The Blues only see the Edmonton Oilers four times, two home and two away, a season and they have been eventful lately. The last two trips to the frozen regions of Alberta brought a concussion to Andy McDonald and Ben Bishop‘s first career NHL shutout. But this trip will be different. The Oilers are younger than ever and sitting atop the Western Conference. How did they go from the basement to the penthouse?
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BlueNoteZone: Heading in to Sunday’s action the Edmonton Oilers sit in 4th place in the Western Conference with 14 points in 10 games. What’s are the reasons for their success so far?
Jeff Chapman: As of late, the goaltending has been the deciding factor. Nikolai Khabibulin has been more than pleasant surprise allowing a total of six goals in six games, and Devan Dubnyk has played great in relief. The kid line (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle) has been a point grabber. After getting Ryan Whitney back on defence for a few games, he suffered a sprained knee and will likely be out for a few weeks. The team could make a move or two on defence, but they’ve held it together well enough to see the Oilers off to a 6-2-2 start.
Ryan Batty: Three things; goaltending, goaltending, and goaltending. Right now Devan Dubnyk has a save percentage near 0.940 and a goals against average under two and he’s getting killed statistically by Nikolai Khabibulin. In the offseason I looked at the numbers of goalies nearing their 40′s and the results were not encouraging. So far Khabibulin has blown away those numbers and while playing at this level can’t last – for either of them – it has been a terrific surprise in the early part of the season and is the main reason that the Oilers are doing as well as they are.
BNZ: The Oilers were ranked 30th in Goals For/Game and 1st in Goals Against/Game as of Saturday. Are they a trap team shutting down the opposition? Has the defense and goaltending been that good and the offense that snake bitten? Can you explain the dynamic?
JC: The goaltending is electric right now. Khabibulin’s statistics are ridiculous – 0.97 GAA and a .964 SV% over six games, while Devan Dubnyk is sitting at 1.98 GAA with a .938 SV%. I really wish I could sit and say that the defence is a bigger contributing factor, but the Oilers have allowed 113 shots over the past three games – an average of about 38 shots a game. Any team that allows that many shots in a night will probably need four or five goals every night in order to win. The Oilers have only scored 21 goals in ten games, but so far they’ve emerged victorious more often than not.
RB: Well the Oilers aren’t a trap team. But right now, outside of the Taylor Hall – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle line, they can’t score. Injuries have had an impact as both Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky have missed time but mostly it just seems as if most of the forwards have been a little unlucky. At the same time the Hall-RNH-Eberle trio have had their fair share of luck so things seem to be balancing out in the short term.
BNZ: What, if anything, does the addition of Ryan Smyth mean to the Oilers with their lineup so full of high end young talent?
JC: You can never, ever have too much veteran leadership. The Oilers lost their heart and soul when he was traded to the Islanders in February of 2007, and they found it again when he came home this past June. Smyth wanted to be an Oiler again, and that says a lot about the character of a guy who wanted to be traded to a team that finished last in consecutive seasons. Smyth is a leader, and (warning, sports cliché) a mentor to the young guys on the team. More importantly, is still quite good at age 35. Smyth has eight points in ten games, which ties him for second on the team in points.
RB: The addition of Ryan Smyth means a ton to the fans in Edmonton and it probably means just as much to the team’s next generation. Smyth is the kind of player, effort-wise, that I want these young players to be. Both Smyth, and Shawn Horcoff as well, have the chance to influence the Oilers long after their done playing by working with the next generation today. On the ice, Smyth can help take on tougher opponents letting the young skill worry more about fun things like offense.
BNZ: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. In 29 combined games they’ve amassed 10 goals and 27 points. Accounting for 43% of the Oilers total offense. Consensus thought says they’re good and will be great producers for many years. What’s been the secret to their success so far. Are they displaying any trends that lead you to believe they’ll keep it up or regress significantly?
JC: That’s a good question. Seems everything these guys touch turns to gold. You have three first round picks, three very talented individuals that when they come together, make magic happen. Without writing a book, Taylor Hall is a moose – he’ll skate, hit, flip over anything to get to the net. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has incredible vision – it seems like whenever he’s around the opponent’s net, he has a puck magnet on his stick. If you’re not familiar with Jordan Eberle, I will direct you to his highlight reel goal in his first NHL game against the Calgary Flames. As far as keeping the production up, I was a skeptic at the beginning of the season. Local Oilers radio guy Bob Stauffer once suggested Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is capable of finishing the season with 60 points, and honestly, I scoffed at the idea. Today, he’s got 9 points in ten career games, so why not? The line has three talented first round picks that play off the strengths of one another, and right now it’s good business for the team and its fans.
RB: That line is being sheltered by [head coach] Tom Renney and the impact has been remendous. When you start over 60% of your shifts in the offensive zone good things will happen. When the Oilers go on the road though protecting this group gets tougher and the results show it. As a group they will regress as the team plays more road games (so far seven of ten have been on home ice) but I still think they will have very good seasons. Hopefully 55 points or more for all three.
BNZ: Netminder Nikolai Khabibulin has been on fire to start the season. Is it only a flash in the pan or is he back to his old Tampa Bay days form?
JC: Let’s not beat around the bush, Khabibulin’s first two seasons in an Oiler sweater were bad. Reeeeal bad. With that being said, his first six games of the 2011-12 season have been more than I could ever ask for. Khabibulin wasn’t a terrible goalie in 2004, but his SV% was only .910, and that’s not an especially strong number to be a number one goaltender in the National Hockey League today. If Khabibulin is going to carry the load, he’s going to have to be somewhat better. There’s no way he can stretch his current play over a full season, but if he can play to a SV% of about .920, I’d be absolutely thrilled. We wait and see.
RB: Is he this good? No. But after last season there was only one way to go for Khabibulin, although I doubt anyone expected this kind of start. Six goals against in six games has been quite the surprise.
He’s numbers will slide back to the average but if he can hang around a 0.910 save percentage over the course of the year I’d be thrilled.
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Thanks to Jeff and Ryan for their time and answers. Please give them a follow on Twitter.
- Jeff at @OilOnWhyte