Will the Oilers Rebuild Ever Pan Out?

The Edmonton Oilers have spent the past several season rebuilding with young talent, but so far there’s been little reward for their efforts.

Entering this season, it was expected the Oilers would finally poised to take a significant step forward. Some (including myself) suggested they could contend for one of the lower playoff berths in the Western Conference. Others doubted they’d do that well, but expected a finish much close to playoff contention than basement dwelling.

The varying levels of optimism were understandable. Right wing Jordan Eberle (selected 22nd overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft) was coming off a 76-point season. Left wing Taylor Hall (first overall, 2010) had 27 goals and 53 points in an injury-shortened (61 games) sophomore season. Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall, 2011) finished one point behind Hall and was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Under-appreciated center Sam Gagner (6th overall, 2007) completed his fifth consecutive 40-plus point season. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk (14th overall, 2004) was coming off a career-best season in games-played (47), wins (20) and GAA (2.67).

Joining them this season was rookie right wing Nail Yakupov (first overall, 2012) and promising defenseman Justin Schultz, signed as a free agent from the Anaheim Ducks last summer.

With all but Dubnyk having played either in the AHL or in Europe during the lockout, the Oilers were expected to have an advantage over many teams in this shortened season.

That abundance of young talent had some giddy observers comparing this season’s Oilers to those much-lauded young guns of the early 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jarri Kurri and Glen Anderson began their legendary journey toward NHL dominance.

But after a 4-2-1 start, it’s been downhill for the Oilers this season. They went 4-5-3 in February, and entering their March 10th game against the Chicago Blackhawks were 0-4-1 for this month, dropping them to last in the Western Conference.

At this pace, the Oilers could find themselves with favorable odds of winning the draft lottery for the fourth consecutive season.

Optimistic Oilers fans won’t give up on the season, pointing out their club sits only six points away from the final playoff berth in the Conference with half a season (24 games) remaining in the schedule.

Realists, however, will look at their recent deteriorating play (including back-to-back shutout losses against Detroit and Nashville in which they were outscored 9-0) and dismiss the notion of a significant turnaround over the remainder of the season.

Long-suffering Oilers fans can be forgiven for wondering when the much-anticipated emergence of this promising roster as a playoff contender, if not a league powerhouse, will finally happen.

So what’s gone wrong?

Dubnyk has been inconsistent. When he’s on his game, he’s terrific, and when he’s not, he’s horrible. There seems little in-between with his performance this season. In eight of his 20 starts, his GAA has been 3.00 or higher, his SP below .900.

He was also outplayed by an ageing Nikolai Khabibulin in late-February (2-2-1, 2.12 GAA, .935 SP) until the crumbling “Bulin Wall” was felled by a nagging groin injury. Call-up Yann Danis has only seen two games of relief work, and isn’t likely to see much action beyond that role.

Defense continues to be a problem. As of March 9th, the Oilers had the highest shots-against per game (33.7), the second-worst team plus-minus (-105), and were 20th overall in goals-against per game (2.88). The sole positive was they had the seventh-best penalty kill in the league (84.2%).

Shaky goaltending is partially to blame, but the poor overall defensive play is the main reason for those poor numbers.

Justin Schultz is playing well in his rookie campaign, Ladislav Smid ranks among the top ten in blocked shots and hits, while Nick Schultz is also among the league leaders in blocked shots. After this trio, however, the blueline depth significantly drops off.

The biggest disappointment is veteran Ryan Whitney, who hasn’t been the same since the two surgeries on his right ankle. Whitney’s mobility, so crucial to his puck-moving style, has been reduced, hampering his effectiveness. A healthy scratch in seven games last month, he’s been given third-pairing duty.

The depth isn’t much better on the checking lines, where the most notable names are fading veterans Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger. Shawn Horcoff, whose offensive production has fallen noticeably since 2009, is finally returning to action after missing a month to a broken knuckle. Little wonder there’s been reports of the Oilers seeking a skilled, physical forward.

As for their young star forwards, Gagner is having a good year, on track for 42 points in 48 games, well ahead of his usual pace over an 82-game schedule. Hall is currently on pace for 41 points in 45 games, factoring in time missed to injury and suspension.

