Ok, in the context of my last post -- in which I brazenly predicted a Bruins division title -- this one might sound like I'm speaking out of the other side of my mouth. I'm comfortable with that, for two reasons:
2) It's the preseason. All this stuff is bullshit anyway.
In the past X days, ESPN blogger Pierre LeBrun (who is, by the way, the best addition to the site since Bucci and might actually help return the WWL to hockey credibility) has predicted that both the Oilers and Sabres will be this season's "feel good stories" by squeezing out a couple more wins and making the playoffs in their respective conferences.
Now, I hate to be the sort of guy to piss in anyone's Cheerios.
Ok, I lie. I love pissing in the Cheerios of teams I dislike. So here we go.
The question is not whether the Oilers have improved. The question is, how many teams are going to fall OUT of the playoffs in the West?
You can pretty much lock in Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, Anaheim and Calgary. I don't know anybody who thinks Chicago is missing the playoffs again. Minnesota looks weaker this season, but it would take a lot to drop them 10 points in a single offseason -- unless the Gaborik situation crumbles. That leaves one measly playoff seed open for Colorado, Nashville, Edmonton and Vancouver to pursue.
If they stay healthy and Granato does a decent job, Colorado is a better team than Edmonton. I made a comment to that effect on Lebrun's blog and the Oilers fans nearly lost their minds -- but it's time to face the facts, folks. Colorado has two All-Star quality centers, not counting Peter Forsberg. They have two 20-30 goal scorers on each wing. They have a very solid top 3 defensemen in Liles, Foote and Hannan. Their goaltending is as good as the Oilers' (Raycroft/Budaj vs. Garon/Roloson... not a franchise goalie in the bunch). Aside from having decent depth and a pretty good #1 defenseman, the Oilers simply don't bring as much to the table... injuries notwithstanding they'll have a hard time keeping pace with the Avs.
Nashville is less talented but they always overachieve and play a relatively easy schedule. Vancouver seems to be out of steam, but has a rejuvenated Luongo and might be desperate enough to make a major trade (they already showed willingness to pay Ovechkin money for Sundin).
Too many pundits are disregarding the Oilers' sub-.500 first half and remembering the streaky team that finished the season. But playing well in the basement for a couple of months is not to be compared to going wire-to-wire as a playoff-caliber team. If the Oilers make it, they'll do it by the skin of their teeth and as a result of other teams' misfortune. This is shaping up to be a miss-by-one-point season for them, a learning experience to make the roster a little less raw for the future.
Lebrun's mistake was to imply that Buffalo is in a "rebound" season when in fact they are in a "rebuild" season. Everything about the Sabres suggests they are not building momentum for a playoff run, but rather insulating the franchise against the emotional turmoil of dismantling the roster.
Consider the moves they have made since 07-08 (with numbers from last season):
LOSTDaniel Briere (31-41-72)
Chris Drury (25-33-58)
Brian Campbell (8-54-62)
Dainus Zubrus (13-25-38)
Ty Conklin (2.51, .923, 18w, 2so)
Steve Bernier (16-16-32)
Patrick Lalime (2.82, .897, 16w, 1so)
Craig Rivet (5-30-35)
Paul Gustad (4 yrs)
Daniel Paille (2 yrs)
Ryan Miller (5 yrs)
Jason Pominville (5 yrs)
That is not a team "getting up off the mat", but rather one which is just trying to stop the bleeding. Obviously the front office is going to try and spin a storyline that they're trying to compete for a Stanley Cup this year, because that's what sports execs do. But from where I sit, it looks an awful lot like they're actually preparing for a stripdown/rebuild to last 2-3 years. The plan here is to lock in the core players in the meantime, so as not to have to start all the way back with lottery picks -- the Sabres could use trades and free agent signings to have a pretty decent team in place with a minimum of pain.
But playoffs? C'mon, they'll field a weaker team against a stronger conference... "feel good story" is a real stretch.