With 30+games to play, it’s not exactly the halfway point of the season, but the all-star break is a perfect time to sit back and take a look at the season to date and to look at some projections for the second half.
The Oilers by all accounts have had a disappointing season, currently sitting 14th in the Western Conference with a 18-26-5 record. While they are firmly entrenched in rebuild mode, most Edmonton fans hoped for an improvement from the last two seasons when the all-star break rolled around. Even GM Steve Tambellini stated earlier in the year they were looking to take a step forward and stay out of the lottery this year, although potentially adding another top five draft pick to supplement their already impressive young prospect pool may not be a bad thing. While thoughts of a playoff run may be little more than a pipe dream for the young Oilers at this point, there is still plenty of reason for optimism going forward and no shortage of questions to answer for 2012.
Here are some of the bigger storylines.
First Half MVP: Jordan Eberle
The Oilers leading scorer and only all-star, Eberle has been one of the few bright spots on the year. Averaging a point a game with 45 points in 45 games so far (18G, 27A) he has scored highlight reel goals and found chemistry on the most exciting young line in hockey playing on the right side with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. While there was a case to be made for Nikolai Khabibulin during the first month of the season and one for Hall more recently (6 goals in last 10 games), Eberle has been the most consistent performer throughout the year for the team and has resulted in him earning his first trip to the all-star game in Ottawa this year.
Pleasant Surprise: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
While no one doubted the skill level of RNH, and maybe the fact he made the team out of training camp was more of a surprise to some than others, few thought he would have the kind of immediate impact and production that he has had. The runaway favourite for the Calder Trophy the first three month of the season, only a recent shoulder injury has hampered his chances. With 35 points in 38 games he is still the rookie leader in points and assists, and good for second on the Oilers. He leads the team in powerplay time on ice (3:45), powerplay points with 18, and is the key cog in the league’s #3 powerplay unit. More importantly, playing between Hall and Eberle they have given Edmonton fans a reason to cheer and hope for the future.
Biggest Disappointment: Shawn Horcoff
The Oilers captain plays big minutes, leading all Edmonton forwards with 20:29 a night. However, looking at the stats, it’s hard to say his numbers warrant the ice time he is getting. He is a team worst -16 and has only 9 goals in 49 games played. While he is more valuable to the young team than just his numbers, he is relied upon as a leader and mentor for the young Oilers, the fact is 9 goals and 24 points is just not enough production for one of the team’s top two centres. Especially one earning $5.5 million a season.
Players To Watch in the Second Half:
Devan Dubnyk: With the playoffs looking unrealistic at this point the Oilers figure to give Dubnyk plenty of starts to see what they have in the lanky netminder. Dubnyk has been somewhere between average and mediocre this year going 7-11-1 with a 2.87 GAA and .910 sv%. To be fair he hasn’t had a lot of help some nights and he was excellent in his last 2 starts before the break, a 2-1 shootout win against San Jose where he had 44 saves, and a 3-2 shootout loss to Vancouver the next night. The time is now or never for the 2004 first-rounder, to prove whether he is the franchise’s goalie of the future, or just another player who becomes expendable.
Magnus Paajarvi: Another player who needs to have a good second half to keep his spot secure with the big club going forward, Paajarvi figures to get a long look and plenty of opportunites. He has yet to put it all together and become the player the Oilers hoped they were getting when they drafted him 10th overall in 2009, in fact he has yet to score at all this year in 33 games. He does, however, possess one of the most exciting and explosive skill sets of all the Oilers young prospects, and he will get plenty of chances in the second half to showcase it.
Teemu Hartikainen: A recent callup, Hartikainen has played 5 games with the Oilers but has yet to register a point. The reason to keep an eye out for the young Finnish forward, is that while the Oilers have an impressive stable of skilled young forwards, they lack players with size, toughness and a willingness to go to the net. Described a young Tomas Holmstrom clone, Hartikainen’s skating may need a little work but his overall skill set may be the complement the Oilers are looking for.
Storylines For The Second Half:
Eberle, Hall & Nugent-Hopkins reunited
The biggest reason to come to the rink in Edmonton, the trio of top prospects put rear ends in the seats and hope in the hearts of Oiler fans with their on-ice chemistry and offensive skill. Due to injury the three haven’t played a full game together in 2012, but with RNH expected back soon after the all-star break, fans can’t wait to see what kind of numbers they’ll put up in the second half. During the first 49 games, they had 84 points combined in the 31 games they played together (stats/nhl.com), and hope to build on those numbers in the remainder of the season.
Will Ales Hemsky be an Oiler after February 27th?
Possibly the biggest question surrounding the team coming out of the break is whether the supremely talented, and equally frustrating winger will be with the team following the trade deadline. Tambellini and his staff are hoping to parlay Hemsky into more franchise building blocks for the future, a puck moving defenceman or goaltender of the future would be high on their wishlist. They will not, however, just give the Czech forward away for nothing, and with impending UFA status coming July 1st, management has some decisions to make.
Will Tom Renney be the head coach come season’s end?
With Tambellini rumoured to be signing a contract extension, the focus falls to Renney and the status of he and his staff. Edmonton will likely not make any rash decisions on Renney as he has deserved somewhat of a free pass due to all of the injury woes over the first part of the season. However, when the team hopefully gets healthier in the second half, he will have to prove this young group is progressing in the right direction to keep his job going forward in 2012.
What will the Oilers defence look like when healthy?
Part of the Oiler’s problem this season has been poor defensive play and giving up too many shots against. While the defence as a group has been much maligned, a large part of the critiscm has been unwarranted as the defence core has been decimated by injuries. Going into the break Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert, Cam Barker and Corey Potter had all missed significant time with injury. All four were projected to play in the top six to start the season. AHL callups such as Colten Tuebert, Alex Plante and Taylor Chorney have gotten opportunities to play, but realistically are not NHL regulars at this point and should have spent the majority of the year in Oklahoma City for seasoning rather than being relied upon in Edmonton. The Oilers are hoping in the second half they will be blessed with some health and get a chance to see what their defence will look like as they had envisioned it coming out of training camp.
Talking to Oiler fans there is a real split, and far from a consensus about what people want to see from the Oilers to finish out the year. For every fan who says they can’t wait to see Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins back together, a healthier defence core, to see how much better they can be, and who knows, maybe take a shot at climbing the standings, you get at least as many people who say they care not what the numbers are in the end so long as they have another top 5 pick in the draft and another blue chip piece to add to the rebuild.
Either way, it’s hard to see the Edmonton Oilers looking the same as they do now when game 82 rolls around.
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