Makin' grades

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

So, what's not to like?

Well, hit-and-too-often-miss performances between the pipes by the goaltending triangle of Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen and Mike Morrison, for one thing. A seven-game losing streak, for another.

Warts and all in this season of raised expectations, here we are at the midway point of the 2005-06 NHL schedule, and the Edmonton Oilers are 23-14-4 and on a 100-point pace for the first time since 1986-87.

The Oilers hit the 41-game mark Tuesday with a 5-0 drubbing of Chicago and begin the second half, one in which they will play 22 of their final 41 games at home, Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With that in mind, here's the Oilers mid-term report cards, with players graded A through D. Any mark below C-minus is considered a failure, so use F, if you prefer.

HEAD OF THE CLASS

SHAWN HORCOFF: Argue his credentials as a top-two centre if you must, but he surpassed his previous single-season best of 40 points with the 1-0 goal and his 41st point against Chicago Tuesday. Horcoff has upped his numbers in five straight seasons. Some respect, please. A

ALES HEMSKY: How many 22-year-old players in the NHL are better than this guy right now? He's a special talent who's breaking out for all to see. Has 28 assists and still prefers to pass, but his shots-total has grown in tandem with his confidence. A-

ETHAN MOREAU: If you don't like the way he plays, then you don't like hockey. He leads the team in game-winning goals (three), shorthanded goals (3), shorthanded points (five) and penalty minutes. Just stay the hell out of his way if you know what's good for you. A

CHRIS PRONGER: So efficient, some people wonder what all the fuss is about. Just four points in his first dozen games, but he tallied 4-16-20 in 27 games in November and December. Twenty-eight seamless minutes a night against the opposition's best forwards. A-

JARRET STOLL: He's gone from a fourth-line role player as a rookie to a top-two centre, a feared point-man on the power play and one of the NHL's best on the dot. Stoll has exceeded every expectation. As complete a player as there is on this team. A

NEXT BEST

MARC-ANDRE BERGERON: Being paired with Pronger and the increased ice time has bumped him along the learning curve. On his way to a career high for goals, assists and points. Where's that wicked highlight-reel hip-check he dumped Brenden Morrow with three years ago? B

FERNANDO PISANI: He accomplishes more with less than 14 minutes a night than any other Oilers forward. Versatile and reliable at both ends. Leads the team at plus-10. Has a couple of game-winners among his 11 goals. Underrated no more. B+

JASON SMITH: The captain blocks more rubber than his goaltenders some nights. The new rules haven't taken as much of the edge off Smith's game as many suspected they might. He's adapted and still beats the daylights out of people in the corners and around the net. B

RYAN SMYTH: Headed for 30 goals for the third time in his career despite a knee injury. If there's a quibble, it's that Smyth has been inconsistent, but he's on another roll right now with goals in three straight games and points in his last four. B+

STEVE STAIOS: Third in scoring on the back end and leads the blue-line at plus-9. NHL top 20 in takeaways and blocked shots. His trump card is consistency. If you want to split hairs and nit-pick, he's been a little less nasty than in past seasons. B

RAFFI TORRES: He's proving his 20 goals of 2003-04 was no fluke. When he's on, he's dynamic. The knock is he doesn't bring it every night. Streaky in the extreme. Has goal-less streaks of three, four, five and six games, but still on pace for a career high. B-

PASSING GRADES

RADEK DVORAK: Not enough offensive production for the ice time he gets. Plays on the perimeter too often. Still, two of his four goals have been game-winners. You just want to see him grab a game by the throat once in awhile. C

TODD HARVEY: Hasn't been the constant pain in the backside that's been his trademark. His versatility is a plus, but he hasn't found a way to make the most of limited ice time. C-

GEORGES LARAQUE: Like so many players who don't play on the power play and don't kill penalties, his effectiveness has been diminished by the new rules and less ice time. Like a lot of tough guys in a league, he has to reinvent himself. C

JUSSI MARKKANEN: Was at his best in backstopping the Oilers to five straight wins during a string of 15 consecutive starts, but Markkanen has been all over the place. Four goals on nine shots against the Canucks Dec. 21 was the low point. C-

MIKE MORRISON: Back-to-back bad starts against Vancouver and Calgary in key games sent him sideways. He gets less playing time and less slack than Conklin and Markkanen. Can he win back the confidence of the coach? C+

MICHAEL PECA: Yes, his production is a disappointment, he hasn't provided offensive bang for the buck. Get over it. Peca's value in the face-off circle, as a shutdown guy and penalty killer will be significant in the stretch. He's coming on. C+

MARTY REASONER: His minus-9 ties him for worst on the team, but there's a lot to like. Reasoner's reworked his game to become a reliable, productive player - all on less than 14 minutes a game. C+

CUTTING CLASS

TY CONKLIN: On balance, he hasn't been good enough, but he's taken his lumps and emerged with easily his best performances of late. If Conklin's turned the corner, this grade won't be worth the paper it's printed on. D

CORY CROSS: A healthy scratch twice in the last three games and is in danger of being displaced by rookie Matt Greene. He's struggled under the new rules. D

JANI RITA: Give him credit. Rita not only shut his mouth and did his work while sitting out, he played his best game of the season against Chicago. D

IGOR ULANOV: Ulanov gives you all he's got, but he's a team-worst minus-9, and that's without facing the opposition's top lines. Teases MacTavish with solid showings, but too often he's a mistake waiting to happen. D

BRAD WINCHESTER: A roster spot was his to lose and he did exactly that. He's got to stop feeling his way into games and just start knocking people onto their backsides. That's his ticket. D


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