Even in a bad season you can get some traction. The Oilers have several young players who are trying to establish themselves at the NHL level.

Tonight’s post is impressions of those players, some bubbling under and a few who are no longer “prospects.” And Robert Nilsson, who is becoming the hockey equivalent of the Little Engine that Could.

SAM GAGNER: I think you know a player has arrived when a hardass coach like MacT is just making up stuff about him in terms of praise. My paper the other day had some quote about Samwise “winning battlings” or some such and while there may have been a “lucky bounce” win I haven’t seen any that left me with the impression he was going to be useful along the boards. Gagner’s a fine young player but he’s not going to compete physically for some time. Beauty passer, he can stickhandle in a phone booth and has that uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time (the Steve Shutt syndrome). However, claiming he’s “winning battles” is like saying Elvis Presley choreographed the Jailhouse Rock dance segments: it isn’t true and since he was Elvis freaking Presley why bother to embellish? The guy was good enough to be impressive with the straight truth. Same with Sam.

ANDREW COGLIANO: I’m disappointed. Sure he has as many points as Gagner and is among the top 10 rookie scorers this year but he doesn’t have the hands to deliver on the multiple chances that appear each game. You never want to bury a kid and he’s going to be supreme value for where they picked him but the Oilers quote “Marchant with hands” is probably going to be shortened soon. A very useful role player and a personal favorite, but his hands tell us 25 goals may be the outer marker.

ROBERT NILSSON: Remember that children’s book The Little Engine that Could? That’s Nilsson. He’s a guy who has been sent out, healthy scratched and may have hobbling in his future if he can’t become more consistent. However, he’s also a guy who can score a goal in a heartbeat and has shown more jam that I thought he had (and done it a few times) in his efforts to become an NHL regular. Has all kinds of good arrows, including a franchise that would like very much to point to him for 10 years and say “that’s 1/3 of the Smyth trade, folks” and plays for a coach who found value in Anson Carter. A fun player to watch.

ZACK STORTINI: I have a friend who sees the good in everyone. Not in a pansy way, just a very positive person who will find the silver lining. I think you would have to have been that kind of person to see the value in Stortini early on. Reason? He isn’t really “as advertised” in that there’s no enforcer here, in fact he’s not a tremendously effective agitator unless you play defense for Calgary. No, Zack Stortini’s value comes in playing a smart, physical and simple game (Scott Ferguson as a forward) and for showing every other roster player that listening to exactly what the coach tells you to do gets you TOI. His GA/60 number is a mindbender.

TOM GILBERT: Even with the bloom off the rose a little lately you can see a guy with a bright future. His recent downturn can actually help Edmonton as his RFA price is going down by the minus. They used to call guys like this “heady players” and his 14 even strength points stand out on this roster among defenders.

KYLE BRODZIAK: One of the best ways to see how much MacT trusts rookies and young players trying to estbablish themselves is to see how much EV and PK time they actually get. Among forwards, there are 4 rookies in the top 9 in terms of EV bulk minutes (5th-Gagner, 7th-Cogliano, 8th-Brodziak, 9th-Nilsson) and it’s interesting to look at the order they are in. Brodziak plays 9:33 a game at EVs and he plays in pretty much every game. Among PKers he’s 4th in bulk minutes (behind Reasoner, Stoll and Horcoff) and looks like he has a future as a role player in and around Moreau, Reasoner, Pisani in the pecking order.

DENIS GREBESHKOV: I suspect he hasn’t shown enough to stay. His problem may be that he’s not offensive enough to be a strong PP option and he’s not good enough defensively to be a better man than Smid or Greene. I think the Oilers like him a lot but the results have been porridge and they have lots of other options.

