It can never be easy for the Oilers, can it?
First, the Ottawa Senators agreed to ship their troubled yet talented sniper Dany Heatley over to the City of Champions, except there was a fly in that ointment. That fly’s name was…Dany Heatley. Having a no-trade clause leaves teams utterly helpless when malcontent athletes are involved. Heatley had no desire to head out west, despite being from the area. I have never seen a public resistance against one team the way Heatley resisted against Edmonton. There must be a certain pollen in the Edmonton air that we all aren’t privy to.
In all honesty and all terrible attempts at humor aside, it was just another example of a “big name” player unwilling to play for a small market team, period. The difference here was that it was a public affair and the latest setback for this once proud organization.
The Heatley debacle tempered, somewhat, the excitement of bringing in one of the winningest coaches in NHL history, Pat Quinn. He along with Tom Renney, replaced the much maligned Crach MacTavish almost immediately after the disappointing ’08-’09 season. They did make one splash this summer though, signing the ‘Bulin Wall, none other than aging superstar goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to a surprising four year contract.
This had to be considered an upgrade over former starter Dwayne Roloson, despite solid numbers from the ex-Oilers starter. Optimism was guarded but definitely there, as the mix of youngsters and veterans, new coaching regime and new #1 netminder had Oilers fans thinking at least playoffs.
Unfortunately things don’t always work out as one (or, in this case, tens of thousands) would hope. Injuries and disappointing play from several relied upon players have put a clamp on even the most optimistic of fans.
Ales Hemsky, the enigmatic and superior skilled forward for Edmonton suffered a season-ending injury at the hands of a clean yet hard hit by Michal Handzus. His injury is definitely a tremendous blow to the offense and subsuquently the Oilers playoff hopes. He is by far and away their most talented forward and was having a solid season up until that injury.
Very few teams can suffer such setbacks and the Oilers are definitely among those teams that are the rule, not the exception. Despite Dustin Penner’s emergence as a big time player(more on that later), Hemsky’s production will be very hard to replace.
If Hemsky’s loss wasn’t bad enough, Nikolai Khabibulin and his notorious cranky back are making this holiday season a very moody one for these Oilers. The prized free agent, suffered back pains right before Thanksgiving and hasn’t returned to the line-up. Reports may vary, but he either might be gone for a few more games or he might be done for the season.
Obviously the team is hoping for the former because despite Jeff Deslaurier’s emergence as a fairly reliable goaltender, posting an 8-5-2 record including one shutout, the team needs the kind of goaltending that the ‘Bulin Wall could provide. Edmonton is holding their breath on condition of the 36-year old Russian backstopper…the season may rely on it.
You can throw Sheldon Souray into the mix of man games lost due to injury, a category Edmonton regretfully leads the entire league in. The concussion Souray suffered at the hands of a Jarome Iginla hit early in the season, caused the blue-liner to miss over a month of action and caused Pat Quinn to lost about ten large, due to a notorious post game conference threatening the Calgary captain. Semantics aside, Souray’s injury was definitely a cause for concern, especially the way he collided into the boards head first. Fortunately though, he has returned and has been solid on both ends of the ice. His three goals thus far is a bit of a disappointment, but as long as he keeps firing that heavy shot of his, the goals will assuredly come.
Someone who can’t use injuries as an excuse to his slow start to the season, however, is center Shawn Horcoff. Not only is he on pace for career lows, his usually strong defensive play has waned with his anemic offensive production. Carrying a -12 albatross around his neck is not only choking him, but his team as well. He logs big minutes in every situation, Horcoff’s poor season definitely draws parallels to the struggle that has been the Oilers season, thus far.
There are a couple of saving graces that have kept Edmonton amazingly in the playoff hunt.
You can’t help but feel good for #27, Dustin Penner. The much maligned 6-4, 245 lbs. forward is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. His controversial offer sheet signing in the summer of ’07 carried expectations as big as the man himself. His first two seasons, under ex-coach MacTavish, saw him suffer greatly. He was a healthy scratch on many nights and when he was in the line-up, he was subject to a reduced role.
But this season, under the Quinn/Renney regime, has seen him flourish to an even greater extent than when he was apart of a successful Ducks squad that won the Stanley Cup in his last season in Anaheim. If you scroll down the league leaders in points list, you won’t have to scroll too far to see the Winkler, Manitoba native’s name. Along with former ‘mates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, Penner is 12th in the league in scoring, with 18 goals, 18 assists and an impressive +13. He has been carrying the offense on his broad back, but he has received a bit of help. Not surprisingly, help has come from the back end.
Lubomir Visnovsky, the Czech-born defenseman, is having a solid season, at both ends of the ice. Boasting a solid +11 and solid 23 points, he is picking up where Souray’s absence due to injury, left off. Not noted to be a solid defensive player, he is another bright spot, in an otherwise dreary season. His leadership and emergence can make for a killer one-two punch, along with recently returning Souray, on the point.
Amazingly enough, despite all of the negativity currently plaguing this team, they are not going away quietly. Several youngsters have picked it up, along with the two noted players that are standing out, to this point. Players such as Ryan Potulny, Jeff Deslauriers and the pugilistic Sam Gagner have tried their best to stabilize the Oilers as well, but we will have to wait and see if they can sustain and excel as the season moves along.
They will go down fighting, this is clear. Sometimes a wounded animal can be a dangerous animal. The Oilers have proven they are wounded enough…will they be dangerous enough?