Oilers hope youth is ready to lead run at playoffs
Sergei J. Feldman
In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers reigned as Western Conference champions and came within one win of skating away with Lord Stanley's coveted Cup. But for the next five seasons, one of the League's historic franchises would fail to advance to the playoffs.
What's more, the previous two campaigns have found the Oilers at the bottom of the standings when April rolled around.
Through it all, the Oilers have positioned themselves nicely for the future by developing a crop of young talent, highlighted by Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 selections in the 2010 and 2011 Entry Drafts, respectively, and complemented with other high first-round picks such as Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner.
FACTS & FIGURES
Record: 25-45-12, 62 points, 15th in West
Coach: Tom Renney (2nd season)
Interesting fact: The Oilers' rebuild for the future has taken a step forward as a result of the team picking No. 1 the past two seasons. The Ottawa Senators were the last team to hold consecutive No. 1 picks, when they picked in the top spot in 1995 and 1996. The season following Ottawa’s second consecutive No. 1 pick began a run of qualifying for the playoffs the next 11 seasons.
Although Nugent-Hopkins has yet to tie up the laces for an NHL game -- and is no guarantee to do so come the 2011-12 season, despite his likely eventual contribution at the game’s highest level -- the other youngsters have all gone through the inevitable growing pains of at least one NHL season. Last season, each flirted with the 20-goal plateau, with Hall eclipsing it. This upcoming season, meanwhile, figures to welcome the "Young Guns" with improved production.
But talent and youth alone can only take a team so far. As such, GM Steve Tambellini has balanced out the roster with a handful of veterans who will play an integral part in helping the young core develop, as well as provide a calming influence all too necessary for an 82-game grind.
With healthy doses of youth and experience, talent and grit, the 2011-12 edition of the Edmonton Oilers figures to greet the franchise with improvement and competitiveness.
OILERS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins make the team? The last four No. 1 picks have each spent the following season in the NHL. Nugent-Hopkins has already signed an entry-level deal and has an opportunity to make the team out of training camp. At 6-foot and 164 pounds, it would not be a surprise to see the Oilers send Nugent-Hopkins back to Red Deer of the Western hockey League to fill out his frame before stepping into the NHL.
2. How will the Oilers goaltending shake out? Last season, Edmonton's goalie duties were split between Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk. Statistically, Khabibulin had the worst year of his career, which dates back to 1994. It wouldn't be a surprise if Dubnyk takes the starting role with Khabibulin, now 38, taking a more backup role this upcoming season.
3. Is this the year Edmonton climbs out of the cellar? The past two seasons, the Oilers finished last in the NHL. The previous time a team finished last in the League in consecutive years was Tampa Bay in 1998 and 1999. The Oilers have been in full rebuild mode for a few years now and with all the young talent a year older and more experienced, expect the Oilers to climb up in the standings.
-- Greg Picker
The notable departure for Edmonton was that of rugged winger Dustin Penner, who was shipped to Los Angeles prior to last season's trade deadline. The biggest subtraction during the offseason was center Andrew Cogliano -- a former first-round selection -- who was sent to Anaheim for a 2013 second-round pick. Otherwise, the team has parted ways with defensemen Kurtis Foster, who also joined Anaheim, Jim Vandermeer, who's with San Jose and depth centerman Colin Fraser, now with Los Angeles.
Cogliano started his career strong, posting 18 goals in consecutive seasons, while playing every game in the process. But his production dipped in the following two seasons when he collected a total of 21 goals. For a former first-rounder, those numbers weren't good enough.
Vandermeer has been a reliable stay-at-home defenseman since coming into the League with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002-03. But with only 2 goals and a minus-15 rating in 62 games, management was willing to move on. As for Foster, the Oilers have to say goodbye to 8 goals from the blue line, a healthy total for a defenseman. With Fraser the Oilers lose grit and tenacity, both of which they should be able to replace from within and with what they found on the market.
