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Stauffer Stuff - November 24

by Bob Stauffer / Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are enjoying more success, more often this season.

Let me tell you there is nothing quite like spending U.S. Thanksgiving in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota…or not.

St. Paul is quaint and quiet to say the least and nearly completely shut down today as the Edmonton Oilers enter the second quarter of the season looking to build upon a strong start to the year.

After floundering to a 6-12-3 record in the first quarter last season which led to Oilers fans, and indeed some of the media, closely following the progress of top-end talents for the 2011 draft, this year’s 11-8-2 mark at the same point has allowed optimism to reign supreme.

And so it should!

This is a very different Oilers hockey team this season, and one which has a chance to improve during the course of this year.

In the off-season I mentioned in Stauffer Stuff that two primary areas had to dramatically improve for the Oilers to take a significant step forward in 2011-12: goaltending and special teams.

Yesterday on “Oilers Now” Oilers Head Coach Tom Renney credited those two areas with being the major reasons why the Oilers have gotten off to a much better start this season.

The numbers on the special teams are quite revealing.

Last season the Oilers finished 29th in penalty-killing (77.0%) and in 2009-10 the team was 26th (78.0%).

The Oilers will head into Friday afternoon’s game against the Minnesota Wild 7th in the NHL at 86.5% which must make Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, the two Assistant Coaches who primarily work with the PK units very happy.

Eric Belanger
Obviously your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer, but the off-season free-agent signing of Eric Belanger has helped give the Oilers two centres who have a chance of winning defensive zone draws when the Oilers are shorthanded.

Belanger and Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff are a combined 64-54 on shorthanded draws this season. Lennart Petrell’s shot-blocking ability up front has played a factor as has a tremendous improvement in the play of Ladislav Smid, who logged over 24 minutes and went +3 against Nashville in the Oilers 6-2 win on Tuesday night.

Oilers Associate Coach Ralph Krueger who helps “coach up” the PP unit has to be happy as well.

The Oilers finished last season 27th in the NHL at 14.5%.  Edmonton is currently 5th in the league at 22.1%.

The sheer brilliance of #1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the return of net presence Ryan Smyth certainly are major reasons why the Oilers have taken a major step forward on the powerplay.

The Oilers basically have two very different looking units right now.

The first unit features young guns; Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Horcoff and Tom Gilbert.

The poise and patience shown by Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle allows this unit to freelance a bit.

The Oilers second unit capitalizes on Smyth’s ability to pay the price in the blue paint. Ales Hemsky quarterbacks this unit with Jeff Petry and Belanger ensuring they get as many pucks as possible to the net.

One has to wonder with the imminent return of the Oilers top defenceman Ryan Whitney, who picked up 27 points in 35 games last season, if the Oilers can continue to improve on the PP.

The other part of the equation for the Oilers major improvement through the first quarter of the season has been goaltending.

Nikolai Khabibulin
In the off-season fans laughed when I suggested that it was possible that Nikolai Khabibulin could bounce back after a dreary 2010-11 season that saw the veteran netminder post a 10-32-4 record with a 3.40 GAA, and .890 save percentage.

The 38 year-old Russian has been stellar this season with an 8-4-2 record through his first 14 starts, and is top five in the league with 1.86 GAA and .936 save percentage.

With the on-going development of Devan Dubnyk who gave the Oilers a solid start in Nashville outduelling last season’s Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne, Tom Renney has the comfort of knowing he has two goaltenders capable of giving him good starts.

The Oilers are clearly showing signs of a young developing team but inconsistency is often part of that process.

Already this season they have had a six-game winning streak, and followed that up losing five of their next six games.

And just in the last week the Oilers have blown out two playoff teams from last season:  Chicago (9-2) and Nashville (6-2), while dropping a 4-1 decision to a Dallas team that had lost five straight games before facing the Oil.

Nonetheless, with three players -- Nugent-Hopkins, Smyth and Eberle averaging a point per game -- and Hall and Hemsky giving the Oilers scoring balance, combined with better special teams and goaltending, and the return of Whitney, it is my belief that the best is yet to come for this year’s edition of the Oilers…something no one was saying at the quarter-pole last season.

Bob Stauffer is the Colour Analyst for the Oilers Radio Network and hosts Oilers Now on 630 CHED, Noon to 2:00 PM MST, Monday thru Friday

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