Seven years have passed since the Edmonton Oilers made that memorable run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final before falling short against the Carolina Hurricanes. Nobody at the time could have thought it would mark the beginning of a long postseason drought.
The Oilers improved last season (19-22-7), but it wasn't enough to save the jobs of either general manager Steve Tambellini or coach Ralph Krueger.
Craig MacTavish, who won the Stanley Cup three times in Edmonton as a player, was named GM on April 15. MacTavish fired Krueger on June 8, and Dallas Eakins, an up-and-comer in the eyes of many, was hired two days later to coach this young, talented group. Eakins is the Oilers' fourth coach in five seasons.
"The No. 1 thing we're going to be committed to is competition. If you're going to play for the Edmonton Oilers, you're going to compete," Eakins said when he was introduced as coach June 10. "That's how you win games in the NHL and that's how you make your organization better."
Eakins, 46, spent the past four seasons as coach of the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League, compiling a record of 157-114-4. The Marlies made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, including a trip to the Calder Cup Final in 2012. That season, the Marlies set franchise records for penalty-killing percentage (88.1), fewest power-play goals allowed (37), fewest penalty minutes (1,134) and fewest goals allowed (175).
An assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2006-08, Eakins reportedly also interviewed this summer for coaching vacancies with the Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche, a testament to how strongly he was viewed around the NHL.
"I coached against him two years ago when I was the head coach of the [AHL] Chicago Wolves," MacTavish said at Eakins' introduction. "I was impressed by his team and how well the team competed. They were ready to go right at the opening faceoff. I haven't seen a team that well-prepared in a long time.
"He has all the great qualities you look for in a coach. He has great perspective and is unflappable under pressure. I'm extremely confident in this man's ability."
MacTavish, who was intent on being active this summer, spent the majority of July revamping the Oilers' roster.
Perhaps his biggest move came July 10, when he traded forward Magnus Paajarvi and a second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for left wing David Perron, who has been placed in a position to thrive alongside a plethora of young, talented forwards.
"He's just got an incredible skill set … a great set of hands," MacTavish said of Perron. "He's a pretty gritty player as well. He'll go to the areas necessary to score goals. On the outside, I feel like he's a really good fit for our team and the way that we play. There will be more attack opportunities for him, more rush opportunities. I think we potentially could be a better fit for his skill set than the team that he comes from."
Perron wasn't the only addition made by MacTavish this summer. Edmonton also landed a needed veteran presence on its blue line when it signed 34-year-old defenseman Andrew Ference to a four-year contract on the opening day of free agency. Ference, who grew up an Oilers fan in nearby Sherwood Park, Alberta, has appeared in 760 regular-season games and another 120 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He helped the Boston Bruins win the Cup in 2011 and return to the Final this spring, and said he believes his hometown club is on the verge of something special.
OILERS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
D Andrew Ference, D Denis Grebeshkov, G Richard Bachman, G Jason LaBarbera, F Ryan Hamilton, F Jesse Joensuu, LW David Perron, C Boyd Gordon, D Philip Larsen
F Magnus Paajarvi, F Shawn Horcoff, G Nikolai Khabibulin, D Theo Peckham
D Ryan Whitney, G Yann Danis, D Mark Fistric, LW Darcy Hordichuk, LW Lennart Petrell, D Andy Sutton
D Oscar Klefbom, C Anton Lander
"Everybody now talks about Boston as so mature and battle-tested with all the playoff experience," Ference said. "But when I went there, it was a bunch of guys with no playoff experience and a team that hadn't been in the playoffs for a number of years. You realize how to build on potential and how the tide can turn fairly quickly.
"You look at [the Oilers] and how close the team is to getting over that hump. It's exciting. To see potential turn into reality is something I want to be a part of, especially in a city like this that cares so much."
Crafty center Sam Gagner landed the long-term contract he was seeking from the Oilers when he agreed to a three-year deal worth a reported $14.4 million July 22. Gagner, 23, ranked second on the club last season with 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 48 games. Gagner's presence will be vital when training camp begins; No. 1 center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is working his way back from shoulder surgery, a nagging injury that limited the gifted 20-year-old to four goals and 20 assists in 40 games last season. The Oilers are hopeful Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, will be able to play when the season begins Oct. 1, though that is far from a guarantee.
Denis Grebeshkov will be making his return to Edmonton's blue line after the defenseman signed a one-year contract July 18. Grebeshkov, who had 76 points in 190 games for the Oilers from 2007-10, spent the past three seasons playing in his native Russia. A first-round pick (Los Angeles Kings, No. 18, 2002), Grebeshkov is solid at both ends of the ice and will help shore up the blue line. He also will help fill the void left by Ryan Whitney, who became an unrestricted free agent this summer after Oilers brass opted not to re-sign him.
Also joining the mix are goaltenders Richard Bachman and Jason LaBarbera, who will compete for the backup position behind incumbent starter Devan Dubnyk after the latter posted a 2.57 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 38 games last season.
The newest Oilers will join a mix that includes No. 1 picks Taylor Hall (2010) and Nail Yakupov (2012), and Jordan Eberle, a 23-year-old forward with 50 goals during the past two seasons. Defenseman Justin Schultz, who signed as a free agent last summer after opting not to join the Anaheim Ducks (who drafted him in the second round in 2008), had 27 points in 48 games as a rookie.
It will be up to Eakins to find a way to get all this talent to work as a cohesive unit. Should he be successful, the Stanley Cup Playoff drought may come to an end.
"Just being talented is not enough," Eakins said. "I want our players to be so fit that if I ask a player to play 26 minutes a night, he can play 26 minutes at a high level. That's something I'm extremely passionate about it. It's going to be a challenge for some, but it's non-negotiable."
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