PENTICTON, British Columbia -- The Edmonton Oilers arrived at the Young Stars Classic two years ago with the newest addition to a talented stable of offensive weaponry. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had been picked No. 1 in the 2011 NHL Draft, stole the show, helping him make the Oilers as an 18-year-old.
Two years later, the Oilers are hoping for a similar showing from some of their young defensemen as they work to end a seven-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The top hopefuls are two of the Oilers' most recent first-round picks. Darnell Nurse, taken with the seventh pick in the draft this past June, and Oscar Klefbom, drafted No. 19 in 2011, headline a list of young defensemen fighting for jobs. They'll be paired on Thursday night when the Oilers face off against the Calgary Flames in the opener of the Young Stars Tournament, a rookie-level version of the Battle of Alberta.
"It's part of my dream coming true," Nurse said after the morning skate at the South Okanagan Events Centre. "When I say part of it, I mean there's a lot of work to be done. It's every kid's dream to play in the NHL, but this is just the first step in a long process. To be able to go through an experience like this, to play against some extremely talented players and to play alongside Oscar on the same pairing, it's only going to help me grow as a player and as a person.
"It's exciting. I've never played at a pace like this. It's going to be a good test of who I am and how far I've come. I can't wait to get out there and battle."
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound defenseman spent the 2012-13 season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 12 goals and finishing with 41 points and a plus-15 rating in 68 games.
Klefbom hasn't seen a minute of competitive action in nearly a calendar year. His third professional season with Farjestad of the Swedish Hockey League ended Oct. 9 when he suffered a devastating shoulder injury that required surgery.
Eleven months later, Klefbom is healthy and eager to show what he can do.
"It's been a while and I'm a little nervous," the 20-year-old said with a laugh, "but I can't wait to get going. As difficult as the recovery was, waiting was the hardest part. Coming back now, for the Battle of Alberta, it's unbelievable. I haven't had a chance to even play a game in North America yet except for the World Juniors, so I'm very excited.
"I've worked so hard to get back into game shape and I know it will pay off throughout camp. It's nice to be at a point where I don't even need to worry about [my shoulder] at all. I was fortunate enough to visit Edmonton several times late last season, so I got a chance to skate with the guys a little bit and get involved with some contact. Those opportunities gave me the chance to train as I normally would during the summer."
That's good news for the Oilers, who have developed some top offensive talent in recent years but have struggled to keep the puck out of their net, a big reason they haven't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006.
Nurse and Klefbom likely will be Edmonton's top pairing throughout the tournament. Others looking to make an impression include second-year pros Brandon Davidson and Martin Marincin, and promising youngsters David Musil and Martin Gernat, each moving up after spending last season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League.
"We've had size [on defense] before, but the skill level wasn't up to par. Then we got the skill, but we didn't have the size to work with," said Todd Nelson, coach of the Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons. Nelson, along with Barons assistants Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson, will be running the bench during the tournament while new Oilers coach Dallas Eakins watches.
"We're complementing both now," Nelson continued. "We have guys that can move the puck, can play on the power play and are strong in the defensive zone too. It's a good mixture of everything, and because of that everyone in our organization is very excited."
Klefbom is eager to have the chance to work with Nurse.
"It's great to have balance," Klefbom said. "Just look at Darnell. He's a great player. He has a lot of speed and brings a lot of intelligence to the game. We haven't had a chance to skate together a whole lot, but it's working so far. When it comes together that quickly, it's a good sign.
"We'll see how it goes [Thursday]. I think there's going to be some great chemistry between us."
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