A Competitive Advantage

Jonathan Willis
December 22 2012 11:37AM

If the NHL starts up again in January, the Edmonton Oilers might be one of the league’s most improved teams. The shorter season means that low probability events – things like Nikolai Khabibulin's red hot start to 2011-12 or Jeff Deslauriers' five consecutive road wins back in 2009-10 – will have more impact than they would over an 82-game schedule. More than that, however, the Oilers have a competitive advantage.

That advantage is the Oklahoma City Barons. Robin Brownlee wrote briefly yesterday about the impact guys hitting the ground running could have and I’m in complete agreement on that score.

The fact that three of the Oilers’ top-six players – Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – will have 20+ games under their belt by the time the league is back in session is almost certainly a good thing. This isn’t the 1970’s, so “mid-season shape” doesn’t mean what it used to, but it seems entirely reasonable that a 20-year old who has been skating regularly in game situations is going to outperform a 30-year old who has not been playing competitive hockey all year.

For Hall in particular, starting in the minors is a positive. It was obvious that he was at less than 100 percent coming off shoulder surgery; he did not excel in his first few games with the Barons. He’s been exceptional since, though, rivaling Jordan Eberle as the team’s best forward.

The advantage goes beyond that, however.

On defence, Justin Schultz has been a revelation. I had high expectations, given what scouts and hockey men I respect have had to say about him over the years, but he’s blown those expectations out of the water. This summer, I posited that the Oilers needed a backup plan on the blue line just in case Schultz had difficulty adjusting to the majors. I still think the team could use some help on the back end but those concerns are gone: Justin Schultz is and was NHL-ready.

There is some fear that Schultz – as with many college players before him – hits a wall at the mid-season mark. But this is a guy who has been the AHL’s best player in the early going, a guy who on playmaking ability alone is probably the Oilers best offensive rearguard already. He should get top-four minutes in the first NHL game he plays.

Other Barons players either should or could play a key role in Edmonton.

Teemu Hartikainen appears to have won a job; he fit well on a line with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins but at least as importantly has continued to be a factor when separated from the elite talent. I am still dubious about his offensive upside, but he looks to me like a guy who can be a decent complementary player on a skill line and given his size and willingness to play a physical game he is a good fit for team need. He is particularly adept at the cycle game in the offensive zone, something valuable regardless of which line he ends up on.

Magnus Paajarvi may or may not get a job immediately once hockey starts up, but there’s virtually no chance he isn’t on the Oilers’ roster at some point this year if hockey is played. He lacks the finishing ability of an elite player, but what he has a real knack for is puck possession – he is both a capable distributer and a great option for skating the puck up ice. Combine that with his penchant to cheat for defense, and he’s a guy who can fill in anywhere.

Yann Danis is the other guy who might crack the Oilers’ roster relatively early in the year. Nikolai Khabibulin was hurt this fall, and though it seems like he’s ready to go he also turns 40 in January; maybe the time off helps him, but there should be no tolerance for early season struggles. Danis has been excellent for the Barons after a lousy October, he has NHL experience, and he’s a capable backup if Khabibulin falters and/or is hurt again.

If the season starts in January, these guys – along with players who have played in Europe, like Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Ladislav Smid – will give the Oilers an advantage other teams don’t have: a strong core of players who don’t need to adjust to playing hockey again. It’s the exact sort of advantage that could propel the Oilers up the Western Conference standings, and cause individual players to surpass expectations.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.