If berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were awarded on potential, the Edmonton Oilers would have locked one up a long ago.
Boasting the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft from each of the last three seasons -- Nail Yakupov (2012), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Taylor Hall (2010) -- the Oilers are loaded with young, high-end offensive talent. That list does not include Jordan Eberle (22nd pick in 2008), 22, Magnus Paajarvi (10th pick in ‘09), 22, Sam Gagner (sixth pick in 2007), 23, and free-agent Justin Schultz, 22, whose 15 points lead all rookie defensemen.
Alas, entering Thursday, the Oilers found themselves sitting five points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It seems all of that talent requires some seasoning.
After a 3-0-2 streak that got them back into the race, the Oilers dropped two straight before bouncing back to blank the Blues 3-0 in St. Louis on Tuesday.
"That's something we have to learn," Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk said. "We obviously don't want to have to climb from behind to get to that spot, but to be in the playoffs it's going to be scratch and claw for months. That's how it is in this League, especially in the Western Conference.
"It's so tough to get the points and everybody's right in the mix. It's going to be that way next year, and if we want to be in the playoffs we have to understand there's going to be desperation for the last two-and-a-half months, where every game is going to mean something so important and we have to learn to bring it every single night and not have lapses."
Because the overwhelming majority of the Oilers' young players are offensive-oriented forwards, the defensive part of the game is something they still need to master. Getting better at that aspect requires practice, a commodity in scarce supply this season because of the compacted schedule.
Some Oilers sport garish plus/minus ratings, like Justin Schultz at minus-10 and Yakupov at minus-11, ranking them in the bottom 6 percent of the League. Nonetheless, Oilers coach Ralph Krueger sees the season as a learning process and a positive one at that.
"I would say in this short time period if you look at the 30 games we've played, there's been so much learning in that respect and understanding of the necessity to play defense," Krueger said. "When you look at what the opposition are doing right now … the patience of the top teams who are experienced with what it takes to get into playoffs and then be good in playoffs, those lessons are jumping over into our dressing room."
Krueger said on Monday morning the team broke into smaller groups and held conversations about defensive responsibilities.
"They're saying the things that need to be done and now they need to transfer that into execution, and we need to do it in the games but they're ‘all in' here," he said. "The guys understand that everything begins with defense, that all your opportunities grow out of defense and that defense is the hard part of the game.
"That's the part where you need to put your body in. That's the part where you need to challenge opposition every single shift."
While highly-skilled players like the Oilers' seem to be a prerequisite to win at the highest levels, they are by no means sufficient. Two other recent examples show what can happen when a franchise picks at the top of the draft so often -- one positive, one negative.
From 2003 to 2006, the Pittsburgh Penguins picked either first or second, taking Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and played in the Stanley Cup Final twice, winning in 2009. They remain a contender.
Conversely, from 1999 to 2002, the Atlanta Thrashers also had the first or second pick and took Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Kari Lehtonen. They only made the playoffs once, never won a postseason game and were relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
Such a fate seems impossible to befall Edmonton, but the lesson is that playoff success is by no means guaranteed. Even if the Oilers do not earn a berth this season -- at this point they would have to jump past four teams -- they have plenty of time to make good on their potential.
"It's nice to be able to grow up as a team together," said Nugent-Hopkins, who recorded 52 points in 62 games last season as a rookie, but has struggled this season to produce at the same rate with 12 points in 28 games. "We have such a young team that we're going to be able to do that and the next few years are going to be exciting for us, but it's got to start right now and we've got to make a big push here."
As Nugent-Hopkins is well aware -- he played his junior hockey in Alberta with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League -- the fans are impatient. The Oilers have not qualified for the postseason since 2006, when they lost in Game 7 of the Cup Final to the Carolina Hurricanes.
"It's something for the last couple of years that hasn't been going on here," Nugent-Hopkins said of a playoff run. "So we're definitely excited and embrace it. There's a lot of us who have never been in a playoff race like this, so you have to take the experience from the guys who have been and just try to draw on it."
The veterans and Krueger are trying to impart those lessons about never taking a shift off as the Oilers tackle teams that know what it is like to play meaningful games at this time of season and also to enjoy playoff success.
"One guy taking one shift off at this point in the season can cost us a game, and the young guys especially are really getting it," Krueger said. "Now is it a habit yet to do that properly? No. Are we still going to regress once in a while? Yes. But is everybody working hard to do the right thing? I believe, yes, it's a good curve we're on."
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