It's hard to believe, but the last time the Pittsburgh Penguins played a game up in Edmonton, it was October 2011. Jordan Staal and Brent Johnson were Penguins and Sidney Crosby was still in concussion limbo. It really seems so long ago at this point. We were lucky enough to get Jeff from Copper and Blue to give us some dirt on the Oil.
1. Halfway into the season, what's your general feel about the Oilers? Are they close to breaking out of the basement and competing for the playoffs or is the rebuilding process still going to take more time? Are the right people making the decisions? What's the biggest thing that they erred on?
I think the Oilers are still a few moves away from challenging for a playoff spot. We've been blessed (cursed?) with having three out of the last four first overall picks in the NHL Entry Draft
, and the team still can't get it right. This is Craig MacTavish's first year after taking over for the maligned Steve Tambellini, it's also coach Dallas Eakins' first year with the club. Against my better judgment, I'm willing to be slightly forgiving for both MacTavish and Eakins in 2013-14, but it's important to remember that the Oilers haven't seen the playoffs since 2006, and everyone's run out of patience for the rebuild. The defence needed to be propped up this past off-season, and MacTavish did a fair job at bringing in some pieces. Unfortunately, they're just not good enough to be difference makers.
2. Who's been the best surprise player this season? And biggest disappointment?
I think nearly everyone would say that Mark Arcobello has been a pleasant surprise this year. When Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner began the season with injuries, the team flung Taylor Hall to centre, and Mark Arcobello was thrust into Sam Gagner's spot at 2C. Arcobello has responded with 17 points (4-13-17) in 34 games, which is a nice surprise for a guy who now sees considerable time at 4C. The biggest disappointment would be centre Sam Gagner. Gagner's season got off to a rough start when his jaw was shattered by a reckless play from Vancouver's Zack Kassian. He might have been rushed back a bit early, and his game just hasn't been anywhere close to what we've expected from him. Until recently, Gagner was playing with a full facial shield. He's looked a little better since shedding the head gear, but he's got a ways to go to get to pre-2013-14 Gagner.
3. The Penguins could use some depth forwards - especially one who could add speed, size, physicality and maybe some penalty killing for their bottom 6. I floated Ryan Jones' name, since he's an impending UFA and is sort of the type of role Pittsburgh could use. Do you think Edmonton would look to deal him? Would would a realistic return be?
It's possible that Edmonton could send Ryan Jones away. Ryan Jones began the season in Oklahoma City (AHL), which was a bit of a surprise to me. Even though he didn't have a great preseason, the Oilers are famous for their love of 'character guys'. A caveat about Jones; the team tends to allow a great deal of shots when he's on the ice
. He'll score the odd goal and he brings a blue-collar face to the bottom six, but I can't see the Oilers wanting more than a fourth or fifth rounder for Jones should he get dealt.
4. As a Western observer, who do you see as the top contenders to make it to the Western Conference finals? There are obviously several very strong teams playing well, does anyone have what it takes to dethrone Chicago?
The West is chock full o' talent, and every conversation has to include the Blackhawks
. I think any of the top five Western Conference teams (Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis, San Jose and Los Angeles) could end up representing the West in June.
5. Even Art Ross winner and 50-goal scorer Evgeni Malkin gets some flak from certain elements of the Pittsburgh media and fanbase, so we certainly know the type of microscope Nail Yakupov is under. Does he have what it takes to be an All-Star caliber NHLer and, more importantly, do you see him finding success and growing into a role in Edmonton or do you think it's already reached the point where the best choice for both parties may be parting ways in the near future?
I've said before that I like coach Eakins' talk, but I hate his walk. Eakins preaches fitness, he preaches accountability, and most of his notes resonate with me. With that, I hate how he's scratched Nail Yakupov on three occasions this year. Yakupov's critics will say that his plus/minus is ugly and that he deserves to catch a seat in the press box, but those people are wrong. Yakupov was scratched recently for forward Roman Horak, which is a bad, bad decision if your goal is to ice the best players you have available. I don't think Yakupov is a goner, and I believe that he should have a bright future with the Oilers. He's responded by being a good team player and saying "the right things" when getting benched. With that, if the team needs to move one of the "young guns" as part of a package for immediate help, I wouldn't at all be surprised if Yakupov was the guy chosen to go.