forthright declarations would seem to make it a disappointment if the Oilers were to go into next season without making a significant move or two to address the needs for size and toughness.

And let's not forget, the Oilers are one of the few teams that will be on the hunt for a starting goaltender.

Before the process of acquiring players gets into full-swing, though, the Oilers are going to have to find a replacement for Craig MacTavish behind the bench. A mere change in coaches can't be expected to fix all of the Oilers' woes, but a fresh outlook could present new opportunities for some players that had obviously fallen out of favour with Mac-T.

Tom Renney, Pat Quinn and Marc Crawford are among the names mentioned as possible coaches for the Oilers and all of them have experience coaching teams that are difficult to play against. 

They aren't that far away, but it's time the Oilers went into a season with more than enough talent on hand, rather than hoping they have enough if everything works out as hoped.

GM/COACH
Steve Tambellini/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Ales Hemsky 78.78 $4.4M
Shawn Horcoff 75.68 $7.0M
Patrick O'Sullivan 72.57 $2.388M
Dustin Penner 70.28 $4.25M
Sam Gagner 67.16 $875K
Andrew Cogliano 66.44 $850K
Fernando Pisani 66.18 $2.5M
Ethan Moreau 65.54 $1.75M
Robert Nilsson 65.27 $2.0M
Marc Pouliot 63.91 $925K
Zack Stortini 59.53 $700K
Steve MacIntyre 55.94 $550K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Ales Kotalik 72.70 UFA $2.5M
Kyle Brodziak 66.45 RFA $1.2M
Liam Reddox 60.61 UFA $515K

Top Prospects: Jordan Eberle (35-39-74, minus-4 in 61 GP; Regina-WHL), Riley Nash (13-22-35 in 36 GP; Cornell-ECAC), Linus Omark (23-32-55, plus-18 in 53 GP; Lulea-SEL), Ryan Potulny (38-24-62, minus-11 in 70 GP; Springfield-AHL)

Though he needs to be convinced to shoot the puck more, Ales Hemsky is a gifted player who is still in search of the right linemates to take advantage of his creativity and playmaking skills. Even so, Hemsky could take more responsibility for his own performance as his second-half swoon hurt the Oilers' chances.

Shawn Horcoff is ostensibly the Oilers' number one centre, a prospect that looked much better coming off 50 points in 53 games (2007-2008) than it does coming off a season in which he scored 53 points in 80 games (2008-2009). Horcoff is a very sound two-way player but his offensive production has ebbed and flowed since lockout, so it's tough to count on him to anchor the top scoring unit. On the second line, however, he may be ideal.

Trade deadline acquisition Patrick O'Sullivan was miscast in Los Angeles, then didn't do much upon arriving in Edmonton, scoring six points in 19 games. He's a talented young offensive performer who can play in all situations. Next year is the 24-year-old's chance for a bounceback season.

Though his overall production in Edmonton has been poor, Dustin Penner doesn't have to be considered a completely lost cause. Based purely on 5-on-5 situations last season, the Oilers were most successful (in terms of shots, goals and plus-minus) when Penner was on the ice, believe it or not.

That doesn't mean Penner couldn't use a swift kick in the pants to get in shape and reverse the goal-scoring decline he's been going through for two seasons with the Oilers but, with the right linemates and perhaps the right coach, Penner can be an effective scoring winger. On top of that, he is the rare Oilers scoring winger with size.

A horrible start to his second season limited Sam Gagner's production, but he finished strong (21 points in the final 20 games) for the second season in a row, leaving some room for optimism going into next year, but he has to be able to produce right from the get-go; otherwise, the Oilers could be left in the lurch like they were last season.

Similarly, Andrew Cogliano's production dipped slightly in his second season, but his speed makes him a threat offensively and enhances his ability as a checker. Like the other young Oilers, though, Cogliano simply has to be better next year.

Fernando Pisani missed more than half the season with a broken ankle and he didn't provide enough bang for the buck when he was healthy. Injuries have limited him to 94 games over the past two seasons, so the Oilers will hope for a healthy Pisani in the final year of his current contract.

One player who did recover nicely after a couple of injury-marred campaigns was captain Ethan Moreau, who played 77 games, scored 14 goals and accumulated a career-high 133 penalty minutes. So long as he remains healthy, he's a sound veteran presence on a checking line.

Like fellow young forwards Gagner and Cogliano, Robert Nilsson's game slipped last season, though he had brief stretches during which he was productive. He might be better off with a fresh start, either elsewhere or with the new coach in Edmonton.

Perhaps the only young forward who at least met expecations, Marc Pouliot, had a solid, if unspectacular, season. With 39 points in 141 NHL games, Pouliot doesn't seem to have the offensive flair to be a top six forward, but could carve out a solid career.

Zack Stortini was the NHL's leader in fighting majors with 25 but, with limited skills otherwise, he's still facing a battle just to get into the lineup.

On the other hand, Stortini is a better bet for fourth-line duty than the monstrous Steve MacIntyre, who isn't much of a player, but he's one of the scariest heavyweight pugilists at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds.