Ultimately, the aforementioned players combined for 24 goals last year, which is far from insurmountable to replace. More importantly, however, the team has gone to great lengths to add production.
Most notable among the complementary pieces Oilers' management brought in to bolster the lineup is Ryan Smyth. The talented veteran and force in front of the net spent his first 12 seasons with the club after being drafted by the Oilers in 1994. After an emotional trade deadline departure in 2007, Smyth returns to the place he never wanted to leave to round out his career. At the age of 35, Smyth is coming off three straight seasons of at least 20 goals and is coming off a season in which he played every game. For a young team, his presence and abilities will go a long way in helping the Oilers inch closer toward being a force in the West.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Taylor Hall, LW -- All eyes will be on Hall in Oil Country, even with the hype around recent No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Oilers management decided to build around their franchise player and the success of the club will be largely contingent upon Hall’s ability to take great strides in Year Two of his NHL career. In his rookie season, he put up 22 goals and 42 points in just 65 games -- impressive, to be sure. Now Hall must show he can build upon those totals.
Nikolai Khabibulin, G -- Winning 300 games as an NHL goalie isn't easy. Neither is winning a Stanley Cup. The "Bulin Wall" has done both in his career and is now a part of a team that's closer to building than built. How much gas is left in the tank for the 38-year-old netminder will be one of the most glaring questions coming into the 2011-12 season. After coming off a subpar 10-win season, will an upgrade in both forwards and defense help Khabibulin recapture his glory? It may have to, as goaltending can be the difference between the Oilers improving or riding the wave at the bottom of the NHL standings.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C -- All indications are that Nugent-Hopkins will eventually be a force in the NHL. How soon is eventually? If he can have an impressive camp and prove to the coaching staff that he belongs on the roster come opening night, his speed, skill and raw talent can help the Oilers with a quick-strike threat that is so necessary in the Western Conference. He may not be an Oiler this year, or only for a part of it, but at the worst, his presence at camp can help push some of the other players -- young and old -- for a potential roster spot, and that competition can only make the team stronger.
Another veteran to join the organization is Eric Belanger, a 33-year-old center who signed a three-year contract on July 1. Belanger is a capable 15-goal, 40-point producer and helps provide depth at center. After coming off a career-year with Phoenix last season, the opportunity for more playing time could serve well for Belanger and, in turn, the Oilers.
Ben Eager also joined the fold, signing a three-year deal. After bouncing around from team to team since being taken with the 23rd pick in 2002, Eager, with his combination of grit, skill and tenacity, has the chance to take advantage of a stable environment and provide the Oilers with the energy and grit needed to support the top-six crop of forwards.
It's hard to win without defense, though, and the Oilers didn't fail to address that need in the offseason. Solid blueliners Cam Barker and Andy Sutton were brought in via free agency and trade, respectively. Their toughness from the back end will only help to create time and space for offensively gifted defensemen Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid.
Despite a string of losing seasons, the youth on the roster has reenergized the franchise and the Oilers' fan base.
The 2011-12 season will be the first true test of whether or not a potentially consistent winner has been put together. Given the recent draft selections, signings and trades, all signs point to that being the case sooner rather than later.
Consider an experienced, balanced and talented potential group of top-six forwards in Smyth, captain Shawn Horcoff, playmaker Ales Hemsky, Hall, Gagner and Eberle. Couple that with Paajarvi, Belanger and speed demon Linus Omark as a third line with Eager, Gilbert Brule and Ryan Jones rounding things out. What you're left with is a group of forwards who are more than capable of going out and competing night in and night out.
In addition, the Oilers possess a sold group of both offensively and defensively reliable blueliners and a goaltending tandem of veteran Nikolai Khabibulin and up-and-comer Devan Dubnyk.
The pieces are in place and the seed has been planted. Soon enough, it'll be known if the Oilers will blossom into what many believe could be a future perennial NHL contender.