Edmonton - Nov. 2, 2011 - With the first month of the Edmonton Oilers season now completed, I wanted to take a look back and examine what every player has brought to the table, be it good or bad. While each player will receive a rating on their overall performance, the expectations that were placed on each individual coming into the season will also be taken into consideration, when determining the grade that each player will receive.
Eric Belanger - The centre has been as advertised in the faceoff circle (58.9%) and has been good on the penalty kill. On the downside, he has yet to find chemistry with anyone 5-on-5 and while I wasn't expecting much in the way of points, one point in eleven games isn't good enough. Needs To Work On: Keeping things simple on the offence and not press to make things happen. Would benefit playing with Ryan Jones as his regular linemate.
Ben Eager - The pre-season concussion he suffered really set him back but he is starting to find his game. Eager has not been throwing his body around enough and has yet to step up and send a message when the opposition has taken liberties with the Oilers smaller players. Needs To Work On: Playing a north - south game and start using his size and speed to his advantage.
Jordan Eberle - Outside of not scoring in his first seven games, Eberle has been good. In his defense, having him start the season with Belanger and Smyth made no sense and not surprisingly, he struggled out of the gate. Once he was placed with players who could get him the puck. where he could do damage, the turn around was almost instant. His finish has been a little off early but when he starts finding the range, look out. Needs To Work On: Moving his feet in the defensive zone to ensure he is in better position. Eberle tends to puck watch when the play is on the off wing and will often lose his mark.
Sam Gagner - While Gagner has now played five games, it is impossible to give him a grade based on two things. The lack of pre-season action due to his ankle injury, left him far behind the pack when he did get back into the lineup. Second, having him play right wing on his return seems a little unfair to ask of Gagner but the Oilers had little choice. The only other option they had, was to send down Lander but the coaching staff did not want to go that route. To make matters worse, he has been playing with a centre that simply doesn't have the game to make that line go. Needs To Work On: Making better passes. Far too often Sam tries to feather a pass in the worst possible situation and it almost always ends up coming back into the Oilers end. Once Hemsky returns to the lineup, Gagner should end up playing with better players and he will need to seize the opportunity to show the organization that he should be part of the future moving forward.
Taylor Hall - The talented winger was far to reckless in his play early in the season but has settled in nicely of late. Regardless of what the scoresheet tells us, Hall is more often then not, the Oilers best forward. Teams have keyed on the sophomore much more this season and to his credit, Hall has not backed down and it actually seems to motivate him. Make no mistake, this team will be Taylor Hall's team in very short order. Needs To Work On: Shooting the puck. He hasn't used his shot nearly enough this season and both he and Eberle, should be waiting to one time a puck that will undoubtedly find it's way to them courtesy of one Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Ales Hemsky - Looked pretty damn impressive during the first four periods of the season but hasn't played since. Obviously, the injury issues remain a concern but hopefully his latest visit to the sidelines will be the last setback for the talented forward. Needs To Work On: Moving the puck quicker on the power play and as always, shot more often. Lets hope Hemmer can stay healthy and see what he can do over the last three quarters of the season. With a healthy Ales Hemsky, this team could do some damage.
Shawn Horcoff - Just having Eric Belanger in the fold, has made Horcoff a much better player. While he still does much of the heavy lifting, he no longer has to do it all on his own. Playing in a secondary role has allowed him to relax and not surprisingly, we have seen a marked improvement in his stats across the board. The captain has also found a fit on the top power play unit with the kids, as a net presence and faceoff specialist. Needs To Work On: Playing a little less. Granted, it is not the players decision when he is given the tap on the shoulder to go out on the ice but if Horcoff starts to tire, he needs to let the coaching staff know. The Oilers have other options but coach Renney will always go back to his guy, if he is willing and able.
Darcy Hordichuk - While he played in the Oilers first three games, he played a grand total of four minutes and then hurt his knee. Not much can be determined from such a small sample size.
Ryan Jones - I will forever debate the amount Jones plays 5-on-5 but no one can question his effort. The fan favourite keeps his game very simple and has been a great fit this season with Shawn Horcoff and his mullet brother Ryan Smyth. The trio play the "tough minutes" on a nightly basis and Jones has adjusted well to the added responsibilities. While Ryan isn't a big man, he always plays a physical game and has become one of the leaders on the club. The only guy in the league that gets more excited when he's on the ice for a goal his team scores, is Alex Ovechkin but Jones gives him a run for his money! Needs To Work On: His finish in tight could be better but he isn't blessed with goal scorers hands. He always tends to have a nice shooting percentage at seasons end because he either scores or misses the net completely.
