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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Early Observations

Four games into the pre-season (half way) and time for some early observations? At least with most players having already played at least two games, there is some indicators as to what we can possibly see brewing, as far as rosters both in Edmonton and OKC go.

First of all, I don't think anyone is fooling themselves into believing this Oilers club is a legitimate play-off contender this year. Could they challenge for a play-off spot? Possible, but it's also possible Kevin Lowe and Brian Burke will sit down over a friendly game of 'Risk'. (always loved that game)All joking aside, this is another year of rebuilding and while we all want to see great strides in improvement, it is a process.

Before I comment on some of my early observations I think it is important to note a couple things.

1) It is good to not evaluate to hard on a player's first game in pre-season, as sometimes they need that game to get the rust off. Timing and chemistry, sharpening the mind is important and sometimes it takes a game. It's how they respond back the second game that matters more. There is a requirement in most cases to see that game improved upon in the third game as well.

2) Seeing a player succeed in their first pre-season game can be a great site to behold, but they really need to show it again for at least two more games. That shows the consistency that is needed from a player. This is only a rule of thumb, not the "guidebook on how to evaluate". Every few days, I will continue to share my observations on a few more players during the pre-season.

Early Observations:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
It can be so easy to assess  RNH's game by points alone. Fortunately for RNH , he is doing ok in that department. 3 Games played, 3 Points. Not to mention the opportunities he has been getting, or even the great set ups he has given other players who were unable to finish. Has he made some errors? Absolutely he has, but as any player on the team, if you look hard enough there is mistakes. What you will not usual see from RNH is repeat mistakes. He is a astute learner, catches on quick and thinks the game a couple steps ahead of most players, even at his young age.

His ability to play harder and smarter on the puck in the forecheck is still looking good with each passing game and his work ethic lacks nothing. He works hard to play that 200 foot game and prides himself on making that part of his game even better. Watching him on the ice can be deceptive to some, as he looks rather disinterested at times, but it's actually because he isn't chasing the puck, he's covering his lanes, anticipating plays and playing smart and waiting for the breaks. He really lets the play come to him, even on the forecheck. Many people believe he is having a quiet game, when really he is just playing smart and waiting for the moments. What is the moment? It's the pressure moment in my opinion. RNH always  seems to play better the more pressure he faces. It's still early to know if RNH stays in Edmonton or goes back to Red Deer, but at this point, he has shown nothing to the coaching staff to suggest sending him back. As has been said several times already, it's a process, and to date, that process seems to be on track.

Some food for thought. How do we know Ryan Smyth will be in Edmonton next year? Nothing is certain and if he does not return, what about the whole Smyth mentoring Nugent-Hopkins theory people have put out.? For me, unless RNH shows he isn't ready, Smyth is the mentor he needs. Horcoff did well working with Hall and Eberle, but they also were wingers to play with the Centre. RNH is a Centre who needs a winger who can mentor him and Smyth appears to be the perfect fit. Just a observation, nothing more, nothing less, but food for thought for sure.

Teemu Hartikanen
When can you last remember Teemu playing a bad game? Is that not the question that should be asked? As Robin Brownlee even tweeted Saturday evening, 'how can Teemu not be in the lineup?' You would hope that just because of contracts, you don't want to see Teemu growing his game in OKC (nothing against OKC, it's a awesome place to play and visit) when he is already playing better then several players slated to be in Edmonton on opening night. Injuries can change this whole scenario really quick, but Hartikanen brings the Oilers the type of player they truly have been lacking for some time. Two games into the pre-season and he continues to look like he is continuing where he left off at the end of last season.

Nikolai Khabibulin
Nikolai struggled in his opening night ice time and to be fair, his defence didn't do him any favours. Fans, media, bloggers all got after him by nights end. (OK, not everyone) In fact if he had 20 supporters in the city of Edmonton, I would be surprised. I didn't like what I saw but as I have mentioned in other posts. One game (especially the first game they play in pre-season) is not a accurate picture of the player and his skill. That second game and third game will really show a much more accurate account of what we have to look forward to. In defence of  KhabibulinNikolai kept this game in reach throughout the night. That's what he was originally brought in to do. Good on him, but what is now needed is another good outing like his Calgary outing. A second consecutive solid performance will shows the arrows are pointing upward for him. Falter in your third pre-season game, no matter how good you played, it's only a faint memory and it may be the beginning of the end. This next game will give us the best indication as to where Nikolai's game is at for this coming season.

Sam Gagner
A couple veteran player's struggled to shake the rust off in their first game of the pre-season, but Gagner seemed to have little rust. His speed has definitely been noticeably quicker and his defensive awareness in his own zone tightened up. Sam's appeared to be looking good in his second game as well, that was until he got hurt. Two games in, looking quicker on his skates, excitement is in the air about a bigger, brighter season. But another injury? Let's all hope it's a minor tweak or something and just training staff being cautious. Can't see Gagner playing tomorrow night but hopefully ready to go in two games time. If not? May not be a good sign...

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