It’s a pivotal year for the Edmonton Oilers. Training camp is about to open and the 2003-04 version of the Oil will begin play with new players, a new coach and quite possibly a new attitude. Who will replace departed favorites of past years? Will a new goaltending tandem be enough to finally bring back playoff success? How will the looming labor strife affect the team? For possible answers, Hockey’s Future spoke with several people with valuable insight and informed opinions.
Topic #1: What was the best off-season move the Oilers made this summer and why?
Prendergast: Re-signing Ryan Smyth. Smytty’s the kind of guy you want to lock up for a couple of years and that’s what we did.
Sexsmith: Re-signing Ryan Smyth. He’s the heart and soul of the Oilers.
Griffiths: Best off-season move? Really it was the opposite. The Oilers decision to NOT keep Todd Marchant was their best move. It allowed the club to redirect the money to other places especially with some of the new kids coming up. Solid fiscal responsibility shown by K-Lowe.
Stauffer: Letting Dan Cleary and Brian Swanson go. Neither can play at the NHL level
for a good club.
Flaming: The most obvious choice is resigning Smyth for three years but maybe by the end of the year we might say hiring [assistant coach] Craig Simpson.
Topic #2: Assuming that Jason Smith, Steve Staios, Alexei Semenov, Cory Cross and Eric Brewer are assured blueline jobs, who will be the #6 and #7 defensemen this year?
Prendergast: Scotty Ferguson is the No. 6 guy at this point. The last spot is going to come down to Bergeron, Bobby Allen, Jan Horacek and Mikko Luoma. We’ll keep the best one of the lot or the one that fits the chemistry to start the season but it might not be the one who’ll be the seventh guy over the course of the year.
Sexsmith: Cory Cross is not a top five in my opinion. Still, Cross, Scott Ferguson and Marc-Andre Bergeron should battle it out for five, six and seven.
Griffiths: Scott Ferguson and Bobby Allen. M-A Bergeron won’t quite make it. Great hit in the playoffs, but he’s too small for the 82 game grind.
Stauffer: Brewer, Smith, Semenov and Staios are the top four. I would lump Cross in with Ferguson, Bergeron and Mikko Luoma as being 5’8″, with Luoma having a chance to make an impact offensively.
Flaming: I think Ferguson, because he’s the incumbent, has to be a favorite for the No. 6 spot. I believe that either Mikko Luoma or Marc-Andre Bergeron will grab the last vacancy because of their ability to quarterback the power play. Bergeron was up last year and Luoma may need some AHL time for adjusting to North America.
Topic #3: Is the goaltending tandem of Salo/Conklin good enough to get the Oilers to the next level?
Prendergast: We certainly feel that they can do it. Tommy’s an elite goaltender in this league and he wants to come back and show everybody in hockey that he is that. Conklin’s gone down to Hamilton and done everything we’ve asked him to do. In two years they’ve been to the final four and to Game 7 of the finals this year and he was a big part of that hockey club.
Sexsmith: They’re going to have to be. And Tommy Salo has to be better if or when the Oilers get to the next level (which is past the first round of the playoffs).
Griffiths: Uh, no. I expect Salo to have a big year, but for me, the jury is out on Conklin until he proves he’s ready for the next big step. Tommy will carry the mail this season. Ty will open and close the gate and may play about 12-15 games.
Stauffer: No. Deslauriers is the guy in three years who, if he develops, has the best chance to move the organization to the next level. Conklin is very suspect to me. I hope I am wrong.
Flaming: Conklin has proven at every level that he is a winner. In my opinion the bigger question is with Salo and whether he can return to form of two years ago. I say he can.
Topic #4: Todd Marchant signed with Columbus this summer. In what areas will his absence be felt (if at all) and whom do you look to now to help fill his shoes?
Prendergast: Todd’s speed and defensive ability. I think with York, Dvorak, Hemsky, Rita, Chimera and Torres we’re certainly going to be able to replace the speed. The leadership part is something that between Ryan Smyth, Ethan Moreau, Georges Laraque, some of our defensemen and Comrie, if he’s going to be a part of our organization, these guys will take that over.
Sexsmith: Todd Marchant will be missed at the Christmas Bureau (he was the Honorary Chair or something). Look for Jarret Stoll to fill his size 8’s.
Griffiths: Penalty killing. Marchant had a solid rep around the league for his PK work and the team may suffer with his departure, but see answer to question ONE.
Stauffer: Marchant is grossly over-rated in this community. He is a third line forward and the Oilers have a plethora of players like that already. His numbers last season were a statistical anomaly. Jarrett Stoll will easily be able to replace (Marchant’s) season, and has bigger offensive upside.