LADISLAV SMID: He’s been +1 since January 3rd and +3 in his last three games. In fact his plus minus by month is very interesting: October (+1), November (-3), December (-8), January (-3), February (+2). Take out December and he’s just south of even for the year. I like Smid, have from the start. He isn’t quite the player I thought he’d be based on scouting reports but there are some things to like and he has a unique set of skills (although the offense isn’t there, he can carry the puck through the land mines, and he’s a finesse defender in that he thinks position first and reacts to the puck like a cat to a ball of wool but he also turns into a mean one when the whistle stops play. Go figure) that imply there’s more there than is hitting the scoresheet currently. I still think he’ll have a long, productive career.

Everyone else is still trying to get out of the ditch and onto the highway (among the youngsters).

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33 Responses to "Impressions"

  1. Gord says:

    How could you (or anyone) be disappointed in Cogliano?

    He is 20 years old having no NHL (or AHL) experience. He stepped into the line-up and is only one of five Oilers who has played every game this season. He is +1 since January 1st.

    Before the season started, Hockey’s Future stated the following:

    Cogliano has world class speed, a playmaker’s skill set and a competitive spirit that matches his heart. There is no question that the kid can dangle through or blow past defenders before making goaltenders look silly.

    Although he has not delivered on the “making goaltenders look silly” part – for some strange reason, I am very impressed with Cogliano…

  2. Lowetide says:

    I like Cogliano too, but he’s not going to be Butch Goring. I thought he might be.

    There’s no doubt he’s going to be a productive player, though.

  3. Black Dog says:

    Good post LT.

    Eight kids, all pretty well playing a regular shift, and this team hangs around .500 (albeit with all those SO wins).

    And a lot of people still complain about MacT as a coach. Huh?

    I wouldn’t argue with much of what you say here. I really think the D may be set next year. They may move Staios but I would think (hope) they replace him with another vet. Looking at the farm, other then Roy, there’s nobody else near ready. I think Grebs gets another year to prove what he can do.

    Nilsson is the interesting one here. I think he needs to play well these next two months but if he does then they will keep him. No idea where that leaves Schremp though.

  4. Andy Grabia says:

    showing every other roster player that listening to exactly what the coach tells you to do gets you TOI.

    I know you didn’t mean it that way, but to me this is a damning indictment of the head coach. It’s pretty obvious MacT ha a crush on Stortini, and I’m pretty sure you just pinpointed the reason.

    And a lot of people still complain about MacT as a coach. Huh?

    Yup. I just did. There’s no reason Stortini should be on this team.

    I actually think Cogliano is the best of the bunch, other than Gilbert Gilbert. I’m hoping the hands will come with time, in the same way young hitters develop power. Probably wishful thinking, but…

  5. PunjabiOil says:

    It will be interesting to see if Cogliano can bury the puck a bit more in upcoming years. 9 goals in 57 games isn’t terrible for a rookie though. I don’t think it’s entirely out of the world to predict he’ll pot 30 one day – most of his goals are akin to the ones Mike Comrie scores. In the slot, crease, or rebounds.

    I’m a bigger fan than Nilsson than most here. His EV/60 rates very well, and he’s got the offensive creativity. Consistency is a bit of an issue, but I believe he’s exactly what you want from your 2nd line.

    I often wonder about Gagner’s ceiling. He’ll certainly have to improve his skating and upper body strength if he’s going to be a legit 1st line Center. We’ll see.

    Smid has definitely settled down.

    Broziak is an interesting case. Why are his EV GA/60 numbers so poor?

    I don’t have a problem with Grebeshkov. He doesn’t make too many mistakes, and as a bottom pair defenseman, I’d keep him around.

  6. Dennis says:

    AG: That’s an interesting point about guys developing scoring touch like hitters develop power. I dunno, I just don’t buy it for some reason. I’m not saying Horc’s the gold standard for goal scoring or anything but I don’t remember him going from a guy who was getting lots of chances to a guy who just started converting them. Well maybe from ’07 to ’08 but normally he was a guy who probably scored as many goals as he did.

    Moreau’s a fellow who used to have a tonne of goal scoring chances once upon a time but it just never came to him.

