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Injury woes a road bump in Oiler trio's bright future

by Corey Masisak
COLUMBUS -- It has been a rough few weeks for the Edmonton Oilers on the injury front, and the past few days have been a microcosm of it.

Second-year sensation Jordan Eberle skated Tuesday and chatted with the media about his approaching return from a knee injury. Later that night, roommate and close friend Taylor Hall lost an edge during warm-ups and ended up on the wrong end of a scary accident when teammate Corey Potter caught Hall's forehead with his skate.

Eberle will rejoin the lineup Thursday for the Oilers -- the same day Hall met with the media for the first time since the incident and pictures of him proved a harrowing reminder of how lucky he was, all things considered.

Hall will be back soon for the Oilers, though, perhaps as early as Saturday. The third member of Edmonton's top line, rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, is also injured but could be back by the end of the month after his left shoulder heals.

"We were playing well, our line in particular," Eberle said. "We had a lot of chemistry. We lost [Hall] to injury at first (Hall missed seven games with a shoulder injury in early December) and he came back, but then it was [Nugent-Hopkins] and then me -- it was almost like we were dropping like flies."


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Added Hall: "There's no two ways around it -- being injured (stinks). It is tough being out of the lineup for a long period of time. It is tough mentally because you want to be out there with the guys having fun and winning games and doing the best you can. You have to realize it is a process and you're not going to be healthy your entire career, so you just try to get better as quick as you can."

Hopefully it won't be long before Edmonton's three phenoms are reunited, because their work together in the first half of this season was, at times, magical.

Eberle leads the team with 43 points -- he was seventh in the League when he fell awkwardly against Dallas. There was a question if Nugent-Hopkins could handle the physicality of the NHL before his rookie campaign began, and all he did was rattle off 35 points in 38 games before losing an edge and slamming shoulder first into the boards against Chicago.

Before he was injured, Nugent-Hopkins was a runaway favorite to win the Calder Memorial Trophy. Even if he misses a month, the kid who doesn't turn 19 until April is still likely the favorite to take home the hardware.

Then there is Hall, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft and was having a fine rookie season in 2010-11 before fighting Columbus' Derek Dorsett and ending up with a season-ending ankle injury. Hall has 15 goals and 31 points as a sophomore, and his play without his two running mates was drawing plenty of praise before the incident during warm-ups Tuesday.

Together, the trio has formed the most exciting young line in hockey -- and has fans in Edmonton salivating about the future while drawing comparisons to another group of kids who took the NHL by storm 30 years ago.

"Obviously they have tremendous talent and tremendous skill, but they're good people, too," veteran forward Ryan Smyth said. "When you got kids that are grounded and have respect for the game and enjoy playing on a day-to-day basis, it is awesome. You can see so much development with them, for sure. The things they do in practice, and then to see them duplicate in the game, is fun to watch and fun to be on the same side.

"I don't want to compare [Nugent-Hopkins] to [Gretzky], but he has that great Gretz vision. [Hall] is big and has a tremendous amount of speed. Eberle has got sweet hands. They all bring something different to the table, which is awesome."

Nugent-Hopkins was selected to be one of the 12 rookies that take part in the festivities leading up to the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game, but had he not gotten hurt he may have had a strong case for a place with the big boys in the main event.

Eberle was not among the 42 players chosen, and his wounded right knee may have played a part in that. If his knee is OK after returning to action, the 2008 first-round pick could be added to the roster as an injury replacement.

There's no debating that all three could become regulars at the NHL's midseason showcase in the near future. Just like in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, the Oilers have had to pay the price for rebuilding -- Edmonton has finished 30th the past two seasons and is currently 29th -- but the way Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have electrified the city is certainly similar to what happened in those other cities as their clubs quickly returned to the NHL's elite.

"It's been fun," Hall said. "Both of those guys are so fun to play with. Ryan has been such a special player in his first year. The way he's come in and made all the adjustments -- it has just been seamless. Jordan is having a great second year. He's a lot of fun to play with, a really great friend. I think the three of us have a lot of fun, especially on the ice."

Added Eberle: "We just felt comfortable playing together. We have a little different dynamic, each of us. Even when we'd go on the road, we'd be seeing top defense pairings and top shutdown lines, and the more we played, the better and more confident we got."

There are more renovations to be completed in Edmonton. Those teams mentioned above also had elite young defensemen, and the Oilers could probably use more help on the blue line.

A new arena is in the works as well, and just like in Pittsburgh the plan will be for the Oilers to be Stanley Cup contenders when it arrives. Other organizations have tried to duplicate when Chicago and Pittsburgh have done with less success, and not repeating their mistakes may help Edmonton along the way as well.

Provided the talented trio can avoid some of the awkward falls each of its members have experienced in the past month or so, Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins could be lighting up opposing goaltenders together for years to come.

"I hope so. In our first year together we've certainly had some good times and some good chemistry on the ice," Hall said. "You never know what can happen, but we're not really looking to the future. We want to be as good as we can be right now."
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