Will the defense rest?
While its safe to say that the Oilers biggest problem last year was scoring goals, the focus coming out of this years camp has to be on the defense, and the amount of rookies that will break camp with the big team. It will be very hard for the Oilers to repeat last seasons amazing performance, posting the second best G.A.A. in the league, but if they somehow can, they may be a 100-point team this year. Why do you ask, because they finally have a real second line!
Lets start by looking at the forwards:
The first line would seem to suggest that Mike Comrie will center Ryan Smyth and potential superstar Ales Hemsky. While this combination will be granted a short leash, Hemsky is the key to the top two lines. If his play warrants extended time on the first line, and he can score between 50-60 points, the Oilers can then ice Anson Carter on the second line. Smyth and Comrie will very easily take their game to the next level no matter who they play with. I predict that Comrie will be very close to 80 points, and Smyth will post around 70.
The new look second line should be Jiri Dopita, Mike York and Carter. If you’ve seen them play one game together, the chemistry between York and Carter is obvious. Dopita has been slowed by a nagging knee injury, but his head for the game may be the best on the team. I predict a very solid season for this whole unit, and you can expect that all three will get PP time. York will probably continue to play on the point, and Carter may spot with Comrie and Smyth on the first powerplay unit. I would expect that all could be in the 60-point range. If they do anything close to that as a group, the Oilers are probably a playoff team.
It’s hard at this point to predict exactly what or whom the third and fourth line is? Is it Todd Marchant with Georges Laraque and Ethan Moreau, or is it the impressive combination of Brian Swanson, Dan Cleary, and Jason Chimera? Hard to say except this, the third and fourth line will probably see very similar minutes with the exception of PK time. (Factor in that Josh Green, Shawn Horcoff, and Marty Reasoner will get minutes too once they have figured out whom they are going to keep) It’s very hard to predict scoring totals for the remaining eight forwards that will rotate through these two-line combos, but it is safe to say that any offense will be a bonus.
The top three guys are as solid as they come! Eric Brewer, Janne Niinimaa, and Jason Smith are a lethal combination of skill, grit, and power. The only thing stopping these three is the injury bug. Niinimaa’s poor back is well documented, and Smith just suffered through a season of the injury bug. It should also be mentioned that Brewer had a horrible pre-season, but I would be shocked if his play wasn’t anything but terrific once the season starts. I actually expect Brewer to be the number one guy by the time the year is finished.
The number 4 and 5 spot are where things get a bit dicey. Steve Staios and Scott Ferguson have done everything that has been asked of them, and they are rock solid. The problem is that they are probably being asked to do too much. If the Oilers had a true number 4-D man, and these two were in the 5 and 6 hole, you would be looking at a much stronger team. The number 6 and 7 spot will be Kari Haakana and rookie Alex Henry, who will add a considerable amount of toughness that was lost when Sean Brown was traded.
The status quo isn’t always a good thing, unless you’re the Oilers goalies. Last season was magical for Tommy Salo, and Jussi Markanen provided quality backup support. While Markanen was left out to dry in a lot of pre-season games, it is worth noting that he was even worse at his first camp last year. Obviously the Oilers think that he will ignite once the games count. Expect the same high level of goaltending this year as well.
It’s not going to be easy, but the Oilers have as good a chance as any team to make the playoffs this year. The problem is this, who will fall out to make room for them? One could expect that Phoenix overachieved last year, but they have also improved their team. Vancouver lost Andrew Cassels, but I expect a big emergence from the Sedin’s this year. After missing the playoffs last year, Dallas may have the most improved team in the league. Los Angeles riding a full season of Jason Allison will be very tough, and so on… What is comes down to is this, whoever has the longest losing streak will probably miss the playoffs…with 95 points! The question is, who will that team be?