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Tencer's Blog: What to Watch for in the 2nd Half

Friday, 14.01.2011 / 1:13 PM / Blogs
By Dan Tencer
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Tencer\'s Blog: What to Watch for in the 2nd Half
Oilers rookie Taylor Hall is within reach of the Calder trophy if he can remain hot through the last half of the season.
Last night in San Jose, the Oilers kicked off the 2nd half of their 2010-11 NHL season in style with a convincing 5-2 victory over the struggling Sharks. Over the course of 4 games against the Sharks this season, the Oilers steadily improved from a 6-1 defeat in the opening tilt between the two squads, progress that culminated in last night's victory. Though the coaching staff and the players will be keeping a keen eye on victory in the final 40 games, there continues to be a much larger mechanism at work within the franchise. With "development" and "process" still very applicable words when it comes to describing this team, here are some of the things that I'll be looking forward to in the 2nd half of the year.

AT FORWARD

It goes without saying that the top line that generated 8 points last night against the Sharks needs to be given some time to continue the experiment. This is as much about putting the 3 best offensive players on the team on the same line as it is about trying Taylor Hall at center. Going one step further, this is also about determining the future of Penner and Hemsky with the Oilers. Both are UFA after next season and a decision will have to be made far in advance of that point. The 2nd half of the season, especially leading up to the February 28th trade deadline, will be a major point of focus for Oilers management and, for the 2 players in question, in deciding whether or not they'll move forward as parts of the building process.

As for Hall, it's obvious that we're all hoping for a Calder Trophy caliber performance from now until the finish line. With 14 goals and 26 points, the run for Rookie of the Year is well within reach if he can stay consistently hot through the remainder of the year. If he continues to play center, the plus/minus statistic will be worth watching for #4 as well, because if they Oilers do envision him there in the long term, play in the defensive zone will be of heightened worth.

A couple other players of particular note to me are Linus Omark and Andrew Cogliano. First, for Omark, does he stick? I think he's shown that he deserves to be in the NHL right now and I continue to be impressed with his compete level on a nightly basis. He took 3 stick infraction penalties last night, but one of those was a result of a fantastic backcheck where he picked up a loose man and took the penalty to prevent a point blank chance. Attention to detail like that, combined with some gravy time on the power play, and the emergence of Linus Omark could become a real story in the final 40. Cogliano, though much more experienced in the NHL, is in a similar boat. The subject of many trade rumours over the last 2 years, Cogliano will undoubtedly hear his name surface between now and this year's deadline. He's unlikely to be a part of this team in a top 6 forward role, but he's worked hard to create a niche for himself on the 3rd line of the team. If he can continue to kill penalties well, improve on his face-off's and pot a few goals, Cogliano has the opportunity to make himself too valuable a commodity to move.

ON DEFENSE

Last night against San Jose, we got a further taste of what Theo Peckham brings to the table. He was absolutely relentless in his attack on Joe Thornton all night, putting on a true display of clean, hard-nosed hockey. Peckham is cut from a cloth that very few NHL defenseman possess these days, very much a throwback in many senses. With injuries to Ryan Whitney and Jim Vandermeer, the extra minutes are there to be had and Peckham is stepping up to grab them. His excellent work on the penalty kill has been on showcase lately as that unit continues to succeed, particularly in opportune game moments. Defensive depth is a question mark for the Oilers as they move into the future, and if Peckham can continue his upward curve for another half season, he'll have made a believer out of anyone who is watching.

Tom Gilbert is the other main beneficiary of the extra minutes left behind by Whitney and Vandermeer, averaging 30 minutes of ice time in the last couple of games. He plays in every situation and seems poised to lead the team in minutes played for the remainder of the time that Ryan Whitney is on the shelf. Tom Gilbert is not Theo Peckham and does not possess the physical attributes that Peckham does, and finds himself a target for criticism sometimes because of that. With as much ice time as he has been getting lately, and hopefully playing a part in turning around a struggling power play unit, Gilbert has a chance to silence those critics.

In addition, the 3rd NHL stint for Taylor Chorney seems to be trending a lot more smoothly than the first couple, and his development is an area to keep an eye on in terms of the future of the back end. Ditto for Jeff Petry, who seems right at home so far in his first 7 NHL games. It's likely that one of these 2 players will get to stick with the big club for the remainder of the season, and it'll be up to the performance of the 2 former NCAA players to determine which one wins that right.

IN GOAL

This is pretty simple: more starts for Devan Dubnyk. Aside from this being a rebuilding year and Devan being a young goaltender, he has flat out earned his ice time. Every argument can be made that Dubnyk has outperformed Khabibulin, especially of late. Now, Nikolai has been solid in his tenure as an Oilers goaltender and he's signed for 2 more years at starting goalie money, so he's going to get his starts. But, Dubnyk has made the most of every opportunity he has been given this year (has earned at least a point in 9 of 12 starts) and deserves to be given some rope to extend his NHL resume. His strong play and composed demeanor have given his teammates a tremendous amount of confidence in him and he's shown an ability through half a season to function as a very good backup goaltender. What about a few starts in a row? 2 games in 2 nights? I'd like to see Dubnyk's ability to handle the pressures of a starter in a few chunks as the season continues.
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