One of the points many Edmonton Oilers fans–myself included–have made when defending their claims that 2013 will be a surprise year for the club as they try to win a Stanley Cup is the success of the Baby Oilers who spent three months destroying the AHL as member of the Oklahoma City Barons. Lord knows these people have a point.
Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz led the league in points. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins averaged over a point per game after returning from an injury and before heading off to the World Junior Championship last month, respectively. Teemu Hartikainen and Magnus Paajarvi–players who have the chance to play key roles with the Oilers for years to come–both scored twenty points or more.
All of these players got into game shape and will hit the ground running once the season starts, and conventional wisdom has suggested the Oilers will need to fly fast out of the gate and hope they can put enough distance between them and their competition so they can still fall back to earth and yet have enough cushion to find themselves landing in the NHL playoffs this year. Fair enough, but what about the other side of the equation?
Will their defense be able to keep other teams from putting the puck in the net? Will Ryan Whitney be able to finally stay healthy? Will Nick Schultz‘s timely defensive skills be able to offset the rookie mistakes that Justin Schultz will surely make as he adjusts to the NHL game? And how about that guy between the pipes for the Oilers? You know, the guy not named The Bulin Wall and who will likely get the majority of the starts this season? Devan Dubnyk. Will he be ready?
Like a number of starting NHL goaltenders (or at least goaltenders who could theoretically start depending on how their respective teams’ situations play out), Dubnyk did not play a lot of hockey during the NHL lockout. In fact, until the Spengler Cup last month, Dubnyk hadn’t been playing anywhere. He apparently played well enough in three games to impress his coaching staff (pitching a shutout in his first game back certainly helped), but how will he fare once the season starts? Some of the guys he’ll be facing have been playing in Europe, the AHL or some other sort of league and to a degree should be in good form, so Dubnyk’s learning curve will be steep as he tries to get caught up.
Dubnyk will certainly have the endurance to start the bulk of the games this year as he has progressed from 16 starts in the 2009-2010 campaign, to 33 in the 2010-2011 campaign and 42 last season. However, he has yet to finish above .500 for the season (his best season having come last year when he went 20-20-3), his GAA has never been less than 2.67 and his save percentage has never gone above .916. Dubnyk is far from being a bad goalie, and he has definitely progressed over the past couple seasons, but the question is whether he will be able to make another leap forward this season.
For all the talk of how great the Oilers’ offense should be this season and how they will vie for the best power play unit in the league, their defense is still really only five players deep. Also when one of those guys is named Ryan Whitney, you can almost by default drop that to four because you can expect he will sustain an injury at some point. There will be a number of situations where Dubnyk will be the only line of defense and it’s going to be up to him to keep the Oilers in games for the first couple weeks while he gets his groove back.
If Dubnyk can stand on his head, protect the leads the Oilers’ offense figures to give the team in the season’s opening weeks, and help the Oilers to a great first month or two, the Oilers may finally get back to the postseason. And with any luck, they may just win the Stanley Cup this time. Hey, it almost happened after the last lockout, so you never can tell what will happen. But if he isn’t up to snuff from the get-go, the Oilers could find themselves in trouble again this season.