|Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scores the game-tying goal in the third period of Sunday's game (photo by Andy Devln / EOHC)
It was, without question, quite an opening night as the Edmonton Oilers dropped the puck on their 2011-2012 NHL regular season with a 2-1 shootout victory over perennial Eastern Conference power Pittsburgh Sunday night at Rexall Place.
Granted, the Penguins played without the best player in the game as Sidney Crosby remains out with concussion issues and another legitimate NHL star, Evgeni Malkin, was held out as well, but the Oilers victory was nonetheless impressive and the type of game that the team probably would have lost a season ago.
After rebuilding with five straight top-five picks from 2002 to 2006, including four top-two overall picks from 2003 to 2006 that was the genesis of Pittsburgh’s 2008-09 Stanley Cup win, the Steel City has cultivated a culture of winning which was illustrated last season. The Penguins put up 106 points despite losing their top three centres; the aforementioned Crosby and Malkin, along with elite shutdown presence Jordan Staal for basically a half of the season.
The Penguins are an organization that knows how to win and they are where the Oilers are trying to get to. RNH AND DUBNYK
A couple of really positive storylines emerged from the Oilers victory including a tremendous opening act performance from 2011 #1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
and a strong outing from surprise starter Devan Dubnyk
Let’s start with RNH. After seeing him play multiple times in the second half of the season last year with the Red Deer Rebels, I was convinced that he would be fully capable of not just succeeding with the Oilers this season, but helping the organization ultimately prevail!
His sublime passing skills and vision make him a scoring chances creating machine offensively; but he is also smart as a whip, both offensively and defensively -- something which unquestionably will score points with the coaches.
He can think and process the game and has great attention to detail in the way he approaches things as well and we are already seeing this come to fruition quickly.
His intelligence and understated compete level allows him to engage physically and win one-on-one puck battles along the lines of a Pavel Datsyuk.
On Sunday, he was the Oilers most dangerous forward finding passing lanes that were hard to locate from the comforts of the press box let alone on the ice.
Nugent-Hopkins' flair for the dramatic, which he exhibited during the Team Canada Red-White game back in August in Edmonton, rose to the occasion again as he scored the game-tying goal in the final five minutes for his first NHL goal.
I fully expect RNH to spend the season in Edmonton and, provided the Oilers power-play has any kind of success, a 55-point rookie season should be within reach.
Dubnyk, the Oilers 1st round pick, 14th overall back in 2004 continues to show that he is willing and able to fully compete for the Oilers #1 job in goal. Nikolai Khabibulin
may have the bigger ticket, but to paraphrase Oilers Head Coach Tom Renney, Dubnyk’s body of work in the second half of last season and through pre-season this year suggested that he should be the Oilers starter on opening night.
Dubnyk delivered, keeping the Oilers within one goal and being the team’s best penalty-killer throughout the night including in the final five minutes of regulation when Ryan Smyth
was off for an elbowing major.
I am not surprised Dubnyk outlasted Jeff Deslauriers as the Oilers goaltender of the future, as technically he is a better goaltender and less emotional than Deslauriers; but I must say I am surprised how much Dubnyk has improved over the course of the last two seasons.
He appears to be on the verge of becoming a legitimate #1 goaltender capable of giving the Oilers 50-55 starts a year. STILL QUESTIONS ON 'D'
Despite very good performances in the Oilers victory over Pittsburgh from the likes of Ladislav Smid
, Theo Peckham
and Tom Gilbert, there remain serious questions on the back end for this season.
With a healthy Ryan Whitney
and Gilbert the Oilers in my opinion have only two legitimate top four defencemen.
And I have news for you -- I do not expect the cavalry to becoming anytime soon.
There are organizations that are deep on defence like Philadelphia, Toronto and Phoenix and I don’t see them moving a top four “D” at this time of the season, not when all 30 NHL teams think they are going to make the playoffs.
The Oilers have a plethora of young skilled NHL forwards with a group of defensive prospects that are a couple years away. My guess is that combination may ultimately be the package that allows the organization to procure another top-four NHL “D”, but that is unlikely to happening for likely the next six weeks, as teams try to get a gauge in what they have.
In the meantime opportunity knocks for the likes of Jeff Petry
, Smid and Cam Barker
to get a shot at becoming a top-four NHL defenceman.
Smid might be the closest. He is now 25 and seems to be coming to the realization that he is what he is -- a hard-nosed defensive defenceman who might pan out to be a Jan Hejda-type in a second-pairing role.
For the 6’3”, 215 pound Smid, less is more when handling the puck, and if he can learn to move the puck quicker it may limit the amount of hits he absorbs during the course of the season as well. Smid has character and is willing to engage physically and can be difficult to play against all traits needed to be an effective shut-down defenceman.
Petry has shown flashes of offensive brilliance but is still challenged to defend consistently. He is in unique spot, he either needs to see top-four minutes in Edmonton or play top-two minutes in the American League in Oklahoma City.
Of all the Oilers defensive prospects in the organization Petry has the best chance to maybe one day be a top-two defenceman like a healthy Whitney. Ironically, Whitney may inevitably play a key part in helping Petry get there one day as I think the two will be paired together down the road.
Barker has a one-year window to re-establish himself as an NHL player.
He appeared well on the way to living up to the potential of being selected third overall behind Alex Ovechkin and Malkin in the 2004 NHL draft when he registered 40 points in 68 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008-09.
However, Barker’s game went off the rails over the course of the last two seasons which led to him being bought out by Minnesota this past June.
For now, the combination of Smid, Barker and Petry are going to all get looks as top four defencemen, their success or failure will play a big factor in how urgently the Oilers attempt to address what is unquestionably an area of concern this seasonBob Stauffer is the Colour Analyst on the Oilers Radio Network and Host of “Oilers Now” on the Oilers Radio Rights Holder 630 CHED