By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
Edmonton stumbled in the middle of the season after Ryan Smyth went down with a broken ankle on Nov. 16 against Chicago. Amazingly, Smyth returned just six weeks later, but he wasn't the same for the rest of the regular season. Smyth scored eight goals and 15 assists in the first 21 games before his injury, but then had just seven goals and had 20 assists in the remaining 39 games. Still, Smyth managed 49 points in 61 games.
"Ryan is in phenomenal shape," Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said. "He's skating the way he was last year during training camp. He really took a step forward last year and he had a great start to the season. He could've been in the top two or three players in the game at the start of the year, before he broke his ankle. So he's back to where he was."
Smyth's linemate Anson Carter played great in the first third of the season, but seemed to go into a funk after he was left off the Canadian Olympic team. Carter netted 17 goals and had 14 assists in the first 33 games, but then scored just three goals between Dec. 14 and March 8.
"Anson has talked about having more consistency this year," Lowe said. "He had the great start, but you just have to find ways to be steady. The players that win scoring titles and finish in the top 10 have periods of the season where they go cold a bit, too, but they find a way to have something go in or to do something in another phase of the game. That's what Anson has to do; he needs to get to that level."
Carter finished strong, scoring eight goals to help Edmonton make a late playoff push. But the Oilers came up two points short, finishing ninth in the West to miss the postseason for the first time since 1996.
Edmonton had an excellent offseason, losing only Jochen Hecht (traded to Buffalo), Sven Butenschon (Florida), Chris Hajt (Washington) and Domenic Pittis (Nashville), while acquiring Jiri Dopita in a trade with Philadelphia and re-signing all of its own key free agents.
Mike Comrie, C -- What Comrie lacks in stature, he makes up for with a huge heart. Comrie surprised everyone in his first full NHL season with 33 goals, 27 assists and an impressive plus-16 rating. The 5-foot-9 pivot clicked with wingers Carter and Smyth, giving the Oilers three legimate scoring threats on their top line.
"All three guys are capable of that," Lowe said. "Comrie really plays well in big games. I'm always cautious to say that he's a go-to guy because he's so young and I don't want to put any undue pressure on him, but I think he thrives on that stuff."
Comrie has improved his offensive skills in each of the past four seasons. As a freshman at Michigan, he had 19 goals and 25 assists in 42 games, while as a sophomore, he had 24 goals and 35 assists in 40 games. After leaving school early, Comrie scored 39 goals and had 40 assists in 37 games for the Kootenay Ice during the 2000-01 WHL season. The Oilers then signed him in the middle of the junior season and he scored eight goals and had 14 assists in 41 games as a 20-year-old NHL rookie.
Backup blueliners -- The Oilers are set with their top five defensemen: Eric Brewer, Janne Niinimaa, Jason Smith, Steve Staios and Scott Ferguson. But the battle for the sixth and seventh spots is going to be heated.
Edmonton likely will end up with two players still wet behind the ears filling these roles, though the blueline prospects in the organization are very skilled.
Alexei Semenov, Bobby Allen, Alex Henry, Kari Haakana and Ales Pisa are fighting for just two spots, with the other three likely to begin the season with AHL Hamilton.
"We have a solid five that we're really happy with, so we're just looking to fill in the last two spots," Lowe said. "I don't want to question the defense, because we think it's good, but there isn't a lot there in terms of immediate help from veteran talent."
The Oilers eventually expect Semenov to be a top-pair rearguard, and it's likely he will end up with one of the final two spots. The 21-year-old Russian had 17 points with Hamilton last season and has been compared to Uwe Krupp, thanks to his massive 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame.
High-salaried veterans and young kids who are ready for the NHL combine to make the next few weeks nerve-racking for some of the Oilers' elder statesmen. Lowe expects to make at least one move to clear a roster spot for a young player, but said he could make up to three. The NHL Waiver Draft on Oct. 4 could cost Edmonton a player with nothing back in return unless some deals are made before then.
Youngsters Jason Chimera, Jani Rita, Jarret Stoll and Tony Salmelainen all could crack the lineup, while veterans Todd Marchant, Mike Grier, Dan Cleary and Ethan Moreau won't be surprised if they are relocating before the Oilers' regular-season opener on Oct. 10. Marchant could be partciularly vulnerable, since Edmonton is so deep at the pivot with Comrie, Dopita, Marty Reasoner, Shawn Horcoff, Brian Swanson and Stoll.
"When you don't have the type of season you wanted, you're anxious to get going again," Grier told the Edmonton Sun. "You want to get out there and show that you can contribute.
"Aside from the guys on the top line, I don't think any of us can be overly confident. If you don't have a good camp and don't play well, you might not have a job."
On a team loaded with young offensive talent, Rita may have the brightest future due to his solid all-around game. Though Czech right winger Ales Hemsky has more spectacular moves and a higher offensive ceiling, Rita's two-way talent is certain to make him a fixture in Edmonton for years.
"The sky is the limit on Rita the way he skates and plays," Lowe said. "Based on what he had done in the Finnish Elite League a couple of years prior, scoring the amount of goals in the AHL that he did last year was a bit of a surprise. We probably would've been happy with 18-20, but he got 25 and then had a good run in the playoffs. But he's going to be a solid pro. He skates so well and he thinks the game so well."
"Jani is so strong and skates so well," Lowe said. "I think Lehtinen probably thinks the game better defensively at this point, but I think Rita is stronger and faster."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.