Flaming: Reasoner filled his third line role nicely last year, I think Horcoff is ready for Marchant’s No. 2 center role this year. Penalty killing is the bigger problem but hopefully Stoll and Chimera can handle it.
Topic #5: Marchant, Cleary and Swanson are gone from last season’s forward lines. What are the chances that another veteran will be moved, (a la Mike Grier), prior to the season?
Prendergast: We have enough players we feel can play in the NHL, and may have a couple of extra ones. We’ll see what they do in the exhibition season and if we feel we can be a better team by moving some of these guys that’s something we’ll explore.
Sexsmith: With Mike Grier and Todd Marchant already gone, Ethan Moreau appears to be next. The Oilers have half a dozen Moreau-type players waiting in the wings (who come considerably cheaper).
Griffiths: I see that happening. Moreau, Laraque and Comrie are not signed and no one on this team is “untouchable” anymore. They scrambled to make the playoffs again last season, so Lowe should ALWAYS be on the lookout to improve the team.
Stauffer: If the Oilers could move Moreau and get a veteran d-man better than Cross or Ferguson, or a better backup than Conklin, they would be improving their organization.
Flaming: If $1.5M was too much to pay third liners Marchant and Grier before than it’s likely too much to pay for Moreau now too. Jason Chimera could likely play that role just as well and for a lot less money.
Topic #6: Raffi Torres’ one-way contract is a strong indication that he’ll be on the team. Where will he fit into the line up?
Prendergast: Raffi is a third or a fourth line player for us, it’s going to depend on which teams we are playing.
Sexsmith: Raffi Torres will be the agitator the Oilers have been desperately seeking. He’ll be a fine fourth-liner.
Griffiths: I’ve heard nothing but great things from the scouts when it comes to Torres: “Tough SOB with pretty good hands.” I can hardly wait to see what he shows us at the training camp.
Stauffer: To start a fourth-line energy player playing with Laraque and Stoll/Reasoner. Long-term he could be a Brendan Morrow-type. Torres is the type of player the Oilers have needed for a while.
Flaming: I see him on the fourth line with big Georges Laraque. Torres stirs the pot and Laraque wipes up the floor (with whomever’s closest).
Topic #7: Will Jarret Stoll start the season in Edmonton or in Toronto (AHL)?
Prendergast: Jarret is someone we know is very, very close to playing in the NHL and if not now then over the course of sometime this year.
Griffiths: Yeah, I think he’ll be there at the start of the campaign. He may very well be the next Marchant. But I’m not so sure if he’ll be able to stick long-term though.
Stauffer: Edmonton (see answer to #4).
Flaming: Edmonton either as the No. 4 center or as a press box watcher. It depends on whether Mike York plays as a center or a winger.
Topic #8: He was a first round pick in 1999, is time running out in Edmonton for Jani Rita?
Prendergast: He just turned 23 years old so he’s still a young man. He brings something to the table that we need. He’s got that explosive speed and has very good hands so we expect Jani to come in and show us that he’s ready to play here.
Sexsmith: Not in my opinion; Jani Rita’s a strong, skilled player. I figure the wait will be worth it, although, Rita’s patience is probably waning.
Griffiths: This is it for Jani. Big camp needed to stick around or he could be packaged up in a preseason deal perhaps.
Stauffer: Yes. If the Oilers were smart they would play the hell out of him at the start of the season, hope he scores some goals and flip him to an organization that has depth in goal (Buffalo: Miller, Noronen), or defensemen.
Flaming: He might be a victim of the numbers game and not start the year in Edmonton, however, that might not be a bad thing for his long-term development. He did struggle at times last year in the AHL. I still think he’ll make an impact in the NHL one day soon.
Topic #9: Who is your dark horse choice as a rookie out of camp?
Prendergast: Mikko Luoma might be the dark horse guy. He’s not a kid, he’s 27 years old, and he’s got a lot of international and playoff experience.
Sexsmith: No names but the breakthrough might be on defence.
Griffiths: Raffi Torres.
Stauffer: Tony Salmelainen.
Flaming: I wouldn’t call Torres, Stoll or Rita dark horses so I don’t think there will be one. If I had to pick one then maybe Brad Winchester gets a longer look because of his size.
Topic #10: Who do you think deserves to wear the Alternate “A”s this year to go along side Captain Jason Smith?
Prendergast: Ryan Smyth deserves one and after that it’s the coach’s decision. We have a lot of quality people: Mike York, Marty Reasoner, Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau, any combination of those guys would do us proud to wear an A on their sweater.
Sexsmith: Ryan Smyth. Steve Staios.
Griffiths: Steve Staios and Ryan Smyth. Both are great in the room and show their stuff on the ice and are quality guys off the ice too. Captain material on a lot of NHL teams.
