Sam Gagner Slowly Moving Up the Charts?

If the morning skate for the Edmonton Oilers tell us anything, Pat Quinn and coaching co. are seeing promise and the response they expected when they placed Sam Gagner on the 4th line to start the season. Gagner is slated, according to Saturdays practice, to play 2nd line between Patrick O'Sullivan and Ryan Stone.

For most fans, Gagner was a surprise placement on that 4th line and before Quinn, the Oilers were fearful to sit or demote Gagner due to age and concerns over how he might responsd to the open criticism at such an early stage of his NHL career. Quinn has proven so far, it doesn't matter who you are. If you have a poor start, or don't deserve to be on that line, you won't be.

Gagner in his past two seasons, was a traditionally slow starter. Last season, it took some 16 games before he scored a goal. So far, with 4th line minutes (that's not saying much considering how Quinn rolls his lines) Gagner has two goals. Sam Gagner has done the opposite of what those who thought he might crumble under hte pressure, and exceled showing he thinks he's the forward the Oilers need.

He'll need to successfully keep up that pace as tonight against the Montreal Canadiens, there figures to be plenty of competitive action. The Canadiens got sqaushed 7-1 by a Vancouver squad looking to win it's first game of the year. The Oilers, meanwhile, lost another one-goal heartbreaker to the Flames, showing how successful Edmonton can be in blowing a lead late in the game.

O'Sullivan, Stone and Gagner could be interesting. Then again, Quinn changed the lines in Thursdays morning skate before the Flames game and opened the actual game with the same linemates he's had to start the season. I guess for the Oilers coaches, practice is one thing... games are another.

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He's Just Begun to Get on Their Cases...It's a Good Idea

Pat Quinn in three games has seen a lot from the Oilers. It's not all been good, but it's definitely not all been bad. In two of the three games, the Oilers played well enough to win, in the third, they actually did.

Depsite the fact that the Oilers record could be much worse, Quinn isn't yet satisfied with the effort he's seeing out of much of his new team. In both games, a single and subtle different choice could have meant the Oilers walk away from game three with 5 points instead of 3. Those types of results aren't enough for the grizzly veteran coach and don't expect Quinn to stop talking and riding Edmonton's players, until the team understands that those points are far too valueable to let slip away.

With an empty net on Thursday, Ales Hemsky could have ended things and put the Oilers up 4-2, thus eliminating any possibility of Calgary evening the score with less than a second to play in regulation. Fans and management can play "what if" all night, and I agree; it's not often a valueable exercise, but Quinn seems to see it as something the Oiler players simply have to learn. Plays such as that, just won't stand comfortably with Edmonton's new head coach.

In his post game presser, Quinn was quick to answer questions regarding the comeback and tieing goal. Admitting that Hemsky essentially "dicked around" with the puck is what cost them the extra point and ultimately the win. It's the mental attitude and the agressiveness to go for the "kill" that Quinn sees missing in his squad, and I'm guessing in more than just Hemsky.

Even in reference to the Iginla fiasco that put Sheldon Souray out of the game with a mild concussion, Quinn took the opportunity to make reference to this "attitude" I speak of, publicly acknowledging his frustration with the rules, todays game and likely his players for letting such a "dirty" play go un-punished. Quinn wants his players to do everything as a team, and not just fighting or standing up for one another-- that includes winning.

It's about team first. Souray is just one example. Plays like Khabibulin's botched goal in game one, or defensive break-downs in game two. Even Hemsky's bonehead empty-net gaff in game three are just bits of what Quinn is referring to. When players think of themselves first, the team always suffers and points will slip away. Points, the Oilers can't afford to see go out the window.

I saw a lot of good things in last nights game. What I haven't seen yet, is evidence that this team understands the total concept of what Quinn seems to be trying to pound into his guys. When I think their communication is strong, or that one player really seems to be on his game, his linemates let him down or a communication error finds the Oilers dragging in their own zone. The good news, is that Quinn seems to be just the right guy to set the ship back on the correct course.

