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The Hockey News

A few weeks back in this space, I began with an apology to Buffalo fans for something that had to do with Edmonton. This week I’m apologizing to Edmonton fans. Not for what you’re about to read, but for THN’s selection of your beloved Oil to once again finish dead last in the Western Conference.

As I recall, there wasn’t too much debate – mostly because of the egalitarian arguing over which of as many as eight teams we should name our Stanley Cup favorite, in mid-July I might add. But I must say, I don’t agree with 15th.

All things being equal, the Oilers have a pretty good-looking squad, much more exciting than either Columbus or Minnesota – who we picked to finish 14th and 13th in the conference – and Edmonton’s goaltending is no more tenuous than Dallas’, our choice for No. 12 in the West.

Let’s start at the top: coaching. Tom Renney, an X’s and O’s guy, takes over for Pat Quinn, who had more of a free-flowing style. As bad as the team performed on special teams and as young as the Oilers will be this coming season, structure will be important.

In goal, Nikolai Khabibulin is a wildcard. He’s 37 and hasn’t played more than 60 games since the lockout. His 2009-10 season was basically lost to a back injury, but two years ago with Chicago, the 2004 Cup winner posted 25 wins, a 2.33 GAA and a .919 save percentage in 42 contests. He’s also yet to sort out some off-ice issues stemming from a DUI arrest back in early February in Arizona.

Behind the ‘Bulin Wall’ are Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk – two youngsters who showed flashes of potential last season – and another wildcard, Martin Gerber. The 35-year-old Swiss was last seen in the NHL in 2008-09 splitting time between Ottawa and Toronto. He’s no savior, but he’s a veteran of 226 NHL contests and has battled through trying times in Carolina and Ottawa in the past.

Columbus has a third-year starter, Steve Mason, who has proved to be wildly erratic and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom is coming off a down season. Both are better than Khabibulin at their best, but who knows what you’re going to get from any of the three. And if Dallas fans have any faith in Kari Lehtonen getting through an entire season, they need to give their collective head a shake.

Edmonton’s defense is in a state of flux. Sheldon Souray has said publicly he wants out and has cleared waivers, but, according to one source, the Oilers can’t even give him away. And with a $5.4 million cap hit each of the next two years and a bad attitude, I’m not surprised. But it’s not all bad on the back end.

Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert are a promising – if yet to prove formidable – No. 1 pairing. Ladislav Smid and newcomer Kurtis Foster both offer some offense. And Jim Vandermeer, Theo Peckham and Jason Strudwick offer size and toughness. The blueline is by no means great, but it’s not all bad. And it compares favorably to that of Columbus, Minnesota and Dallas.

But it’s the promise up front that has fans in Oil Country excited. Look at the Edmonton depth chart and tell me which team in the NHL wouldn’t want six or more of those top-nine forwards. There’s a youth movement afoot led by No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall, Sweden’s 19-year-old World Championship scoring leader Magnus Paajarvi and the youngest player to ever skate for Canada at the worlds, reigning major junior player of the year Jordan Eberle.

With those three, the Oilers are essentially an entire forward line deeper than they were a season ago. Not that anyone should expect them to be world-beaters as rookies, but all three are fleet-a-foot and oozing with scoring talent.

The three freshmen will take pressure off veterans Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner and allow the no-longer-considered-franchise-saviors Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano room to breathe as well. The presence of those four will, likewise, mean the rookies won’t have too-high expectations on them to win games themselves. And if Gilbert Brule can score another 20-plus goals and Shawn Horcoff reverts back to his 50-point form, you’re looking at three pretty good lines.

Columbus, Minnesota and Dallas all have more experienced squads, but none are more talented. I won’t sit here and stab out anything as preposterous as Edmonton is a Cup contender, but I do think 15th in the West was a little harsh on our part. The Oilers could jump past at least the three aforementioned teams and even threaten for a post-season position.

But maybe that’s not what’s best. Maybe a low finish and a high pick is the fastest way back to contending status. I don’t know, but wherever the Oilers end up, it won’t be 15th.

THN Puck Panel – Reasons for optimism in Edmonton

PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his blog appearing Thursdays and the Wednesday Top 10.

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