Friday, March 28, 2008

Get lots of Underpants and Ask Questions Later, Dammit!

Is Kevin Lowe a South Park Fan?

Can't say I imagine he is.

But I think this picture pretty much sums up the Oilers season. Unlike PJO, I don't think the Oilers season is over yet by any stretch of the imagination. They're playing good hockey right now, they're only 3 points behind Vancouver.. and most importantly Luongo is gone for a minimum of 2 games. They're ripe for the pickings, and in my mind at least the last game of the season is shaping up to be the "win and you're in" type of game. Something that I think every single fan here would've been happy with at the start of the season.

In reference to picture above, I think it sums up the Oilers season quite well. You can replace "Underpants" with "Shiny Things" and "Profit" with "Wins," but I think it all works out in the end. The Oilers have been all over the map since they dealt Pronger. From quotes saying that we should expect the team to compete while having 20 year old defenseman in the top 4, to saying we're going to rebuild and signing Sheldon Slapshot! Souray and Micheal Nylander to massive contracts. The Oilers just haven't had a consistent plan, at any point... there are a lot of theories as to why this has happened, ranging from Kevin Lowe being a dummy to the EIG orchestrating master plans, but I'm not about to get into those. What I am going to get into though, is the question mark. We're at the winning point, and winning and losing games that we should be winning... but how exactly did we get here?

#1) Luck. It scares the hell out of me... but when you've been scored on 20 more times than you've scored but are 10 points over .500... a lot of things, that likely aren't repeatable, have gone right. To be fair though, some of this luck, as in next season, should be evened out by health. Specifically the health of Horcoff, though a few more Torres' and Moreau's certainly won't hurt the team. Souray should be able to help the physical play of the team, along with boosting the ST's a bit as well.

#2) Opportunities. In Ales Hemsky's rookie season, he played 712 minutes, 153 of that on the PP. Tom Gilbert (1,728, 197 SH and 175 PP), Sam Gagner (1,171, 212 on the PP) and Andrew Cogliano (1,054, 60 SH, 159 on the PP) have all passed that, as have Denis Grebeshkov (1,113, 72 SH and 139 on the PP), Kyle Brodziak (987, 196 on the PK) and Robert Nilsson (923, 153 on the PP). That is 6 (!) rookies playing more than Ales Hemsky did. 6! And I doubt many here would compare anyone but Gagner as to having more potential than Hemsky... but all of these guys have been given opportunities. More amazing yet though, is that all of them have put these opportunities to good use. Pouliot can be added to the list of guys who have gained traction. Just stunning stuff.

#3) Horses. I don't think it can be stated enough how much Shawn Horcoff was helping this team before he injured his shoulder. As corny as it may sound, I wouldn't be surprised if he injured his shoulder just from trying to carry the whole damn team on it. He's a legitimate difference maker in this league, and one of the only ones the Oilers have at ES. He's not the only one though... Ales Hemsky took steps forward this season. I don't think it all showed in the counting numbers as much as it should have, but he matured so much as a player this year it's unbelievable. Currently third in the Oilers in shot taken. He's making the smart play in the neutral zone, being aware defensively, and playing against the other teams top line.... and he's of course getting it done on the PP. Garon also had a huge hand in helping this team get where it is, and hopefully he can do much of the same next season. Having above average goaltending is huge in this league. Fourthly... Sam Gagner. I'm separating him from the other kids, because he's truly stepped it up to another level since Horcoff went down... he has a long way to go, but the guy, at 18 (!) is already performing better on the PP than almost anyone else on the Oilers. Just fantastic stuff. I didn't list a defenseman here for one specific reason... every single defenseman on this team has struggled at times. I think that there have been stretches where Pitkanen, Gilbert, Staios and Grebeshkov have all looked absolutely fantastic - but they've also had times where they have been putrid, to say the least... so they get left off.

#4) Coaching. Look at the rookies. Look at the standings. Look at the point totals. 'nuff said. MacTavish has helped a lot of young players raise their games HUGE amounts in a very, VERY short period of time.

So.... what do we expect next year, in terms of repeatability? I think we'd all agree that the coaching is repeatable, and I think most of us would also agree that at least to an extent, the kids maturing (assuming no steps back are taken... which is of course a big assumption) combined with a healthy hockey team should make up for a lot of the luck that will bounce the other way next season. That leaves the Horses, and the D, as the question marks on this team. If the Horses stay healthy (Horcoff, Hemsky, Gagner, Garon), and can play as well as they have this season, I think we look to be in good shape next year. Very good shape. We should have two lines that can play against anyone (27-10-83, one of 14/18, 16 (or his replacement), 34), and two lines that can beat up the other teams bottom 6 in the kid line and the $500k line... and a durable Pouliot as the 13th man. On the backend we have several guys who can move the puck (Pitkanen, Gilbert, Grebeshkov), and a lot of guys who are starting to become "defensemen" instead of "young defensemen."

I think, Kevin Lowe got away with one here. He had no plan, went in all sorts of directions, and it all worked out. I think someone could try that a thousand times and have 999 times blow up in their face... but it honestly looks like he got away with it. I don't agree with how he assembled this team. I think he took several huge, unnecessary risks. Penner is starting to look decent because the Ducks will not be picking in the lottery, and Souray is better defensively and more mobile than I thought he would be; but there are still questions ahead. How do you resign Horcoff if he wants $5,500,000? And Pitkanen? And Gilbert? And Nilsson? And Garon? And the list goes on. I think we're still a long ways from seeing just how successful this team will be, as we have a huge handicap against us in the Souray contract, and a sizable handicap in the Penner contract - but we also have the Roloson contract off the books in a year, and hopefully Stoll's contract can be shed all together in the near future. Still.. things are looking bright if Lowe can balance the books to keep the guys worth keeping (Horcoff), and get the soft guys signed to cheap contracts that can be out-performed (Nilsson).

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