    There have been three times this year when Cogs had sure goals robbed from him: early game vs Philly, another game against an opponent I can’t recall but I know Hemsky set him up and then last week vs the Hawks. Those are probably just bad luck and three extra goals to a fellow who’s only got nine would make a difference.

    But, overall, I think he’s a guy who’s gonna get in position because he has speed but just doesn’t have finish in close. Marchant was like that and so was Doug Weight and early on all those blown goal scoring chances while he played junior look like they just might follow Cogs into his NHL career.

  7. Oilman says:

    We had this kid play about 40 odd games for the Oilers one year as a rook and he looked like he had hands of stone – only scored 2 goals…he scored 39 the next season…what was his name again?

  8. jon k says:

    Good to see you coming around on Gagner, Nilsson, and Stortini LT.

    Who would have thought there was something there with that odd bunch.

    Oh right… ;)

  9. Lowetide says:

    jonk: I liked Gagner from the start, and Nilsson is a guy I cheer for because Mcguire (tsn) is an ass but Robert is a flawed player even if there’s enough offense.

    Stortini I agree on. My guess is there are some coaches in the NHL who never would have hired him.

  10. Vic Ferrari says:

    To me Nilsson still has a chance at a significant NHL career if he can learn to play against good players. He’s the interesting one on your list.

    He’s small, but if he can be a counter-puncher it may not matter so much. But he’s a long way from becoming that player.

    The optimist’s wet dream should be that Nilsson becomes the equivalent of Reasoner (after he realized he wasn’t going to be Marty “Magic” Reasoner, but before he crushed his knees).

    But you see some of the decisions that this guy makes, not just under pressure but with time … sweet Christ, he defines Fernando’s “cheating for offense” quip.

    Do that enough against good players and you’ll pay the piper soon. There is no way in hell that a coach of a contending team still has this kid on the roster for a playoff game right now.

    There is still time for him to prove himself, but the clock is ticking. And there aren’t going to be a lot, if any, NHL options for this player in the summer if the Oilers don’t re-up.

  11. Steve says:

    Scott Ferguson as a forward

    Because man, Scott Ferguson would have made a useful forward.

  12. Pleasure Motors says:

    To me Nilsson still has a chance at a significant NHL career if he can learn to play against good players.

    I don’t know, I think he can have a significant career even if he doesn’t necessarily learn that.

    He could certainly stand to learn to take care of his own zone a little better, but I don’t think you can deny that, even at this age, he’s an above-average offensive player: there are few people on this team, even when it’s entirely healthy, who have his finesse, and he’s got terrific awareness in the other team’s zone, in the sense of both getting in good positions and knowing where his teammates are. (You also can’t overlook his finish.)

    As pjo says, I think he can be a pretty ideal second-line player: assuming your first line can play power vs power and your third line can at least break even if they have to check the other team’s top line, you half-shelter the line and let them eat up lesser opposition, then bust them out a bit on the PP. I doubt Nilsson will ever be an all-star, or even the type of guy you want to rely on heavily, but is there something so bad about a guy who can pot 50-60 points and keep roughly even against soft-ish opponents? A sort of MA Bergeron for the top six?

    I’m also with Andy on the criticism of MacT: listening to coach and working hard are one thing, but at some point talent has to be a factor.

  13. mike w says:

    Thing is with Nilsson: I’ve seen him do a great job breaking plays on the backcheck, but I’ve also seen him sail into view many seconds after a team scores.

    I’m with PunjabiOil on this punk kid.

  14. Devin says:

    I think Grebs now is a different player from when he came into camp. Maybe I’m missing stuff when I watch, but he’s looked much more solid than Greene or Smid have for the most part in terms of just defending. His gap control is way better than those guys (and so is his stickwork), and if he continues to massage those occasional disastrous moments out of his game he could be a solid second-pairing guy. The offense isn’t there, but neither is it for Ladi. I think he could be a 25pt 4th D-man in a couple years (ie. when it begins to matter for this team)… I have faith. Sign the guy if he’ll take 700k or so on a 2yr.

    ps- I wrote a similar post a few months ago after the Grebs v. Iginla game. He immediately came back with a stinker and made me look the fool… let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.