Anton Lander - The young Swede has been a nice addition to the penalty kill while playing fourth line minutes. He hasn't done anything offensively to this point and you would think he will likely be sent to Oklahoma City once Ales Hemsky returns. To his credit, the youngster has done everything that has been asked of him and will do anything needed to help this team win. Needs To Work On: His overall game would improve if he would play more minutes but that isn't going to happen in Edmonton. Getting him playing top line minutes in OKC at some point this season, is a must to further his development.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - I had high expectations for the rookie centre heading into the season but he has been even better then I thought he'd be. His vision out on the ice is scary and he has that ability to make players he plays with better. That is the mark of a great player and the Oilers look like they may have hit the jackpot with Nugent-Hopkins. He's already the best passer on the team and has shown he can finish when the opportunity presents itself. Needs To Work On: Trying not to do too much so early in his NHL career. There are going to be some rough patches along the way and he must remember to keep his game simple. He is a very special player and once he becomes stronger, the young centre will be a force for years to come.
Linus Omark - The talented winger has only played five games this season and he has either been very good or invisible. He hasn't been given the best linemates to play with, Belanger as his centre makes no sense, but his game has been far to inconsistent when he has been in the lineup. That being said, Omark has been caught in a numbers game and can't find his way back into the lineup. He is one of the more talented players on the team but he is another small body. Needs To Work On: Coming out with a consistent effort every night and not take shifts off. Omark is effective when he is a hound on the puck but when he decides to float around the ice, he brings next to nothing to the table. Until he finds consistency in his game, the young Swede will not be a regular in this league, no matter where he plays.
Magnus Paajarvi - The sophomore slump seems to have hit Paajarvi and he is struggling to find his game. He hasn't been put in a role to be a major contributor but in the coaching staffs defence, he has looked lost for much of the season. He is one of the teams best two way players but he needs to learn to battle more, if he wants to be successful. While his role has been limited, being pointless in eleven games is simply not good enough. Needs To Work On: Going hard to the net and corners and engaging in one on one battles. The talented winger would get a whole lot more accomplished if he would raise his compete level. He has the game to be a difference maker but the drive to want to be a go to guy is still not there. Spending time on a line with Ryan Smyth may not be a bad idea for the kid to get a first hand look at what extra effort will get you.
Lennart Petrell - The feisty forward has filled the role he was brought in for beautifully. He keeps his game very simple, he's been physical most nights and outstanding on the penalty kill. Basically, Petrell has been the model fourth line player. His willingness to block shots, seems to have rubbed off on his teammates, as the Oilers have willingly sacrificed their bodies with much greater frequency. Needs To Work On: Chipping in a little more on the scoresheet. While not a priority for the fourth line, the odd goal here and there, especially on the road, is often the difference between winning and losing.
Ryan Smyth - The former Oiler has been sensational in his return to Edmonton. He has added the leadership that everyone was expecting and has chipped in with ten points and a team leading five goals, tied with RNH. Smyth has always scored in bunches so the points will level off but it is the other parts of his game and off ice leadership that has made him invaluable to the club. Needs To Work On: Like Horcoff, he has been played a ton by this coaching staff but if it becomes apparent that he is running out of steam, he has to let the coaching staff know. They have other options at their disposal so for the betterment of the club, Smyth needs to be honest with both himself and the coaches.
Tom Renney and his staff have definitely made the players believers in themselves and convinced them to play a much more solid all around game. The team leads the league in goals against, as odd as that sounds, allowing only sixteen in eleven games and while the goaltenders have played a hug role, it is the structure in their own zone that has made the biggest difference. The puck support has been a full 180 from where it's been in recent years and the staff has to be given full credit for getting the buy in from the players. The special teams have both been outstanding an it is an area I feel coaching plays a large role in. For the last five years, this team has been down right awful on special teams but things have finally started to turn around.
It has been said, that if you were to add a clubs special teams percentages together and they total up to a score north of 100, then things are going well. Edmonton currently sits at a total of 109.9...the only teams better are Pittsburgh(114.1), Buffalo (113.8) and Colorado(110.5). To put that in perspective, this team finished last season with a total of 91.5 which was worst in the league.
Need To Work On: While the Horcoff line has been good this season, they play far too many minutes most nights and that will come back to haunt this club, if they continue down that road all season long. On the flipside, the must ensure that the kids are in that 17 - 19 minute range on a nightly basis for two reasons. It gives them better balance as a team and more importantly, it's a learning opportunity for the youngsters that shouldn't be passed up on. Players such as Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark have not been put in the best situations to succeed and that is something that must be addressed. Part of it is because of injuries, especially not having Ales Hemsky in the lineup but part of it, is playing a guy like Ryan Jones far too much. Love what Jones brings to the table but he's been playing nearly as much or more then Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins 5-on-5 and that can't be happening.