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Letestu, Draisaitl among X-factors for Oilers

by Derek Van Diest

EDMONTON -- Although most of the attention will be on Connor McDavid and the rest of the young core, the Edmonton Oilers' success could hinge on the supporting cast.

Here are three X-factors that will determine whether the Oilers can compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season:

Added experience up the middle: The Oilers will have an abundance of young, talented centers in their lineup but lack experience in the middle, which makes Mark Letestu so valuable.

The 30-year-old should bring some stability on the bottom two lines, where he's expected to be a defensive leader and reliable in the face-off circle.

"That's part of my identity as a player, the two-way part. I don't give up a lot of defense for offense," Letestu said. "That's something that I'm going to focus on, but it has to be a team structure. Everybody has to be committed to keep the puck out of the net, or it's not going to work."

Letestu, a native of Elk Point, Alberta, spent the past four seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before signing with the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent July 1. He had seven goals with six assists in 54 games last season.

Sophomore switch: A year ago, Leon Draisaitl was awarded a spot on the Oilers roster by default. With a lack of centers, the third pick in the 2014 NHL Draft began the season in the middle on the second line.

Draisaitl, 19, had two goals and seven assists in 37 games with the Oilers in 2014-15. He was eventually sent back to junior, where he led Kelowna of the Western Hockey League to the Memorial Cup championship game. This season, with the addition of McDavid and Letestu and the emergence of Anton Lander, there may not be room for Draisaitl in the middle, forcing him to make a switch to left wing.

How Draisaitl adjusts to the wing will be a factor for Edmonton, which wants to keep the talented forward in the lineup.

"I'm willing to play wherever they want me to," Draisaitl said. "The important thing for me is to play my game and make the team and let the coaches decide where I should play."

Darnell Nurse's progress: A big question for the Oilers defense heading into the season is whether Nurse makes the roster. Nurse is expected to compete with Griffin Reinhart and Nikita Nikitin for the final spot on defense. Nurse, 20, and Reinhart, 21, are considered key components of the future, but it's likely only one will stay with the Oilers this season.

Selected seventh in the 2013 NHL Draft, the Oilers have high expectations for Nurse, who they hope eventually develops into a top-pair defenseman.

"I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my game, but I know there is another level that I can maybe get to," Nurse said. "At this point, it's going to come down to the way I play. If I go out there and play to my capabilities, I have a strong feeling I'll be able to make the team. But I have to go out there and perform; I can't really worry about what else is going on."

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