  15. YKOil says:

    The problem with Nilsson is the price you would pay for him. If he is only going to be a 2nd line guy who might pot 60 points and still NOT make a real difference then paying him $4+ million a year seems silly.

    Not every guy from that tree turns into Marc Savard.

    I am not saying to trade him right now but it remains a continual option. I like the idea of counter-puncher (nice analogy Vic) though and so I won’t give up on the kid either.

    Or mmaybe I am just jaded. Seen a lot of Nilsson’s in my time.

  16. toqueboy says:

    i got to see savard play a lot before he was traded out of calgary…i think he’s a decent comparison to nillson as an oiler right now…

    does magic become savard minus or nhat domminecelli (i know i butchered the spelling, but he was beauty, almost)

    i think a comparison to reasoner is wrong…reasoner understand d and has a top end shot of C-…mini magic has a laser and can breakthrough d….maybe thats what marty was like in college, but not as a pro

    none of the other kids are natural goal scorers but they all have pretty good work ethic for youngsters.

  17. Andy Grabia says:

    AG: That’s an interesting point about guys developing scoring touch like hitters develop power. I dunno, I just don’t buy it for some reason.

    I don’t either, but a kid can dream.

  18. dawgbone says:

    One thing about Stortini is that he’s still pretty young (in terms of being an enforcer).

    Eric Godard at 22 was still in the minors that full season, and in his 23 year old year he wasn’t winning many fights against NHL tough guys.

    There are very few guys who can be in the NHL at Stortini’s age and be a legitimate threat as an enforcer. The only one I can think of who’s gone on to have a career is laraque… it’s very rare.

  19. digger says:

    When I watch Nilsson, I see a lot of Kristian Huselius, Florida Panther version.

    A kid who would get you 20/20 point totals in the absolute softest way possible, to the point that his team basically gave him away…then one day he finds the right fit, and that 20/20 turns into 30/40, a bona fide offensive weapon.

    There’s too much talent there to ignore, and IMO the consistency is improving, albeit at a glacial rate. I wouldn’t give him up yet.

  20. Bank Shot says:

    The problem with Nilsson is the price you would pay for him. If he is only going to be a 2nd line guy who might pot 60 points and still NOT make a real difference then paying him $4+ million a year seems silly.

    If he can pot 60 points for around $3 million and not get completly killed at ES then I think it may well be money better spent then $2+ on a guy like Torres who’ll get 30-40 points while wasting 500 minutes of PP time while also sitting on the bench during PK. They can replace the body contact with a minimum wager.

    The Oilers aren’t exactly deep in offensive talent. I don’t know of a team that finishes off fewer of their odd man chances. Outside of Hemsky and Gagner, Nilsson is essentially the only player that can create something out of nothing.

    I don’t think the Oilers are going to pluck any two-way players with magic hands off the UFA market, so they might as well wait on Nilsson.

    Grebeshkov should walk, and the rest have a place on the Oilers.

  21. Vic Ferrari says:


    I’ve always hated Savard, even though as a young player with the Rangers, to my eye, nobody has ever looked more like Gretzky on the ice with his mannerisms. And his cherry-picking was a near match too.

    Still, just goes to show, good players hit their mid twenties and start really helping their team win, even if it means the counting numbers going down (and it usually does). But even the guys who seem incorrigible, the guys we’ve written off as useless floaters … even they seem to figure it out by the time they are 30.

    Every year it seems that I lose a long standing whipping boy to this “growing up” phenomenon.

  22. Gord says:

    I think Grebs now is a different player from when he came into camp. Maybe I’m missing stuff when I watch, but he’s looked much more solid than Greene or Smid have for the most part in terms of just defending.


    You are seeing what I am seeing – I firmly believe MacT is hiding Grebeshkov so we can sign him on an inexpensive longer term contract (to free up money for Gilbert & Pitkanen).

