Following the dead-last finish by the Edmonton Oilers last season, the first thing to do was boot Pat Quinn out of his day-to-day role, and up to middle management where he could do less damage. Tom Renney was brought in to steer the team to a better finish than last year. That hurdle could be cleared by a paraplegic tortoise.
Then the team was re-made via the draft, some trades, and the promotion of some youngsters from the minor leagues, Juniors, and the European ranks. Veterans Ethan Moreau, Mike Comrie, Patrick O’Sullivan, Ryan Stone, Chris Minard, Robert Nilsson, Marc Pouliot and Riley Nash were all given early release for good behavior, so as to clear space for the newest victims.
The Oilers brought in some experience in the form of former Blackhawks Colin Fraser and Jim Vandermeer, but mostly young talent — first among them (quite literally) being Taylor Hall, highly-coveted superstar forward and number one overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. Edmontonians hailed the super-scoring wunderkind as the next coming of Wayne Gretzky. They would soon be disappointed. Through 8 games, Hall is a minus-4 with only 3 points.
Joining Hall in the category of those most likely to have their skates filled with shaving cream were Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, both of whom had the benefit of lower expectations given the blazing hot spotlight being shined on their teammate. So far they have both performed better than Taylor Hall, but it’s still early.
Goaltending questions also plagued the Oilers in the off-season, as former-Blackhawk netminder and now Edmonton mainstay goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin came dangerously close to starting the 2010-11 season in, umm… jail! Found guilty on DUI charges (twice the legal blood-alcohol limit while driving at nearly twice the speed limit) in Arizona, Khabibulin received a fine and a 30-day jail sentence. However, his legal team is appealing, and they managed to convince the judge to let him stay free on bail while the appeal is in progress.
This debacle coming so close to training camp, the Oilers were forced to sign veteran netminder Martin Gerber, who was promptly placed on waivers once Khabibulin weaseled his way out of a stint in the pokey. Khabby is backed up by Jeff Delauriers who has not seen any action to date.
So have the improvements helped? Will Edmonton be able to climb out of the basement? Not so far. Edmonton is (you guessed it) dead last in the Western Conference with a 2-4-2 record, giving up an average of 3.5 goals on 33 shots against per game. The much-hoped-for offense hasn’t materialized as yet either: Defenseman Ryan Whitney is the only player with more than 5 points.
So the Blackhawks face a team with little offense, shoddy defense and porous goaltending, that is also playing the second half of back-to-back games after losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a shootout last night. Looks like we have a recipe for an overwhelming Blackhawks victory this evening.
This is all good news, because if ever you wanted to play the worst team in the league, it is when you just lost one of your leading scorers to injury. Already suffering through the lengthy absence of defenseman Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks announced on Thursday that Marian Hossa will be out for the next two weeks with an upper-body injury. Right wing Ben Smith has been recalled from Rockford, and will be in the lineup tonight against the Oilers.
Wait a second. Ben Smith? BEN SMITH? Now we know that Jeremy Morin is not ready to return from his injury yet, so he’s out. But you still have Igor Makarov, Brandon Pirri, and Kyle Beach to choose from. Rob Klinkhammer, as un-exciting as he may be, is also an option. Yet they recall Ben Friggin’ Smith?
I swear, this guy has pictures of Stan Bowman doing the watusi with somebody’s niece. That’s the only way Ben Smith gets the call over these other forwards.
At any rate, the jumbled lines from Wednesday night’s victory over Los Angeles will be jumbled again, which won’t hurt much, since scoring output was no better than when the usual suspects were in their usual places. So expect Coach Joel Quenneville to be playing his 60-minute game of musical wingers.
Defense should be unchanged, though it’s a toss-up as to whom between John Scott and Jordan Hendry will be enjoying press box popcorn for the tilt. Since this is the first game of a Blackhawks’ back-to-back, I expect Corey Crawford to start against Edmonton. Give him the weaker of the two starts to pad his stats a bit.
Game time is 7:30: TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM channel 208.