Is this the year?
It was a tagline from a recent NHL marketing promotion, but it's also been the foremost question on the minds of Edmonton Oilers fans for several offseasons. Is this the year Edmonton, led by its young core, finally returns to prominence?
The rebuilding process has taken longer in Oil Country than it did in Pittsburgh or Chicago or Washington, but the talent is in place. The Oilers buttressed the roster with a couple of interesting free-agent signings, namely forward Benoit Pouliot and defenseman Mark Fayne.
If a couple of young defensemen improve and the goaltending is better, the Oilers could shoot up from the bottom of the Western Conference into Stanley Cup Playoff contention. Reaching the top eight and returning to the postseason would take significant improvements.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Oilers:
The biggest question on the roster is, who slots in at center behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Sam Gagner gone? Leon Draisaitl, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, will get a chance to claim that spot. If he isn't ready, Mark Arcobello is a possibility.
Edmonton might be one of the best teams in the West on the wings. Nail Yakupov has some work to do on the rest of his game, but the talent is there to be an elite offensive player. Pouliot should help the Oilers possess the puck more because he's done that at pretty much every stop of his journeyman career. Trading for Teddy Purcell, who was inconsistent with the Tampa Bay Lightning but had stretches of excellence, could help.
Pouliot and Purcell will solve of Edmonton's biggest problems from the past couple of seasons: The bottom six has for the most part been a mess. Boyd Gordon works in the middle, and maybe Arcobello ends up there on one of the lines as well.
For all of the potentially elite talent up front, there's not a lot of young depth options like there is on defense.
The Oilers have preached patience during the rebuild, and no place has that been more evident than the defense. Edmonton has a very intriguing collection of young defensemen, but there's been little support around them or quality veterans to allow them time to develop.
Jeff Petry is an underrated player, in part because of the lot he's been cast with the past few years. Martin Marincin looked quite good upon arrival last season. Fayne should help and came at a good value, but Nikita Nikitin was almost certainly overpaid.
Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz were potential top-two defensemen for the Oilers last season. Whether or not Schultz can develop into a better two-way player remains to be seen, but the additions and the graduations of top prospects should allow coach Dallas Eakins to play Ference and Schultz less.
Speaking of prospects, Oscar Klefbom has a chance to make the team during training camp, though Keith Aulie's one-way contract might help him win a spot. Darnell Nurse probably needs more development time, but a defense with Nurse, Klefbom, Petry and Marincin (and maybe Schultz) could be very exciting in the coming seasons.
It received little fanfare around the NHL, but the Oilers may have solved their goaltending problem late in the season for a relatively minor cost. If Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth can be a competent tandem, the Oilers went from one of the worst net situations to a cheap, average to potentially above average one for two third-round picks and a fifth-rounder.
Scrivens had strong numbers at each of his stops without ever getting a chance to play a lot. That should change this season.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: OILERS
Undervalued: Taylor Hall -- In his first two NHL seasons, Hall struggled with injuries, missing 38 games. Over his past two seasons, Hall has missed 10 games, with 43 goals and 130 points in 120 games. Those 130 points are the sixth most of any player during that time. The unfortunate part of the forward's game is he will hurt you in the plus/minus category. After finishing with a plus-5 in 2012-13, Hall regressed to minus-15 last season and has had a minus rating in three of his four seasons. Besides his rating, he'll help you in every category. His 250 shots on goal and 44 penalty minutes last season were career highs, and during his four seasons he's averaged 21 power-play points. Hall is an elite offensive player and a potential second-round fantasy pick.
Overvalued: Justin Schultz -- Schultz, 22, scored 27 points in 48 games two seasons ago, a clip of 0.56 points per game. Last season he slipped to 33 points in 74 games, a mark of 0.44 points per game that ranked 43rd among defensemen who played in at least 20 games. Not only did his point production drop, but Schultz is minus-39 in 122 NHL games and won't help at all in the penalty-minute category (24 in two seasons). Because Schultz is the Oilers' top offensive weapon on the blue line, he'll continue to have some upside and will receive the bulk of power-play time on the point (he averaged 3:26 per game last season and had 12 power-play points). This isn't enough to justify taking him as your No. 2 defenseman. He's a decent option as your No. 3 or No. 4, but don't reach for him.
Sleeper: Benoit Pouliot -- After signing a five-year contract worth $20 million, Pouliot likely will play somewhere on the top two lines. This means there's fantasy potential with all the talent Edmonton possesses offensively. Drafted No. 4 in 2005, Pouliot has plenty of skill but has always been a bottom-six player. He thrived on the third line for the New York Rangers on their way to the Stanley Cup Final with 15 goals, 36 points, a plus-10, 56 penalty minutes and eight power-play points averaging 13:26 of ice time during the regular season. With the chance for an increased role, Pouliot could end up exceeding 20 goals and 45 points for the first time. His plus/minus will take a hit, but look to grab Pouliot with one of your last picks and it could pay off.
Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes
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