    Since January 1st, Grebs is only minus 1 while Gilbert is -6, Pitkanen -2, Smid -1…

    Grebs has equivalent hits as Gilbert & Pitkanen. Grebs has half the equivalent PP points (per ice time) as Pitkanen & Gilbert. More blocked shots than Pitkanen.

    I am not claiming that Grebeshkov is at the same level as Pitkanen or Gilbert – but Grebs is not the bum as many concluded after his rocky, scrambling first 20 games.

    I was probably the first to state on the record that Hejda at $1 million was the best UFA dollar for dollar signing of the summer (posted that on the Columbus hfboards).

    I will go on record now that if Grebeshkov can be signed for 3 years at $1.5 million per year, he will be the best dollar for dollar Oiler defenseman within two years…

  23. Black Dog says:

    Andy – not arguing that MacT has no flaws – he has made some questionable roster choices through this year no doubt about it.

    But, all things considered the fact that this team is somewhat competitive with this roster means the coach is doing something right.

  24. mc79hockey says:

    …I think it may well be money better spent then $2+ on a guy like Torres who’ll get 30-40 points while wasting 500 minutes of PP time

    What, over the course of his career? Torres has 590 minutes of PP TOI in his career with the Oilers. For whatever people say about Raffi, he’s hung around + territory forever, even this year, when the pucks were simply not going in when he was on the ice.

  25. matt says:

    I watched Gagner go into the corners Saturday night. He didn’t win many battles. But he battled and it wasn’t comical. Being an 18 yr old featherweight and doing that is likely what sparked the MacT praise.

    The jury’s out on Cogliano. I still think he’ll be top 6, but my hope he would be a lock for a first liner in a couple years has faded.

    Nilson is dangerous every time he gets near the puck in the offensive zone. I never notice him in the defensive zone. But that latter aspect is more easily learned, and particularly from MacT.

  26. Dennis says:

    Defense is awareness and battle and I’m not sure Nilsson’s great at either.

    That being said I’m one of the guy’s that’s pimped him for more TOI guy because the young fella wounds up getting it done.

    I can’t think of anything guy like him though. I’ve seen just about all the games and all the players since the ’97 season and I can’t think of a fellow who can put up points at his pace and still not have a whole lot of folks in his corner when he’s healthy scratched.

    Satan was dealt towards the end of the ’97 season so I didn’t get to see a whole lot of him. Their styles aren’t that similar and Miro certainly has more of the goal scoring touch but maybe that’s the last guy who could get it done but didn’t get the love that usually goes with it?

  27. Bruce says:

    Nilson is dangerous every time he gets near the puck in the offensive zone. I never notice him in the defensive zone. But that latter aspect is more easily learned, and particularly from MacT.

    Not such a bad thing, generally speaking. I tend to focus on the guy(s) responsible for the GA, and generally that’s not Nilsson. The record would suggest he’s learning that aspect already, with a couple of harsh lessons along the way (Doug Weight springs to mind). But among the twenty Oiler skaters with 20+ GP (excluding GlenX and his 6 minutes as an Oiler), Row-bear ranks a very respectable third on the club in 5v5 GA/60.

    [More surprising still is the fact that he ranks behind two fellow youngsters, including Matt Greene who IMO should also be considered among the developing players otherwise mentioned in this (excellent!) post:

    1. Stortini 2.14
    2. Greene 2.24
    3. Nilsson 2.28
    8. Grebeshkov 2.52
    11. Gilbert 2.80
    13. Gagner 3.00
    14. Cogliano 3.01
    16. Smid 3.12
    19. Brodziak 3.37

    1-2-3, just how the Oilogosphere called it, right?]

    Unlike the guys ahead of him on that list, Nilsson also brings offence to the table, and his +3 at evens ranks behind only Horcoff and Penner. The other 8 youngsters (inc. Greene) are a collective -56, putting Nilsson +10 clear of the pack.