Checker Kyle Brodziak got better as the year went along and could add a few minutes per game onto his limited role now that he's established his place in the NHL.

While the Oilers may be forced to the trade market to land premier scoring talent for their first line there's little reason, given last year's offers to Marian Hossa and Jaromir Jagr, to think that owner Daryl Katz won't take another shot in free agency.

Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Martin Havlat and Alex Kovalev would be some of the best finishers available on the open market. If size and grit is a prerequisite, the Oilers should have some interest in a reliable veteran like Mike Knuble.

Turning to possible trade targets, the Oilers would figure to be interested in any marquee scorers, but could also investigate the availability of someone like Florida's Nathan Horton, L.A.'s Alexander Frolov or any number of San Jose forwards, who have size and scoring ability.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Lubomir Visnovsky 78.41 $7.0M
Tom Gilbert 76.58 $3.5M
Sheldon Souray 75.84 $5.5M
Steve Staios 65.79 $2.8M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Denis Grebeshkov 76.27 RFA $1.5M
Ladislav Smid 62.99 RFA $952K
Jason Strudwick 62.91 UFA $1.5M

Top Prospects: Theo Peckham (6-13-19, minus-7 in 47 GP; Springfield-AHL), Taylor Chorney 5-16-21, minus-29 in 68 GP; Springfield-AHL), Alex Plante (8-37-45, plus-31 in 68 GP; Calgary-WHL)

When healthy, the Oilers' blueline is a formidable group.

Lubomir Visnovsky's season ended in early February, but he was excellent in his first season with the Oilers. His mobility and ability to move the puck helps him dictate the pace of the game and the Oilers' push for the postseason was obviously hindered when they lost Visnovsky's 23 minutes per game from the lineup.

Though he doesn't use his size to maximum advantage, Tom Gilbert continued to improve in his second full season. While there is certainly no need to shop him, Gilbert is one of the Oilers' most marketable assets, signed to a long-term deal at a reasonable price, so he could be part of any attempt to trade for a first-line forward.

His first season in Edmonton may have been a washout, but Sheldon Souray was an impact performer last season, scoring 23 goals to tie for second among NHL defencemen. Souray's point shot is devastating, no doubt, but just as important for the Oilers was that Souray was a plus player for the first time since the lockout.

25-year-old Denis Grebeshkov was one of the most improved defencemen in the league last season, emerging as a legitimate top four defenceman, particularly with Visnovsky absent in the second half of the season. Grebeshkov's emergence also gives the Oilers an abundance of capable offensive defenceman.

The flip side to that coin is that the Oilers are lacking in defensive stalwarts.

There's no denying the commitment of veteran defenceman Steve Staios, who has played 80 or more games in four of the last five seasons. At the same time, the 35-year-old hasn't been terribly effective in recent seasons and could be supplanted by younger, cheaper options.

Ladislav Smid hasn't developed as quickly as hoped when he was acquired from Anaheim, but he's still just 23 and provides some physical presence. It's worth hanging onto him to see if he can develop into anything more than a third-pair or depth defenceman.

Since none of Edmonton's blueline prospects appears ready for a prominent role right away, the most logical way to upgrade the defensive presence would be through free agency.

Naturally, Edmonton native Jay Bouwmeester would figure to be a target (which would make at least one of the top four defencemen expendable) but, if not Bouwmeester, the likes of Mike Komisarek and Mattias Ohlund would also have some appeal, depending on the cost. Depth guys in the mold of Dennis Seidenberg, Greg Zanon, Andrew Alberts or Hal Gill would also help add defensive toughness.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers 57.53 $700K

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Dwayne Roloson 72.13 UFA $3.0M

Top Prospect: Devan Dubnyk (18-41-2, 2.97 GAA, .906 SVPCT in 62 GP; Springfield-AHL)

Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers only got seven starts with the Oilers, with none coming from December 1 through April 9, so it's hard to know how good he can be. The safest option would be to secure a veteran for the starter's job and leave Drouin-Deslauriers a more significant backup role, with 20 starts in the plan, for next season.

The Oilers leaned on Dwayne Roloson in what was ultimately an unsuccessful push for the playoffs, but Roloson may have had his best season as an Oiler and they could certainly do worse than to bring him back for another season. Nevertheless, Roloson will turn 40 early in the 2009-2010 season, so it's entirely understandable if Edmonton may elect to seek a longer-term solution in free agency.

Martin Biron, Manny Fernandez (Roloson's old 'tending partner in Minnesota) and Craig Anderson would be among the free agent goaltenders who might be able to handle the starting job and that doesn't even get into possible trade targets should the free agent options not pan out.

DRAFT
9th - Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nazem Kadri, Jared Cowen, Scott Glennie.

FREE AGENCY
The Oilers have approximately $47.7-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: One first line forward, one defenceman, starting goaltender

What I said the Oilers needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman

Who did they add? Erik Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers.

TRADE MARKET
Dustin Penner, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, Steve Staios.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 




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