Players like Sam Gagner for one, who until Quinn's arrival was treated with "kid gloves" because coaching and management were too afraid to de-rail his progess; is just one example where of all people, Quinn knows what he's doing. He's forcing Gagner to earn his reputation and spot on this team and Gagner's responding. Could Hemsky be next? If I can read between the lines, Quinn seems to be eyeing the Oilers #1 right winger in some of his comments. It'll be interesting, if Quinn chooses to do so, how Hemsky responds to whatever Quinn decides is best for both Hemsky and the team.

Game by game, the Oilers seem to be making adjustments. Hopefully, by the time it all comes together, the team won't have let too many valuable points slip. As fans in Edmonton know, all it takes is 1. 1 point in a tight Western Conference is the difference between the playoffs and golf season.

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Quinn Has Choices to Make...

Game #1, the Oilers out-play the Flames and lose. Game #2, the Stars out-play the Oilers, and the Oilers win. Sports can be funny that way. It's a game of bounces, of lucky breaks and of what goes around comes around, sometimes as much as it is skill.

What is evident after Tuesdays game, is that the Oilers are not yet any closer to determining which set of players, belong not only on the same line together, but where if at all on the team. Time is running out for Pat Quinn and company to decide.

The Oilers, in one of the most entertaining, yet wrenching games I've watched in a while, squeaked out two points. Jacques was moved to give Penner a chance to spark Horcoff and Hemsky, Nilsson plugged in on the third line and got an assist, while otherwise coughing up the puck a lot. And Brule actually won more faceoffs than he lost. Do any of these things tell us who will be staying and who won't once Marc Pouliot comes of IR which it looks like he'll be doing rather quickly?

The Edmonton Oilers will likely send Pouliot to Springfield for conditioning, which is probably not only needed, but buys them a little extra time, to make some tricky decisions. I would suggest they're even more tricky knowing that in two games, the Oilers, nor any of its roster players have showed something that even closely resembles something solid for the coaching staff.

Pairings, which Quinn is keen to make the heart and sole of the team, haven't really come forth. O'Sullivan and Comrie have been ok, and are maybe the closest to soldified, if any pairing, but they've yet to match the chemistry they found in pre-sesaon. Hemsky and Horcoff are not showing signs of life nor are the Cogs/Gagner, Nilsson/Gagner, Penner/Brule (ok, maybe a bit on those two) or whomever else you choose to partner.

So what should Quinn do? Who should he cut? Who should he keep?

Better yet, can't Tambellini make some kind of trade to find a solution that seems to be the only evident skill-sets missing in both games -- that being faceoffs and penalty killing? I guess, the Oilers will need more time. My bet is they use every inch of the two weeks they can get out of Pouliot's re-conditioning stint in the minors.

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How Big A Difference Would Blair Betts Have Made?...

When I had the chance to speak with Dan Tencer about two months ago regarding any interest the Oilers would have had in Blair Betts an unsigned free agent in this summers crop of forwards looking for an NHL club, his answer was "none at all. Betts is not on the Oilers radar".

If Dan Tencer is correct -- and I have no good reason to assume he wouldn't be -- that amazes me. Sure, we're a far ways away from being able to judge the Edmonton Oilers on one game. But for those who want to, the Oilers did everything right on Saturday against the Flames with the exception of three things.

1) Their penalty kill was 2 for 4.
2) Their faceoff % were nothing to brag about. Horcoff was his usual fantastic self, and Comrie was excellent, but both Brule and Gagner suffered going 36% and 20% respectively.
3) Khabibulin let in one of the most painful goals we'll see all season.

Blair Betts would have aided in, or dare I say solved two of those three issues.

Tom Renney once commented that his league leading penalty kill in New York was not so much attributed to the style he coached, but the willingness of two players to go out and lead his team on the kill; one of whom was Blair Betts. Are we to assume then that Renney and Tambellini didn't have one conversation about the penalty kill and how to improve it? Betts was available. In fact more than available. He basically waited for an NHL team to give him a try-out, which he got with the Flyers, made the team and has since been his masterful defensive self among team leaders in faceoff % and ice-time on the PK for the Flyers. (at least when last I checked at a quick glance.)

