The Edmonton Oilers haven’t played a playoff game for 2,510 days, since losing Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes.
As new general manager Craig MacTavish takes on the task of making the Oilers relevant again, there are more questions than answers.
Here are 10 things fans want to know:
(1) Will MacTavish trade the Oilers’ first draft pick?
Unless they win the lottery Monday night, Edmonton will pick at No. 7.
MacTavish says he’s going to do something bold, which would be a first step. They need a big centre, but Aleksander Barkov, who was a point-a-game player at 17 in the Finnish Elite League, and Ottawa 67s Sean Monahan, might both be gone by No. 7. If so, why not deal the selection for immediate help? They’ve traded a first-rounder before — in 2006 to obtain Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild — but never one close to the top. But these are desperate times, and they need help now.
(2) Will Ralph Krueger be kept as head coach, or will he be the sacrificial lamb?
Krueger certainly didn’t look like a guy on his way out at his final news conference of the season on Sunday. He was already looking toward to next year and has several meetings planned with MacTavish this week. He isn’t the fall guy for this year’s 24th-place finish. The Oilers have had a revolving door of head coaches since 2009 — MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney and Krueger — and it’s time to stop that. These bad finishes are on the players, not the coaches. Give Krueger some better personnel and see what he does with it.
(3) Will Sam Gagner, who is only 23, sign a long-term contract, or will the Oilers try to trade him?
Gagner is the ultimate professional, a leader without a letter on his jersey, and he just finished the most consistent season of his career with 38 points in 48 games. He has never been more marketable to teams looking for a second-line centre, like the Anaheim Ducks or the Chicago Blackhawks. Gagner holds the cards in the negotiations because he is one year from unrestricted free-agent status. Would the Oilers pay him the same $5 million they were paying Ales Hemsky? If they dealt Gagner, the Oilers would be looking to get a bigger forward or a top-four defenceman.
(4) Will the Oilers bring back Ryan Smyth for the second year of his contract at $2.25 million?
It’s no better than a 50-50 chance, because Smyth — who should have his No. 94 retired someday — has morphed into a fourth-line forward and penalty-kill specialist at age 37. Do the Oilers want to pay him $2.25 million to play that far back in the lineup again, or do they want to see the younger Teemu Hartikainen in that fourth-line spot? I suspect there will be lots of conversation on where Smyth fits, who in 2013 suffered through the longest goal drought (32 games) of his 1,200 game career. They could buy him out, but there’s a better chance he’ll be back as a No. 12 or No. 13 forward who would play 50-55 games. Smyth brings good work habits and leadership to a young team.
(5) What will happen with Ales Hemsky?
Hemsky is only 29, but he has played his last game as an Oiler. He has one year left on his contract at $5 million, which is too rich for most teams. That means if the Oilers trade him, they will likely have to eat some of his contract. He might be included in a package if the Oilers trade their first-round draft pick. Hemsky has world-class skill, and is tougher than people gave him credit for — he played on a broken foot for about a month this season — but it’s time to turn the page on a player who left a lot of fans wishing for more.
(6) Will the Oilers ask Taylor Hall if he’ll try centre throughout training camp this fall, especially with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out with his shoulder surgery?
Hall says he’s more comfortable on the left side, and who can argue after 50 points in 45 games, the best of his three NHL seasons. He pushes defences back with his speed, and his passion is infectious. He says he hasn’t played centre since junior in Windsor and it would be a major adjustment, but he’d give it a shot if asked. Maybe he won’t be another Mark Messier, who played his first four NHL seasons on left wing before switching to centre to combat Bryan Trottier in the Oilers’ playoff battles with the New York Islanders, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the experiment with Hall. Then again, why mess with a good thing?
(7) If defenceman Ryan Whitney leaves as an unrestricted free agent, won’t the Oilers have to find somebody to replace his puck-moving skills?
Absolutely. The Oilers cannot go into next season with only Justin Schultz to move the puck to Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Co. You need at least two passers on the back end, and Corey Potter is more shooter as an offensive guy. They need a left-shooting defenceman with some offensive pop. I know Krueger likes Islanders captain Mark Streit from their days with the Swiss national team, but New York will likely re-sign him. Another possibility is Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers or Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes. They’d have to trade for them.
(8) Have we seen the last of the role-playing, unrestricted free agent Ryan Jones?
It’s looking like it. He’s a fan favourite; an honest, funny go-to guy for the media, and for his first two NHL seasons was tremendously effective five on five or killing penalties, but he was a healthy scratch three times in April. I think Jones could still help the Oilers, but there has been little communication about a new contract. I think the Oilers see Magnus Paajarvi taking Jones’ minutes.
(9) Will Eric Belanger be back for another year?
I doubt it. Belanger was a very good, two-way centre in other NHL stops when the Oilers signed him, a 30-40 point guy, but his offence completely dried up here. He had only four goals in 104 games and 19 points. Nobody can question his acumen on faceoffs, but there’s a good chance the Oilers will buy him out. He has another year on his contract at $1.75 million. They probably want to see if Anton Lander can be the No. 4 centre or they’ll re-sign unrestricted free agent Jerred Smithson at a much cheaper price.
(10) Will the Oilers sign or trade for another goalie to play with Devan Dubnyk?
Krueger was singing the praises of Nikolai Khabibulin’s professionalism, his ability to accept a lesser role after being a starter throughout his NHL career, and his statistics. Khabibulin posted a 2.54 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in 2013. Khabibulin and Dubnyk like each other; the question is whether the Oilers want somebody younger than Khabibulin, 40, to push Dubnyk, or do they feel Dubnyk can play 65 games next year, so they’d only need an occasional starter? I’d bring Khabibulin back. He’s still got game; the only nagging question is whether he can stay healthy. The Oilers could make a play for, say, Anton Khudobin in Boston, if the Bruins decide the American Hockey League’s top goalie, Niklas Svedberg, is ready to back up Tuukka Rask next year. As for Dubnyk, he had a strong .920 save percentage and 2.57 GAA this year, on 1,132 shots. Only Ryan Miller, Anti Niemi, Henrik Lundqvist and Evgeni Nabokov saw more rubber. Dubnyk is a No. 1.
(11). Will the Oilers be in the playoffs next season?
They had better be, or there will be a revolt of restless fans in this city who can’t stomach to hear the word rebuild any longer. No more excuses about “working on the foundation” and “this takes time, folks.”
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal