Well then. That unannounced hiatus ended up being a bit longer than I expected. It was a good break from thinking about hockey more than a reasonable man should and realistically, I didn't miss a whole lot in August. The last two weeks, however, have offered some excitement, including the return of actual games! Although I missed the first game against Calgary, I was lucky enough to watch last night's game against the Islanders in full and thought that it might be worthwhile to throw some thoughts out there.
So what worked? Well, I thought the best line by a mile was Penner, Cogliano and Eberle. They were able to generate a lot in the way of chances and generally looked like NHL players that were imposing their game on less than stellar competition. From what I can tell their faceoff split (which I think includes special teams on NHL.com) was 3 off zone and 7 def zone and I didn't notice many occasions where they were hemmed in, which I think is further evidence that they were moving the puck in the right direction. Incidentally, Cogliano had a passing night on the dot which could end up being a curse if he keeps it up through training camp. In other words, it's best for the Oilers that he's just as poor now as he will be during the regular season. But I digress. The point is that the Penner-Cogliano pairing was very good. Now, whether Penner is in better shape and skating faster or he just looks faster because he's alongside Cogliano I'm not sure, but the fact is that the two of them looked good skating together. I think it really helped Penner the game is more north-south than it is with Hemsky.
With regard to Eberle, I thought he did a good job of finding holes in the defence and winning a couple of pucks along the wall but, all things considered, I'd much prefer he spend another year in the WHL. In terms of potential for success against real NHL players and in terms of simple asset management I think it's the better choice. That said, Eberle's style of play meshed well with the other two. I think that Ryan Potulny would be able to equal Eberle's contribution at this stage and fit in stylistically with the line. It would also put him in a situation to succeed as he would have ample opportunity to use his best attribute (shooter).
By choosing a "line" (recognizing that this is very flexible) of Penner-Cogliano-Potulny some other opportunities are opened in the roster. My personal choice would be to have O'Sullivan take a turn with the proven pairing of Horcoff-Hemsky and let those guys go PvP. That would leave Moreau and Pisani to find a center to take the second toughs (Gagner?) and a whole slew of players for the fourth line (Pouliot, Comrie, Nilsson, Stortini, Jacques, Stone, Brule, Schremp...) who should be competent enough to form a nice outscoring option against the dregs of others.
The d-man I noticed the most other than Souray was Ladislav Smid. He played monster minutes and thrived. Sometimes you can see how good NHL players really are when you see guys you know playing at a lower level. Smid is a guy that still struggles at times on the bottom pairing in the NHL (as of last season) but against a mostly AHL crew he's downright dominant. As much as that's a good sign for Smid and the Oilers it's also a cautionary tale not to get too excited about success before the points count in the standings.
Which brings me to what didn't work. The Nilsson-Gagner-Hemsky group seemed to really struggle. Each guy was making moves extra moves at both bluelines and was turning the puck over. I think each one of these guys needs at least one person on the line to keep them grounded (or for more of their "Rob Schremp hockey" moves to actually work). In my opinion Hemsky needs a guy like Shawn Horcoff to be most successful.
Pisani. Eep. Now, Ethan Moreau took a lot of flack over the last year but Fernando Pisani wasn't much better. His scoring chance totals were poor (118-151), his Corsi was poor (-15.48/60 was worse than all but Stortini, Reddox and MacIntyre) and he was injured for part of the season after being out with illness for most of the season before that. Now, it's just preseason, but he looked bad last night. I'm cheering for him but I think there should be real concern that he's not the player we all remember (especially if he's remembered through Spring '06 coloured lenses).
The Power Play will heretofore be known as the Souray Play until I see evidence that it should be called something else.
As for the Islanders, John Tavares was pretty much invisible all game long which has to be a disappointment for Islander fans. Calvin de Haan, on the other hand, looked good, but the NHL marketing machine didn't get the memo.