The Oilers could have waived or demoted any of the players whom didn't dress in Saturdays opener to clear the space needed to sign Betts. He might have appreciated not having to try-out for an NHL club, instead going where he was both wanted and sorely needed.

As is stands now, the Oilers will need to create a trade to obtain someone who can help them improve on what looks to be still a glaring hole not filled by Brule or Gagner. Trades to say the least in the NHL are tricky; especially when the players you're shopping are as one dimensional as players like Nilsson, MacIntyre and Pouliot.

With Pisani on long term IR, the future is even more bleak on the penalty kill and someone like Betts could have been a real good friend of Quinn and Renney, when it was obvious that on the kill and in the faceoff circle, both coaches are looking for friends not on the Oilers roster.

Maybe facebook? Seems easy to make friends there. I suggest that any facebook users with particularly excellent faceoff and PK skills send an invite to Quinn, Renney and especially Tambellini. It seems to me that Tambo was busy surfing the net when he should have been filling holes on the Oilers, that even facebook users with no hockey experience could have forseen.

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Couldn't Do That 81 More Times If You Tried...

If you've ever seen a two year old kid, jump around gitty with excitement over the fact that they're about to get some "candies", only to realize that those candies you thought you had, you finished off the other day so now you're a liar...is the only feeling I can compare to how the Oilers lost their season opener Saturday night against the Calgary Flames.

I can't remember so many faces hung in sadness and a collective breath taken so loud, as the one taken at Rexall Place at the 46 second mark when Nikolai Khabibulin brain farted the Oilers to a loss in the first game of the season. Not only did about 18,000 two-year olds not get their candies, but their team lost a valueable point in the standings on a game, that if momentum means anything, the Oilers would have probably won.

For the most part Khabibulin was OK. Not great, but OK. The first goal by Curtis Glencross, was a beauty move after Smid left the front of the net wide open and Glencross tucked it upstairs. I can still see Oilers management looking for a place to hide everytime Glencross comes back to bite the Oilers like that. Kevin Lowe, you should be ashamed of yourself.

The second and third were goals tipped in, with little to no chance for the goalie. The third one not as much, but still, I hesitate to blame it on Khabibulin. The same can not be said for the final goal, which was one of those type of goals, where you're in such shock, you're not even mad -- just amazed.


The Oilers dominated the first and third periods in that game, and were mere inches away from winning with a wide-open net miss by Patrick O'Sullivan, only to see the type of error made by an Oilers goalie that couldn't be made in 81 more attempts if you tried.

I suppose that's the good news. This is the first game of the year. The Edmonton Oilers have 81 more chances to not make that mistake again. If I'm judging solely on effort, style of play and opportunities, the Oilers will be miles better than they were last season, despite this loss.

They outshot the Flames. They outhit the Flames. They were better in faceoffs (for the most part as Sam Gagner was horrid outside of his otherwise terrfic game), and they outworked Calgary. The Oilers had trouble moving the puck from d-man to d-man outside of their own zone and had a section of the second period where they played with their backs to the wall, but what was one really bad goal, is not yet a reason to hang our heads.

How the Oilers come out and respond on Tuesday against the Dallas Stars will tell us a lot, as will how Quinn reacts to some of the players for the Oilers that were noticebly poorer than the rest of the team. Will Gagner with that solid effort stay 4th line? I would bet at the very least, he and Brule switch roles. Will Penner stay off the first line? Jacques wasn't bad, but Penner was excellent.

Will Khabibulin come out and earn a shut-out victory? He'll need to come close, because those fans who gaffed at his 4 year contract when he joined the team, really had a lot to say last night. Khabibulin probably feels worse than anyone about the game ended, and if he has the character I hope he does, watch out for a very strong game on Tuesday.

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