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Oilers facing great expectations

Bar raised coming off first playoff appearance in 10 seasons

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Edmonton Oilers are not going to catch anyone by surprise this season. As a matter of fact, expectations are high heading into 2017-18.

"We have a little bit of (experience)," coach Todd McLellan said. "But what we don't have is experience coming back from a good year. This is the first time in 10 or 11 years that we've actually had a good season, now we come back and are we complacent, are we prepared to do the things we need to do early in the year?" 

Here is a look at the five keys for the Oilers, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season: 

 

5 KEYS

1. McDavid's star is rising

Connor McDavid helped the Oilers to their first playoff appearance in 10 seasons, won the NHL scoring race with 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists) in 82 games, the Hart Trophy as League MVP, and the Ted Lindsay Award, the League's most outstanding player chosen by the NHL Players' Association.

After being named the youngest captain in NHL history on Oct. 5, 2016, McDavid demonstrated more confidence and an ability to combine fast thinking with fast feet and fast hands, putting a fear factor into opponents trying to defend him on many nights.

The 20-year-old signed an eight-year, $100 million contract extension on July 5 that begins next season.

2. The right spot for Draisaitl

Leon Draisaitl, 21, also emerged as a force for the Oilers last season, finishing eighth in the League with 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists) in 82 games, then signed an eight-year, $68 million contract on Aug. 16. 

The No. 3 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft often played as McDavid's right wing but also centered Edmonton's second line when it was advantageous.

"It will be the moment or the situation we're in, what we as a staff determine is best for our team at that time to win the game," McLellan said. "It could be it's early in a game and we're down and we're sleepy and we need a change. It could be later on. There are a lot of factors that go into those decisions, like how others are playing.

"We're comfortable with putting them together -- they produce a very big challenge for the other teams. We can move them back and forth, we can do it in games and we can do it for short periods, long periods."

Video: Leon Draisaitl takes the No. 39 spot

3. Coping with high expectations

Edmonton finished second in the Pacific Division with 103 points last season and advanced to the Western Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they lost to the Anaheim Ducks in seven games.

The fans in Edmonton are energized by an ascending team and their arena, Rogers Place. The pressure to perform is raised, as is the bar, some would say to that of Stanley Cup contender.

"Last season, we moved the needle a fair distance throughout the regular season, then we gained some experience in the playoffs," McLellan said. "All of that is great, and we can put that in the bank, but it means diddly-squat right now. When the gun goes off, there are 31 teams in the same spot."

4. Coping without Sekera

Defenseman Andrej Sekera will be sidelined possibly until Christmas after surgery to repair a knee injury sustained in the playoff series against Anaheim. 

The veteran defenseman played an average of 21:28 last season as Kris Russell's regular partner, so those minutes will need to be filled for at least the first half of the season.

Based on preseason games, Matt Benning, 23, will get the opportunity. He played 62 NHL games last season as a rookie.

Video: EDM@CHI: Benning scores PPG off defender's skate

5. Puljujarvi's progress

Jesse Puljujarvi, 19, stuck with the Oilers out of camp last season but was sent to Bakersfield of the American Hockey League after he had eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 28 NHL games.

The No. 4 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft was unable to maintain the pace and benefitted from his time in the AHL with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games.

The right wing has size (6-foot-4, 203 pounds) and hockey sense, and improvement could be a symbol that the Oilers can and will get contributions and value from some of their young, drafted players not named McDavid or Draisaitl. That will be an ever-increasing necessity in the future, when NHL salary cap space dwindles next season.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

McDavid is the Oilers No. 1 center and catalyst. He will be the centerpiece for the power play and a dangerous defender penalty killing.

Left wing Patrick Maroon, who scored a NHL career-high 27 goals last season, seems to have found a regular spot with McDavid, his physical presence and soft hands affording McDavid even more opportunities for points and impact. The occasional change may be seen, but those two forwards will be as inseparable as it gets in the League.

Video: McDavid shows why he is one of the best in the NHL

Biggest battle

Ryan Strome will start the season as McDavid's right wing. In terms of permanence, a serious case has not yet been built, and given the Oilers had a proven, powerful line with Maroon and McDavid with Draisaitl on the right side much of the time last season, Strome's work in Edmonton will need to be strong to stay with the captain.

When the Oilers acquired Strome in a trade with the New York Islanders for forward Jordan Eberle on June 22, general manager Peter Chiarelli said he viewed Strome as a better center. It's likely, given McLellan's preferences with Draisaitl, that Strome will be a right wing and the second- or third-line center this season.

Most intriguing addition

Strome, 24, isn't quite a reclamation project. The No. 5 pick of the 2011 NHL Draft had 50 points (17 goals, 33 assists) but slipped to 28 points, then 30, the past two seasons. Will Strome replace Eberle's offense (51 points last season)?

Strome is three years younger than Eberle and his playmaking abilities will be required in the offense-oriented scheme. How long he needs to adapt to his new home could be a major factor in how smoothly the season goes.

Biggest potential surprise

Left wing Anton Slepyshev missed training camp time with an ankle injury but could be a secret weapon.

The 23-year-old forward was selected in the third round (No. 88) of the 2013 NHL Draft played 41 games for the Oilers last season. He also played nine games in the AHL.

Slepyshev had 10 points (four goals, six assists) with stints on Edmonton's fourth line last season but put his size (6-2, 218 pounds) and growing comfort level to good use in the playoffs, scoring three goals in 12 games while earning a greater role in the lineup.

Video: ANA@EDM, Gm6: Slepyshev finishes Maroon's nice feed

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Patrick Maroon -- Connor McDavid -- Ryan Strome

Milan Lucic -- Leon Draisaitl -- Drake Caggiula

Jussi Jokinen -- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- Jesse Puljujarvi

Anton Slepyshev -- Mark Letestu -- Zack Kassian

Oscar Klefbom -- Adam Larsson

Matt Benning -- Kris Russell

Darnell Nurse -- Eric Gryba

Cam Talbot

Laurent Brossoit

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