Stauffer: Ryan Smith, Steve Staios and Marty Reasoner (an underrated Oiler).
Flaming: If Ryan Smyth can captain for Canada he can wear an “A” anytime in my opinion. Steve Staios absolutely deserves the other one with maybe Mike York as my third choice.
Topic #11: Will the recent playoff successes of other “lower budget” teams like Carolina, Anaheim and Minnesota make the Edmonton fan base more impatient for playoff success?
Prendergast: I would think it would and I would say that it’s made management ready for it too. We feel that we can get into the playoffs and do those things that those three teams have done in the last two years.
Sexsmith: Not if the Oilers provide fans with a competitive, consistent, hard-working product throughout the regular season.
Griffiths: Absolutely. With Anaheim and Minnesota climbing the playoff ranks last year, you could hear the displeasure of the Oiler fans. At least on our radio show. The Oil fans couldn’t quite understand how the Ducks and Wild made it past the first round and frankly, the fans here are quickly losing patience with the home squad. Making the second round of the playoffs ABSOLUTELY essential for Lowe and MacT or the knives will be out.
Stauffer: They should be! The Oilers need to adopt the model of Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s and use statistical science to better evaluate prospects. It’s the way of the future in professional sports.
Flaming: The more fickle fans might be more apt to say ‘If the Ducks can do it why can’t we?’ but I think as long as the Oilers remain competitive and exciting the true fans will stay loyal and supportive.
Topic #12: In what ways will Assistant Coach Craig Simpson make this a better team?
Prendergast: Craig brings something different to the table because he was an offensive player. I think our shooters will be able to go to him and have a good rapport. He’s going to do a good job with our young players here.
Sexsmith: Power play. Hair care.
Griffiths: Very simple. Simpson will show guys how to go to the net and stay there. The Oiler power play has been awful the last few seasons due to the lack of any presence in front of the opposition net. Big Georges may be the perfect fit for this new role on the PP.
Stauffer: Simpson is in a tough position. If the power play sucks is it his fault? He doesn’t have a lot of coaching experience, but he was exposed to many teams in the first three years of the Sportsnet National Games. Maybe he can incorporate some things that other teams have been doing, because the Oilers have been underperforming on the PP for a while.
Flaming: The PP can only get better with Simpson’s experience from both on the ice and in the press box.
Topic #13: With the looming possibility of CBA doom in 2004, some teams may be more or less active on the trade front than in a “normal season” (especially at the deadline). Which group are the Oilers more likely to be in?
Prendergast: We’ve basically set ourselves up where we’re within our budget and we have the players that we feel we can win with here. We didn’t get ourselves into a situation where we need to dump salaries or players.
Sexsmith: I believe the Oilers/Kevin Lowe will continue on their/his current course. They’ll make moves to improve the team, while remaining a frugal franchise.
Griffiths: I expect the Oilers to basically sit back and watch all the activity on the trading front this year. In the meantime, all the big money clubs will be in a frenzy to win the Cup this year since it may be the last one for a while.
Stauffer: The Oilers are in a good position because Kevin Lowe is a good GM. They aren’t overextended carrying contracts that you want to dump like the Rangers, Capitals and Blues. I don’t see the Oil making dump deals, but those others might.
Flaming: To me it seems like the Oilers have been planning for a work stoppage for a while now. With the exception of one or two contracts I don’t think Edmonton will have much roster fiddling to do as a result of the CBA uncertainty.
Topic #14: Who will lead the Oilers in scoring at the end of the year?
Prendergast: I think this year it’s probably going to be somebody like Mike York or Ales Hemsky or Radek Dvorak. I think it will be one of those three guys and certainly Comrie, if he’s here, he fits into that mix too.
Sexsmith: Ryan Smyth.
Griffiths: Mike York, if he’s healthy.
Stauffer: Comrie with 65-70 points.
Flaming: Probably Smyth with York and Dvorak hot on his tail.
Topic #15: Predict where the Oilers will finish in the conference in 2003-04 regular season and playoffs.
Prendergast: Everybody says they want to win the Stanley Cup and we’re no different. We want to get into the playoffs and win some rounds and build a tradition here with these guys that they can learn how to win as they go along.
Sexsmith: Eighth for old times’ sake with a first round exit to make it complete.
Griffiths: The Oilers will finish seventh in the Conference and will as usual, bow out in Round One of the playoffs. But damn, what a great first round match up series with Dallas it will be! Again!
Stauffer: Ninth or 10th because their goaltending and defense isn’t good enough. I sure
hope I am wrong!
Flaming: Seventh place finish with an exciting upset victory over Detroit in the opening round and then… ah who am I kidding?