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Oilers expect improvement in Eakins' second season

by Derek Van Diest / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Edmonton Oilers underwent a number of changes this offseason looking to bridge the gap toward a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

What did not change may make the biggest impact in the quest to snap an eight-year postseason drought.

For only the second time since 2008, the Oilers are going into a season with the same coach. They hope having Dallas Eakins back behind the bench is a key to their success.

"We talked about it a lot last year. It's definitely something that is tough to do, just start from scratch and have success," Oilers captain Andrew Ference said. "It can be done, but if you look at the teams that are competing year in and year out, there is definitely a consistency to their lineup, which includes the coaching staff, the attitude and style of play.

"It's picking up from where they left off the year before. It's something that you can't just make up; you definitely have to build it up and put the time in to make that happen. I think a lot of guys are trying to feed off the second half of last year and the progress we made. We want to install some consistency and work off that."

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
T. Hall R. Nugent-Hopkins J. Eberle
D. Perron M. Arcobello N. Yakupov
B. Pouliot B. Gordon T. Purcell
M. Hendricks A. Lander L. Gazdic
Extras: L. Draisaitl J. Joensuu
DEFENSEMEN
N. Nikitin J. Schultz
M. Marincin M. Fayne
A. Ference J. Petry
Extras: K. Aulie
GOALIES
B. Scrivens
V. Fasth

The Oilers hired Eakins a year ago in the hopes he could guide a young, up-and-coming team into the playoffs.

However things started poorly and the Oilers dug themselves too large a hole. The team made some progress in the second half, but by that time it was too late to avoid another disappointing season.

"You can't start the way we did last year. Just the math of the game catches up to you if you don't start right," Ference said. "It's proven every year that if you're not putting yourself in a good position in the first month and a half, it's extremely hard to get back into the race."

Going into this season with the same coach, who brought in a pair of new assistants in Craig Ramsay and Rocky Thompson, the Oilers are hoping to start where they left off last season.

"We get to just jump back into the systems that we were playing last year," Oilers right wing Jordan Eberle said. "There were a lot of times toward the end of the year where we were playing good hockey. I really like where our goaltending is, the defense that we added and the size that we got. I like the different line combinations that we can put together. I'm excited going into the year."

Their strength once is again a young, talented core group of forwards. A year older, the Oilers will go as far as their high-end draft selections take them.

Taylor Hall had a breakout season in 2013-14, finishing as the highest-scoring left wing in the NHL. He had 27 goals and 80 points to lead the Oilers offensively, yet was unable to drag the team anywhere near a playoff spot.

OILERS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Edmonton Oilers players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

20. Taylor Hall, C/LW (Top 50 breakdown)

90. Jordan Eberle, RW

108. David Perron, LW/RW

127. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C

167. Justin Schultz, D (Overvalued)

175. Ben Scrivens, G (Jensen's sleeper)

217. Nail Yakupov, RW

263. Leon Draisaitl, C (Rookie impact)

266. Teddy Purcell, RW

He'll need the support of Eberle, David Perron, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov to move the Oilers up the standings.

"It's going to be a huge year," Hall said. "For our team we need to take that next step, and I’m a big part of that, I realize that. If I'm going to play well it's going to be because our team is playing well also. It's a team game, and for me I have a lot of aspects in my game I need to improve, and if I do that and if I can keep trending upwards, it's going to do nothing but help our team."

In an effort to complement the Oilers' young talent, general manager Craig MacTavish brought in forwards Teddy Purcell and Benoit Pouliot.

Purcell was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for center Sam Gagner. At 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, Purcell will add size to the lineup, something considered essential to compete in the heavy Pacific Division.

"I think bringing Purcell in is a big key, although it leaves a hole where Gagner was in the second-line center spot," Perron said. "Someone is going to need to step up and fill that role, whether it’s Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello or Leon Draisaitl or whoever. I'm not sure how it's going to work out. Maybe it'll be another guy that is going to try to fill in there."

Purcell, 29, had 12 goals and 42 points in 81 games last season for the Lightning. Along with size, he's expected to provide secondary scoring for the Oilers, who finished with the second-lowest goal total in the League last season.

Such also is the expectation for Pouliot, who signed a five-year contract in July, giving the No. 4 pick of the 2005 NHL Draft stability after spending the previous six seasons with five different organizations.

"The young guys are a year older, and you see even the really young guys how they put in a really good summer of work and how they're bigger and stronger and faster," Ference said. "You look at the guys we've brought in, they're not only bigger guys, but they've come from pretty good systems and teams that know how to play the game the right way. They all have a pretty solid base of how to play the game. It's always easier when you bring in guys like that who have learned the game and can adapt a lot easier, than guys who are still trying to figure things out."

The Oilers allowed more goals than any other team in the League last season.

Eakins installed a defensive system at the beginning of the season that didn't work as teams exploited the Oilers' thin defense corps. Eventually he abandoned the "swarm defense" for a more conventional approach.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: LW Benoit Pouliot (free agent, Rangers); RW Teddy Purcell, (trade, Lightning); D Keith Aulie (free agent, Lightning); D Mark Fayne (free agent, Devils); D Nikita Nikitin (trade Columbus); C Leon Draisaitl (draft)

SUBTRACTIONS: C Sam Gagner (trade, Lightning); LW Ryan Smyth (retired); D Anton Belov (free agent, KHL), LW Ryan Jones (free agent); D Mark Fraser, (free agent); D Philip Larsen (free agent, KHL)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Oscar Klefbom; D Darnell Nurse; C Leon Draisaitl

The Oilers have a number of young defense prospects that could challenge for roster spots, namely Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom.

Yet that did not stop MacTavish from beefing up his blue line by acquiring Nikita Nikitin, Keith Aulie and Mark Fayne during the offseason. Ference, Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin are the incumbents on defense, which has to improve for the Oilers to be successful.

"I think our defense was less experienced last year and we tried that more aggressive defensive zone coverage, trying to be more aggressive in the corners, but we left a lot of holes in the slot," Perron said. "I don't have to tell anyone you can't do that in this League. If we're going to give up a shot, it has to be from as far away from the net as possible and as wide as possible.

"We readjusted after 20 games and I liked the adjustments Dallas made, but it was already a bit too late. I think we were already 10 or 12 points out at that time."

Six goaltenders started at least one game for the Oilers last season.

They started 2013-14 with the tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, which did not work out. As the starter, Dubnyk was unable to mask the team’s defensive deficiencies early on.

Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to try and stabilize the position but was traded to the Minnesota Wild as MacTavish acquired Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth from the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, respectively, to handle the goaltending duties.

"I think that both Ben and Viktor have the ability to give us good NHL goaltending," MacTavish said. "Ben played exceptionally well during his time here and he's got the ability to be perhaps the best goalie we've had since Dwayne Roloson. That would really help. I feel similarly with Viktor too."

Scrivens and Fasth head into the season expected to share the workload and should push each other for playing time.

"Ben was a little bit better than Viktor at the end last year, so the nod goes early to Ben," MacTavish said. "But it should be a good synergy between both those guys. They both have enough games to give us solid goaltending, and in some instances sensational goaltending."

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