    What he doesn’t bring is consistency, there are too many nights where you just don’t notice him at all. Which is why MacT is giving Row-bear the tough love treatment, anywhere from the first line to the fifth, while more limited (he said charitably) guys like Greene and Stortini, who always bring the best of whatever game they’ve got, are consistently given third pairing/fourth line minutes where for the most part they haven’t been hurting the club. (Now if only we had a coach who could teach players what to do with the puck.)

    Beaing in mind the parenthetical comment immediately above, I feel it is very possible to learn offence. When Glenn Anderson played for Canada’s Olympic Team in 1980 I saw a couple of exhibition games and thought “real fast, but his hands and/or head can’t quite keep up”. But he worked at it and got all three of those elements working together, all at top speed. He learned things like stopping by the crease instead of taking the big turn, or holding the puck for that extra second, taking it wide, putting it upstairs. Cogliano has pretty decent instincts for the former, but really has to work on the latter. It’s tough to score on NHL goalies, and not many start doing it right away. I think he will prove to have the head for it, but the hands are an open question. (See: Marchant, Todd) On the other hand, let’s give him a few years to mature and see how he develops. (See: Horcoff, Shawn) I have high hopes for this player, who will be at worst, very good.

  28. RiversQ says:

    LT said…
    His GA/60 number is a mindbender.

    Just as a reminder…

    Pouliot had better GF/60 and GA/60 numbers last year in 46 NHL games on a team with almost identical 5V5 performance to this year’s team.

    That’s food for thought about both Pouliot and Stortini I think.

  29. Bruce says:

    Interesting point. Maybe it just means the stat is full of shit, or maybe it means that Pouliot played a responsible defensive game last year a la Stortini this year.

    I’d choose (b). I thought MP showed quite a bit of promise last spring, and was bitterly disappointed in his brutal October (+0.00/-4.83 per 60) which earned him a (to this point) one-way trip on Mass. transit. No way was he prepared for the start of this season, whether he thought he’d made his breakthrough and was on cruise control, who knows, but 78 did little enough to disavow that impression. Maybe 46 will have the same problem next year, but I don’t think so, he’s pretty focussed.

  30. RiversQ says:

    For all the shit that’s been piled on Pouliot this year, we are talking about 9 fucking games.

    That sample size is so small that the rate number you’re quoting is essentially useless. We’re talking about just 87 minutes of icetime and 3 or 4 goals being the difference between a good rate and an absolutely atrocious one.

    The stat is certainly not full of shit (although it always needs context like all of the others). I think it means Pouliot’s a better player than people seem to think.

  31. Bruce says:

    Mostly agree, RQ. Certainly Pouliot showed promise last year, and like LT I haven’t given up on him yet. But even in 9 fucking games +0/-7 is a pretty atrocious result, and would require a fix of 3 or 4 goals on both sides of the equation to be respectable. To my eye he was most effective as a centre last season, and getting fourth line minutes as a winger did him no good at all this fall. Having his head up his arse for those 9 games didn’t help either.

    Put him where Cogliano is between 18 and 34 and he’d (probably) do fine. But for now he has fallen suddenly and disastrously behind 13, 89 and 51 on the depth chart, and it’s hard to know what it will take short of an injury to one of those youngsters to get him another shot. At the very least, three months on the rock pile should have gotten his attention.

  32. Dennis says:

    Pouliot with two more goals tonight in a 4-3 Falcons loss. He’s been streaking for awhile now.

    As for last year, seems like a lot of people forgot how well he played and some of them were in the front office and on the bench.

    I don’t mind admitting that last year I expressed concern over just how he’d score goals in the NHL but I didn’t worry about his ability to prevent goals.

  33. dawgbone says:

    Problem is Dennis, he wasn’t doing it to start the season in the NHL, and he wasn’t doing it early on during his demotion.

    I’m a big Pouliot fan because he does a lot of things well… he just wasn’t doing them early on.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Reasoner get traded and Pouliot brought up to fill his role though.

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