The goal heading into the season for the Edmonton Oilers was to be a top eight team in the NHL's Western Conference and instead of chasing other teams in the Conference for a playoff spot, the Oilers hoped to be in contention throughout the season. As the league hits the Christmas break, they find themselves in fifteenth place, eight points behind Vancouver for the final playoff spot in the West. With their 15-17-4 win/loss record and having dropped there last four games, Edmonton faces a crucial test this evening against the twelfth place Minnesota Wild (17-16-3). A win and the team will keep pace with the Wild, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues, three teams tied with 37 points, three ahead of Edmonton’s 34 points; a loss could keep the Oil in last place until the New Year.
After setting a franchise record with five straight road victories, the Oilers have dropped four in a row at home; they are 5-5 in their last ten games. Among the teams at the bottom of the West, Edmonton has scored the most goals; their current total is 107 goals for, compared to St. Louis’ 91 goals. In the goals against category, the Oilers are fourth from the bottom in the entire league, allowing 120 goals. Only Columbus, Carolina, Toronto and Florida have allowed more goals - not great company for a team that wanted to be in contention all season. Third period lapses have cost the Oilers in recent games, contributing to their slide in the standings.
Injuries have certainly taken their toll on the Edmonton franchise and the loss of free agent acquisition, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, has severely affected the team. Out indefinitely with what has been called a “bad back”, Edmonton’s number one goaltender does not appear ready to return anytime soon and according to a December 16th Edmonton Journal article by Jim Matheson, it is unknown if Khabibulin will undergo surgery or simply keep waiting. He has yet to begin practising with the team and if things are improving, it will be after the Christmas break before he returns to the net.
With the long-term injury to Khabibulin, the net minding duties fall upon the shoulders of 25-year old Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and 23-year old Devan Dubnyk. Last year’s number one, Dwayne Roloson is now a member of the New York Islanders and so the bulk of the workload falls to Drouin-Deslauriers, a second round pick in the 2002 entry draft. Before this season, he had played ten NHL games - this season he has surpassed that total and he has appeared in 17 games for the Oilers. His numbers are respectable for a young man learning on the job; his win/loss record is 8-7-2 and he has a 2.93 goals against average and a .906 save percentage.
For Dubnyk, in his second stint with the Oilers this season after a recall from Springfield in the AHL, the transition to the NHL has not been as smooth. In his two appearances this year, Dubnyk is 0-1-0 with a 5.36 GAA and a .800 save percentage. If the Oilers cannot move up the standings quickly, this season will be a tremendous opportunity for the Edmonton management team to evaluate their goaltenders moving forward; both are restricted free agents at the end of the season and Drouin-Deslauriers is eligible for arbitration.
The long-term injuries in Edmonton are not limited to Khabibulin. Sheldon Souray missed time with a concussion earlier in the season and has only appeared in 20 games. After an injury plagued season in the 2007-2008 season that limited the power play specialist to 26 games, he returned to form in the 2008-2009 season, appearing in 81 games and accumulating 23 goals and 53 points. Souray is an important factor in the Oilers offence and his absence certainly handcuffed the team. This season, he has 3 goals and 11 assists but he is a minus seven.
While many NHL teams struggle to cope with injuries, the Oilers have been hit hard and several key players on the team find themselves on injured reserve. Another free agent acquisition and a top-six forward for the Oilers, Mike Comrie, has appeared in only 16 games this season and is on the IR with Mononucleosis. After a great start to the season, scoring five goals in his first 16 games since returning to his hometown team, Comrie last played a game on November 16th and his last point came against Colorado on November 8th. Right-winger Fernando Pisani is also on the IR and his situation may be the most concerning of all the injuries. A real heart and soul member of the Oilers, Pisani has battled colitis for several seasons and has been limited to only six games this season.
One injury that has hurt the Oilers line-up and their offensive production is the loss of Ales Hemsky. Placed on IR on November 27th, Hemsky will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder. Edmonton’s first round pick in the 2001 entry draft, Hemsky has averaged almost a point per game during the past three seasons and was on a similar pace this year with 22 points in 22 games. His loss will be difficult to overcome on a team that may need goals to overcome occasionally shaky goaltending.
On any NHL team, injuries to key players create the opportunity for others to improve their game and contribute on a regular basis. Dustin Penner and Lubomir Visnovsky are leading the team in scoring (Penner has 38 points and Visnovsky has 25) and Gilbert Brule has emerged as a legitimate NHL forward. After struggling to find his game as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets for three seasons, the former Vancouver Giant (WHL) has already surpassed his career best of 19 points (2006-2007) and has 22 points in 33 games with the Oilers this year. His continued improvement will bolster the Edmonton offence for years to come if he keeps finding the net and the Oilers can lock him up long-term; he is currently signed through to the end of the season.
The season is slipping away from the Oilers, the Western Conference is a powerhouse and gaining ground on the teams ahead of them in the standings will be difficult but the season is not a loss. Head Coach Pat Quinn and associate coach Tom Renney will get a good look at their young talent and General Manager Steve Tambellini has the experience to turn some of Edmonton’s veterans into prospects via the trade route if the team continues to struggle. It is far from their goal of being a playoff contender this season but anything is possible in today’s NHL. Did anyone have Los Angeles or Phoenix in the top eight this season? A quick start to the New Year and the Oilers will be right back in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the West. While they have not started the way they wanted, the future still looks bright in Edmonton. Have a great sports day everyone.