It's true that tonight the pre-season begins in Calgary, but for me there is still one night to go. Though I am currently ticketless (thanks a lot Canada Post...) I've been assured that I can still go fetch my ticket from the Game Day office and attend tomorrow night's tilt between the Oilers and Islanders.
It seems like forever since the last game; partly because it's been a busy summer and partly because we were done so early last year. It's almost Game Report time once again and that has me excited. The fact that John Tavares will be playing tomorrow is simply a bonus in my mind.
I think there are going to be a number of very interesting stories for the Oilers this year; and although we do not have a great team at this point, we have a number of players who COULD take tremendous strides forward. If they do, we are in a tremendous position as a team. If they don't, well, we could be sitting here in the same spot next year. Anyway, I think these will be the stories of the year:
A First Line LW
Patrick O'Sullivan has the distinct opportunity to emerge as a real NHL scoring threat. He has all the tools and plays a very balanced game. Many people say he's underwhelmed at the pro-level, but in some ways I find this quite understandable due to the difficulties in his personal life when he was younger. He will get a fresh shot on a new team with a new coach. These kind of situations give the guys with sheer talent and determination the chance they need. He's that kind of guy. He can think the game fast enough to keep up with Hemsky and get into the positions he needs to be in; or take some puck-carrying pressure off Ales' shoulders. I can't wait to see what he will do in a full season for this club now that he'll be more comfortable. If he winds up on the first line, I'm predicting a big breakout year of 60+ points with around 30 goals. The only question is whether he'll start using his excellent shot from slightly more effective areas, and I really think he will be directed to these areas by Mr. Quinn.
A Number One Goalie
I'm firmly of the opinion that Dwayne Roloson's play here was overrated and contributed negatively to this organization and several junctures. His style, which I've observed to generate more shots for the opposition, will not be missed by these eyes. Khabibulin is a number one goalie. He will stop pucks, win some games for us, and provide peace of mind to his defencemen. I think this year will show the difference between the type of guy we have before and the type we have now in a rather profound way. I'm also not scared at all of starting Deslauriers for a decent number of games, now that we have a coach who won't be scared into paralysis by winning, or losing, or going to shootouts.
Mr. Schremp comes to Edmonton?
I hold out hope, especially from the early stories of camp, that Robbie will finally make this team. As a specialist he can contribute to wins through his amazing offensive gifts. I think we now have a coach who knows how to use a player like him; but we'll see. If he does make the jump, I think he'll play a more important role than people think and quickly round into a solid NHLer. He's very very good at a number of things, and so long as he's focused and confident, that talent won't be kept down. We'll know more in a few games, but his time may finally have come. There are so many fans pulling for him that it'd be a really special story to see him make that leap. It's one of the less probable stories of the year, but it sure would be a good one.
What doesn't happen
I have less hope that Sam Gagner will make a huge leap this year. Last year I thought he was poised for a massive jump and he didn't make it. I almost think not playing 115 games or whatever the number was the year before hurt him. He seems to thrive on activity. I see his development to be more gradual now.
I don't think Cogliano will become a big-time scoring winger, but will instead round out the consistencies in his game and learn to play to his strengths every night.
I don't think we'll have problems on D. That is one super-solid group back there, and not a guy in the bunch should take much of a step back. Peckham's waiting in the wings as well (and he's gonna be GOOD).
Pouliot and Jacques will drift away slowly and fade into another uniform somewhere. They just won't be in the position to make an impact on this team. We'll find another center, and Jacques just isn't there.
Brule won't remember how good he can be. This is a guy who should have been something really special and it just hasn't worked out. I don't think the light clicks on this year.
Stortini won't be cut or released or sent down or anything of the sort. He's a solid player who is very smart and will learn from our new coach just as he learned and improved under MacTavish.
Horcoff won't return to his higher scoring days. He just doesn't have that high-end to his game unless he suddenly remembered how to shoot. I think he's careered and never will again. Hopefully he's better than last year.
Penner will improve, but it won't be the quantum leap some are looking for. The guy just isn't good enough with the puck to march out and score 35 goals. He needs to learn to score from in front of the net and I'm truly hoping Quinn can get through to him in this way. He also needs to remember that he's a decent passer and has an excellent slapper. These skills are never utilized by Penner and would really add a new dimension up front. I think this year he's useful and fairly good, but he's no star.
Last...but the opposite of least...the most important and year-shaping story will be
By the end of this season, fans will once again be cheering loudly in Rexall Place for one Mike Comrie. It will be the triumph of the year for this team for many reasons including the excellent contract he's signed to, the negative PR that's been removed, the page that's been turned, and the hometown man that's returned to bring his team back to where it should be. Mike Comrie will score at least one overtime playoff winner this year. He'll be that extra piece that pushes this team far enough along. He has the opportunity, the motivation, and something to prove. This isn't a guy who's ever backed down from a challenge in the NHL or in junior and won't now. Adding Mike Comrie as a veteran who will put pucks in the net makes more of a difference than anyone's realizing right now.
We have a chance to be one of the most dynamic teams in the league at forward. I really hope coach Quinn sees that.
I'm feeling positive about the year. No grandiose predictions, but we will make the playoffs.
Can't wait for the game tomorrow. I hope you'll be around after the game to read about the joy that is live Oilers hockey beginning for another year. Here's to this year ending much later than the last!