|Steve Tambellini addreses the media on Apr. 13, 2010 when we held his year-end media availability at Rexall Place.
The Edmonton Oilers have started the year with 24 points in 21 games, boasting a record of 11-8-2. Last season, the club had 16 points and a record of 6-11-4 through the same number of outings.
For those of you who want to write off the quarter pole as a fairly meaningless early season watermark, consider this. Last year through 21 games, the Oilers were on pace for a 62 point season.
What did they finish with? Exactly 62 points. The quarter pole also turned out to be a pretty good predictor of who would make the playoffs, given that 12 of the 16 teams that held a playoff spot on November 25, 2010 would end up holding a playoff spot at the end of the season.
Today, the Oilers are tied for a playoff spot and are on pace for a 93 point season.
"It's a good start, I would say," was what Oilers GM Steve Tambellini offered when I spoke to him on Wednesday afternoon.
He said he's seen a number of games where the team has been out of sync, suggesting that there's ample room for improvement, but on the whole he's pleased with the performance of his group so far.
"We've seen some pretty good individual performances, but all a result of working together without a lot of individual agendas out there," Tambellini said.
During our conversation, I wanted to get Tambellini's thoughts on some key storylines around his hockey club:GOALTENDING
On Nikolai Khabibulin
's resurgence: "That is quite a story. When you think about all of things that Nik went through last year and had to go through in the summer, you just wondered, what is he going to be like mentally? What is his conditioning going to be like? I give him credit. He dealt with it in a strong way, admitted he made a mistake, and prepared his body and mental toughness to be able to have an incredible start."
On the team needing to manage Khabibulin's starts to avoid fatigue: "I think you totally have to be aware of that, no question. Tom (Renney) and I have talked about that extensively. I know when it comes down to finalizing a roster for whichever game, the coaches have one thing in mind, and that's winning that night. If Nik is the guy who is riding hot, it's hard for the coach not to put him in there. At the same time, we have had many discussions about managing the energy of not just Nik, but the whole team."
Tambellini also commented that it has been nice to witness the healthy competition between Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk
, who he hopes will continue to push to earn stars. He says the two have a strong relationship and are pushing each other to become more successful based on their simultaneous strong play.DEFENSE
On the fearlessness of Ladislav Smid
and the rest of the defensemen: "This may be the best I've seen Ladislav Smid
in terms of his defensive play and his decisions and his willingness to sacrifice his body in front of shots. And that goes for a lot of our D. I think they've really made a commitment to helping the goaltenders and playing that type of defense where you're sacrificing your body."
On Tom Gilbert dedicating himself to becoming a better player: "Tom Gilbert has had the best start that I've seen since I've been here. We challenged him in the off-season to come back in a different type of condition and with better mental preparation to start from Day 1 instead of easing into it. He's done that."
On the potential of making a trade with a number of injuries on the blueline: "It has performed pretty well when healthy and, actually, when not healthy. The depth has come up with Petry and Teubert and Plante and Chorney, so we've got the type of depth there that we know don't have to add another D through trade or waivers just to add another depth guy in there. We have that. If you're talking about Top 4 defensemen, there's not too many out there that I'm aware of that would be the right thing for us to do right now. I'm looking more forward to our D getting back as an entire group, starting with Ryan Whitney
and then Andy Sutton
coming back not too long after that."
The defensive stinginess of the club isn't all world any more like it was in the first couple of weeks of the season, which is probably to be expected with all the injuries. They still rank in the Top 10, however, allowing an average of just 2.33 goals per game. They are also a Top 10 team in blocked shots and takeaways.FORWARDS
On the 22 points in 21 games for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
: "How can you expect that? You hope. You hope that he'll find ways to do it. But he's been doing it from Day 1 and I don't see any reason he can't sustain this. It's a lot of fun to see the creativity and the confidence and the touch to play in difficult situations."
On Nugent-Hopkins demonstrating that size isn't an issue: "He's not small out there by any means. He's a lot stronger than people think he is. He's got a strong stick and his balance and his skating ability put him in a position to protect himself."
On the return of Ryan Smyth
, who leads the team with 11 goals: "That's another incredible story. In my mind, I always viewed him as an Oiler and deep down that's how he always envisioned himself. To have him back on the team now, that total commitment to give himself up to whatever the coaches need him to do, is a wonderful example of a veteran player that has had a wonderful career and is hungry to do more."
It's worth noting that the Edmonton Oilers are the only team in the league to have 3 players in the Top 20 of league scoring. Their special teams, after being Bottom 5 last season, are both in the Top 10.
Will all of these trends continue? Some will and some won't, I'm sure. But, perhaps if the scoring pace of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
slows down, the scoring pace of Sam Gagner
will pick up. If Ryan Smyth
starts to sputter, maybe Magnus Paajarvi
gets lit on fire for a couple of weeks.
What we do know is that, historically, the quarter pole of the NHL season is a very meaningful predictor. If that holds true for the 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers, there's a lot more to look forward to.