Eberle, who was tearing it up with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout (51 points in 34 games, which as of this writing still makes him the Barons leading scorer), has 17 points in in 24 games with the Oilers. Not bad, but not on the same pace as his career-best numbers of a year ago.

Nugent-Hopkins, hampered by a nagging shoulder injury, has only 8 points in 23 games, well off the numbers of his NHL debut. Yakupov has 12 points in 24 games, good for sixth overall among NHL rookies, but he’s still adjusting to the NHL game.

Overall, the 2013 Oilers possess young forwards with varying degrees of promise on their scoring lines, a skilled young defenseman who could blossom one day into a Norris contender, a goalie still struggling to find his game without a suitable backup to spell him off, and a lack of skilled depth on the checking lines and defense.

As their young stars grow together, the Oilers will improve,  but management must address their problem areas if this club is to become a playoff contender. Unfortunately, they won’t have enough time to salvage this season. Hopefully, they’ll address most of these needs in the off-season.

14 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they needed to surround this young talent with a solid supporting cast the young guns will be eligible for significant pay increases and they won’t be able to afford to keep them all. Thus beginning the cycle again…

    • Well hopefully (with the current management it seems doubtful) they will be smart and deal away some of the young guys comin up for big pay days for a decent return. Similar to what the pens did with Jordan staal.

      Had he left for nothing it would have sucled.

      Mind you I think the oil (especially wih where they are in the standings) should have left some of the guys develope in junior etc for longer. They’ve been burning up all their top rookies elc too fast.

    • The oilers have a cap space for next year and Hall and elberle have signed a six year deals.by then the oilers wil have most of the cap space available.horcoff is gone in 2015. Sam Gagne is the one who will get traded soon or later

  2. Talk about rushing and ruining young players!

    • Uhm,putting young players back into juniors will not make them great NHL players.honestly towes and kane and stamkos and Crosby all played in the NHL after they got drafted.So ,but patience is the key.

      Wait till the young players get into about 22 or 23 to see how they mature.

  3. The Oilers are not in rebuild mode. The Oilers have been at the point to win games, and they are not doing it. Rebuilds should not last longer than two seasons. Stocking up on high draft picks from drafts are not enough.

    General manager Steve Tambellini may feel more heat if he does not go externally to acquire help.

    • Ice dragon ,two years is not enough for a rebuild .Young players do not devlope that quickly.

      Also putting number one draft picks back in junior is not a good idea.

  4. If the Oilers need D men and the Leafs have an abundance, is there a trade there? (I’m a Habs fan so it’s not a “can the Leafs trade garbage for Hopkins or Hall question.)

    • Sounds like they need a goalie as well and I can think of one team in the east with one too many…

  5. I think the Oil should take a run at Brian Campbell out of Florida. He would be a great mentor to Justin S, and would provide a great deal of help moving the puck out of the D zone and up to the skilled forwards. If they buy out Whitney/Smith this summer, it could open up some cap space. Try to draft/develop a goalie of their own

  6. The Oilers are ‘Columbusing’ their kids. What’s the rush? RNH looks like he is in grade 9 and is having his body beaten by men. Hall is hurting and should be in the AHL. Yakapov playing 25 minutes and dominating the OHL would be stellar for his development. A trip to the Memorial Cup would be better. Heck, loan him to a team in Sweden and let him grow away from the white hot spotlight in Edmonton.

    A lockout shortened season is the IDEAL season to tell the fans (and team) that the kids are going to play tough minutes elsewhere and that the year will be spend laying the foundation for a full 2013/14 campaign.

    • The reason why the oilers had to rush their players , because they do not have the team to put them in AHL. The AHL is also getting development ,they did not have a AHL team until 09.

      The other thing is that look at Kane ,Towes, and Stamkos went to the NHL after being drafted.So it shows you other teams allow players to play in the NHL after playing in jouinor.

  7. This team has no identity, it lacks leadership, character and the means to get the job done.
    Sadly they have one of the worst GM’s in the league who seems terrified to make a tough decision. ! of the young super stars has to go to make room for a bigger stronger player who has leadership skills, someone the team will follow, Never gona happen with Tambo, he seems hell bent on running this team into the ground.

    • Tambo will be gone at the end of this season.