Hockey

Veterans asked to lead Oilers: preview

The Edmonton Oilers' young forward corps is a year older and they have a Stanley Cup champion goalie in Nikolai Khabibulin, but is it enough to make a significant climb in the NHL's Western Conference standings?

A third consecutive spring out of the Stanley Cup playoffs meant changes were in store in Edmonton, starting behind the bench where Pat Quinn has taken over from Craig MacTavish.

While many of the Oilers' skilled forwards could benefit from Quinn's attacking style, this is virtually the same group that didn't boast a 25-goal scorer last season.

Sure, their young forward corps is a year older and they have a Cup champion goalie in Nikolai Khabibulin, but is it enough to make a significant climb in the NHL's Western Conference standings?

At a Glance

2008-09 record: 38-35-9, 11th in Western Conference, missed playoffs for third straight season.

Hello: Head coach Pat Quinn, associate coach Tom Renney, assistant coach Wayne Fleming, Nikolai Khabibulin (G), Mike Comrie (F).

Goodbye: Head coach Craig MacTavish, Dwayne Roloson (G), Ales Kotalik (F), Kyle Brodziak (F).

No. of Olympians: 4 (Robert Nilsson, Denis Grebeshkov, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert).

What to like

How about management's refusal to lie low in the off-season? Quinn and new associate coach Tom Renney bring a wealth of experience to the bench. Quinn, who has 657 career NHL wins, coached young Canadian squads to gold medals at the 2009 world junior championship and the under-18 championship in April 2008. Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini also did well in signing goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to replace the departed Dwayne Roloson and made a strong offer in a failed attempt to acquire former Ottawa Senators winger Dany Heatley.

"Pat is a person that has handled any type of situation from winning championships with Team Canada to developing young players to working with star veteran players," Tambellini told CBCSports.ca. "He just brought all the qualities that started with leadership that I thought this organization needed immediately.

"And Tom Renney, from a preparation mindset, is an elite coach. He's a detailed guy. He understands the North American game and he understands the mindset of the players coming from Europe."

What to sweat

The Oilers return virtually the same team that dropped 13 of its final 20 games a year ago and finished 22nd and 27th respectively among the 30 teams in power play and penalty-kill efficiency.

Only two players topped 20 goals last season (forward Ales Hemsky and defenceman Sheldon Souray) while four up-and-coming forwards — Sam Gagner, Patrick O'Sullivan, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson — experienced a decrease in point totals.

"We should have had 25-goal scorers with our lineup," said Tambellini. "[Forwards Shawn] Horcoff and [Ales] Hemsky and Patrick O'Sullivan and [Sam] Gagner and [Andrew] Cogliano have to be better. Patrick has looked pretty strong in training camp. We acquired him at the trade deadline [last year] and I expect a big year out of him."

Under pressure: Shawn Horcoff

With a $7-million US salary and $5.5-million salary cap hit, Edmonton could use more offence (53 points in 80 games last year) from its No. 1 centre. Tambellini calls Horcoff one of the hardest-working two-way forwards he's been around and a true professional in his approach to the game.

"He played in too many situations last year that we knew we would be sacrificing some offence to make sure he was out on every key defensive situation," said Tambellini of Horcoff. "If we need him to play in more offensive situations this year I think his point production will go up. It will be dependent on how much Pat is going to want to use him on the defensive side of the game."

Fresh face: Nikolai Khabibulin

Sure, the Oilers are a little younger in goal with the 36-year-old Khabibulin, but are they better? Khabibulin led Chicago to the West finals this past spring before a recurring groin problem flared up. The concern for fans is the oft-injured Russian has played fewer games in each of the past three seasons, from 60 in 2006-07 to 50 the following year and 42 last season, though his goals-against average and save percentage improved over that time.

Jeff Deslauriers, with just 10 games of NHL experience, is the backup.

"We didn't believe we could go forward unless we found a way to have that key person in goal. He [Khabibulin] was No. 1 on our list," said Tambellini. "He's won a Stanley Cup [in 2004 with Tampa Bay] and is in tremendous condition. He also has a history of helping young goalies. We're totally confident with both our young guys, Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk."

Olympic impact

The good news is Edmonton will have only a small representation at the Vancouver Winter Games in February, meaning the bulk of the roster will get a chance to rest for the NHL stretch drive. Three of the four Olympic candidates are defencemen and that has to bode well, in terms of the calibre of defence Quinn will ice on a nightly basis.

Outlook

Put simply, the Oilers' top players (Hemsky, Horcoff and Khabibulin) will have to be at their best for the majority of games if the team hopes to end its playoff drought. Edmonton missed the playoffs by six points last spring, which could be made up with good health in net, improved special teams and rebound seasons from the top six forwards.

"I know once Pat and the rest of the staff get a couple of months under their belt we're going to get better as the season goes along. We're excited," Tambellini said. "We've got a lot of depth and very talented individuals, but we have to become a better team."