Edmonton Oilers Preview: Five Burning Questions About The 2010-11 NHL Season

The 80 or so writers that comprise the SB Nation Hockey community have an internal email list. We coordinate things, share interesting stories and generally just talk hockey on this list. We're a pretty talkative bunch, but none of us are as active as Derek Zona, the Managing Editor over at our Oilers blog, The Copper & Blue.

Outside of an obsession with his site and the sport of hockey, the main reason Derek shares so much material on our little email list comes down to one reason: there is so much utter bullshit surrounding his hockey team, and he's just so baffled by the majority of it, that he feels the need to share it with other like-minded people.

In a nutshell, that explains the Edmonton Oilers.

Ranked last in the West in our SB Nation Preseason Power Rankings, the Oilers are likely in for another long, hectic season. This offseason, they've lost Marc Pouliot, Fernando Pisani, Robert Nilsson and Sheldon Souray, and they picked up nothing in return for these players (Jim Vandermeer doesn't really count). Their goalie is wearing pink underwear in the middle of the Arizona desert. They don't even have lovely Hillary Duff to grace their presence at games anymore.

But it's not all bad in Edmonton. Their misfortune (that's an understatement) last season did give them the prized first overall pick in June's draft, and Taylor Hall is expected to step in and make an impact immediately. Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Linus Omark are also slated to make the team this year, so the youth is certainly there.

Then again, these guys have never even played an NHL game. What's one to expect?

The Oilers aren't going far this year. Even with a great young core beginning their NHL careers this season, you can't expect the Oilers to do anything this season. Fans in Edmonton don't expect their team to do much, either. And sooner or later, you can probably bank on general manager Steve Tambellini screwing something else up anyway.

It's just the way things have been lately up there, but it's Canada. It's Edmonton. The glory days of the 80s are long gone, but the fans will always return. And those fans still have questions about their team. Below, we take a look at five burning questions plaguing the 2010-11 Edmonton Oilers.

1. How much of an impact will first overall pick Taylor Hall have on the team?

It's yet to be seen exactly what Hall will do as a rookie in the NHL, but the expectations among everyday Oilers fans (and the team's marketing department) are sky high. He's wearing Kevin Lowe's old number four, which he was handed directly by Lowe in a ceremony earlier this month.

But the truth of the matter is that Hall won't become a superstar right away. He won't lead the Oilers to the playoffs this season, or even next. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin couldn't even do those things right away. Hall is expected to score a little under 20 goals and about 45 points in his rookie season, according to Gabe Desjardins' NHL Equivalencies.

That's less than Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares were projected to score in their rookie years. Taylor Hall will be a serviceable NHL player in his rookie year and the sky is certainly the limit, but he's going to have more of an impact in putting butts in the Rexall Place seats in 2010-11 than he will on the scoresheet.

2. Ultimately, what will happen between Sheldon Souray and the Oilers?

First, a recap: Souray speaks out against the Oilers organization, so Steve Tambellini steps up and says that Souray won't be attending training camp. So, now that the Oilers have essentially ripped any value the defenseman once held right away, what's the next move? He certainly can't play for the Oilers again, right?

As Mike Chen at our general hockey blog, From The Rink, pointed out on Wednesday, the only way Edmonton might be able to rid themselves of the $9 million left on Souray's contract might be to put him on re-entry waivers, thus hoping some team will claim him at half price.

Souray's can't be given away right now, but what if he was put on the clearance rack at 50% off? First placed on waivers back in July, no one wanted to pick up the $5.4 million cap hit for free. But should the Oilers go one step further, Souray's cap hit could be $2.7 million for the next two years thanks to re-entry waivers(with $2.7 million staying with Edmonton, but the Oilers have cap space to spare as a bargaining chip).

Would a team gamble on that?

I guess we're answering this one with another question.

3. Who is the most important player to watch for the Edmonton Oilers this season?

Derek Zona, The Copper & Blue: Even though the team is hyping the Three Muskateers (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi) as much is as possible short of hiring a Hollywood P.R. firm, it's another youngster's growth weighing heavily on the 2010-2011 season.  Sam Gagner enters his fourth season as an Oiler, and though his growth as a player has progressed nicely thus far, he must show that he's able to play second minutes behind Shawn Horcoff and take on a variety of roles in order for the Oilers to grow as a team.  For the fourth consecutive season, the Oilers decided not to sign a second minutes center and for the fourth consecutive season, the team will not have someone to support Shawn Horcoff. 

Gagner has an enormous opportunity this season:  he can become the primary center on the power play (if he can win a faceoff), he can increase his role on the penalty kill, and he can, for the first time in his career, become a regular top six center.  Though he was started in the NHL much too early, he's completed his entry-level contract and should take an enormous step forward in all facets of his game.  If so, the Oilers have a talent headed towards a top-line, tough minutes center role.  If not, management may have to consider that Gagner will be part of the supporting cast, rather than driving results for the next decade.

4. When will Nikolai Khabibulin rejoin the team, and will he be able to provide steady goaltending?

Khabibulin will be at training camp, despite a DUI conviction in August. That's what appeals do, apparently. But he was handed the minimum sentence by a Maricopa County, Arizona judge last month, so it'll be no surprise when he is eventually forced to serve 30 days in prison (well, technically 10 and then 20 in a rehab program, but you get the point).

There are two big questions surrounding his status at the moment. First, we don't know how long this appeal process is going to last. If it stretches through the season, A) he might wind up leaving halfway through to serve jail time, and B) it's probably going to be a bit of a distraction, especially for a goalie. The second question is, simply, how long will this last? It could last until May and then his hockey career would never be affected by it, as he would serve his jail time over the offseason.

5. What will change under new head coach Tom Renney?

Tom Renney will make the Oilers better. Hell, I could make the Oilers better than they were last year. In some respects, it's a clean slate this year in Edmonton. They have this youth infusion, a new coach and the bad luck that plagued them a year ago can't get any worse.

Renney has said that it's going to be a slow process, and that's really what it's going to take in Edmonton. They need to wait on the young players. They need to wait for new systems to take effect and become successful. In Renney's mind, there are no illusions that things will suddenly get better overnight. That's what it's going to take.

***

Be sure to head over to The Copper & Blue to check out a full, in-depth preview of the Oilers 2010-11 season.

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