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30 in 30: Coach, Nugent-Hopkins two Oilers questions

by Brian Compton

The Edmonton Oilers made some strides last season, but not enough of them to put an end to what is now a seven-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought. Because of that, another new regime is in place.

Craig MacTavish, who won three Stanley Cups during his playing days with the Oilers, replaced Steve Tambellini as general manager in April. Two months later, MacTavish put his first official stamp on the club when he fired coach Ralph Krueger and replaced him with Dallas Eakins.

So, is this the regime that will finally return this storied franchise back to prominence? It may take some more time before thinking about a Stanley Cup parade in Edmonton, but there could be enough pieces in place for the Oilers to return to the postseason for the first time since they lost Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Here are six questions facing the Oilers as they head into next season:

1. How will Dallas Eakins fare in his first season as an NHL coach? -- This will be the first NHL head-coaching gig for the 46-year-old, but he was coveted by several general managers this summer. Eakins, who coached the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League for the past four seasons and guided them to the Calder Cup Final in 2012, also interviewed for coaching vacancies with the Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

Eakins is inheriting a club that isn’t short of offensive firepower. Jordan Eberle has 50 goals during the past two seasons. Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012) were the No. 1 selections at three consecutive NHL Drafts. And on the blue line, defenseman Justin Schultz had 27 points in 48 games as a rookie after signing as a free agent last summer.

It will be up to the new coach to get all this talent to play responsibly at both ends of the ice. Should he be able to do that, the Oilers could finish as one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference.

2. Can Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stay healthy and produce at a high level? -- After putting up 52 points in 62 games as a rookie in 2011-12, Nugent-Hopkins’ production declined last season (24 points in 40 games), mainly because of a nagging shoulder injury. The Oilers and their No. 1 center decided in April that enough was enough and Nugent-Hopkins had surgery to repair the torn labrum.

Nugent-Hopkins is continuing to rehab the shoulder in his native Burnaby, British Columbia. But as of late July, he had yet to resume skating. Both parties are holding out hope Nugent-Hopkins will be in the lineup when Edmonton opens next season against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 1 at Rexall Place, but how realistic that goal is remains to be seen.

MacTavish said the Oilers will not rush Nugent-Hopkins, with the team’s long-term success far more important. His health will play a huge role in determining if the Oilers will end their postseason drought.

3. Will Devan Dubnyk build off last season’s performance? -- He has 139 games of NHL experience, and Dubnyk put up solid numbers as the Oilers’ No. 1 goaltender in 2012-13. In 38 appearances, the 27-year-old went 14-16-6 with a 2.57 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts.

Now that Schultz has a season of professional hockey under his belt, and veterans Andrew Ference and Denis Grebeshkov have been added to the team’s blue line, Dubnyk could be the biggest beneficiary. Dubnyk is entering the final year of his contract, which could be a factor.

Nail Yakupov
2012-13 STATS
Goals: 17 | Assists: 14 | Pts: 31
Shots: 81 | +/-: -4
4. What are the next steps in the development of Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov? -- Schultz finished fifth on the Oilers in scoring with 27 points, but he had a team-worst minus-17 rating. Only Jeff Petry averaged more ice time per game than Schultz, who was a 22-year-old rookie adjusting to the NHL game. Now that he has his feet wet, Schultz will have a better understanding of what to expect and should be able to make some adjustments in his own end of the ice.

Yakupov showed glimpses of the exciting player expected to be seen in the NHL for years to come. Despite being shuffled on various lines, Yakupov had 17 goals (six via the power play) and 14 assists in 48 games as a 19-year-old. Whether the Oilers are able to trade wing Ales Hemsky prior to the start of the season could determine Yakupov's line at the beginning of the season, but there is little doubt he is a top-six forward at this level.

5. Will David Perron benefit from a change of scenery? -- There’s little doubt surrounding Perron’s talent, but the 2007 first-round pick (No. 26) has yet to maximize his potential, mainly due to concussion problems that limited him to 67 games between 2010 and 2012. Fully healthy last season, Perron had 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in 48 games for the St. Louis Blues.

Only Hall should be ahead of Perron on the depth chart at left wing, which means the latter likely will skate with Nugent-Hopkins or Sam Gagner, highly skilled centers who should create plenty of scoring chances for Perron. If Perron stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine his production not increasing.

6. Are the Oilers ready to end their playoff drought? -- Like every other team, much of Edmonton’s success next season will depend on health. It is essential Nugent-Hopkins puts his recent shoulder problems behind him and returns to the form he displayed for much of his rookie season in 2011-12. If he does, and the club continues to see development from Hall, Eberle, Yakupov, Schultz and Dubnyk, the Oilers could return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006.


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