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Oilers players are tired of long vacations

by Sergei J. Feldman
After back-to-back finishes at the bottom of the National Hockey League standings and five straight seasons out of the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers have had to live with a few long offseasons.

As 2011-12 approaches, the message from the players is simple: Enough is enough.

"It was long again, unfortunately," team captain Shawn Horcoff told about his offseason. "I think we're all sick and tired of that and really looking forward to the season and getting back to the playoffs here soon."

That mentality is admirable, to be sure. But as to whether it's realistic, the proof will have to be in the pudding that is an 82-game regular season.


T. Hall S. Horcoff J. Eberle
M. Paajarvi S. Gagner A. Hemsky
R. Jones E. Belanger R. Smyth
L. Omark G. Brule B. Eager
D. Hordichuk
R Whitney T. Gilbert
L. Smid C. Barker
T. Chorney A. Sutton
D. Dubnyk
ones to watch
F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
F. Teemu Hartikainen
D. Jeff Petry
F. Anton Lander

There are several factors that could push the Oilers out of the bottom of the League standings. Chief among them will be the ability of the club's younger players to shoulder the offensive load.

Leading that charge is Taylor Hall, the first pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, who had 22 goals and 20 assists in 65 games as a rookie before his season was ended by an ankle injury. As impressive as those numbers were, Hall knows there's room for improvement. He believes the injury could help him to greater heights.

"I feel that the injury might have been a little bit of a blessing," Hall told "I've had a lot of time off from hockey and I feel that hunger to get back to the game and I feel really excited to start the season.

"It's about how you come back from that, and I'm looking forward to doing that."

Joining Hall is a crop of forwards who appear destined for their own share of big things in the NHL. They include 2009 first-round pick Magnus Paajarvi (15 goals, 34 points in his rookie season); 2008 first-round pick Jordan Eberle (18 goals, team-high 43 points in his rookie season) and 2007 first-round pick Sam Gagner, who's had at least 40 points in each of his four NHL seasons.

Many eyes will be on them, as well as this season's potential rookie star, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, whose combination of speed, skill and raw talent are believed by some to make him NHL-ready despite his relatively small stature (6-foot, 175  pounds).

Horcoff has liked what he's seen from Nugent-Hopkins so far.

"I've seen him a couple of times and he was excellent," he said. "He's going to be a great player here for our future."

The hope is that the future is now -- or at least closer than it has been. To help guide the young club in the right direction are a crop of veterans who are motivated to win now. That group includes Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth, who was brought back to Edmonton, the city where he played the first 12 of his 16 NHL seasons.

The first-overall pick at the 2011 draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins combines speed, skill and raw talent and is believed by some to be NHL-ready despite his small stature. (Photo: Getty Images)
"Every year, the older you get, there's always a push from the younger guys and as an older player you welcome that because it keeps you fresh and it keeps you working hard," Horcoff said. "Once you lost that motivation to compete every year, it's time to hang up your skates."

Given the depth on the club this season, Horcoff has no plans to hang up anything.

"I actually think we're as deep as we ever have been as a team," he said. "With the guys we already had and now the ones who'll be coming in (Smyth, Ben Eager, Eric Belanger), we’re going to be extremely deep."

The play behind the blue line will be every bit as important a factor for success for the Oilers as offensive output, particularly for a young team in a competitive Western Conference.

Fortunately for the Oilers, that position is as stable it has been in some time. Led by offensive-minded Ryan Whitney, who was limited to 35 games by an ankle injury but still had 27 points, the Oilers have Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert and Theo Peckham returning. In the offseason, management brought in veterans Cam Barker and Andy Sutton.

"The defensemen that we still have here have all proved that they can play in this League at a high level," Horcoff said. "We brought in Barker and Sutton. I think with Cam, he's got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder and something to prove to try to get back to the level we know he can play at, and with Andy, we get that physical presence that we need back there. I've played against him and he's tough to play against."

The Oilers have a healthy balance of offense and defense, and finesse and grit from the back end. 

Stability and solid play between the pipes is what separates the contenders from the pretenders, and in 2011-12, the Oilers will hope they get an improved showing from veteran Nikolai Khabibulin and 25-year-old Devan Dubnyk.

Khabibulin has 316 wins, but only 17 have come in his two seasons with the Oilers. Meanwhile, Dubnyk has shown improvement in his two NHL seasons and that he might be the long-term solution in net. Healthy competition between the two should bode well for the Oilers.

"I have a lot of confidence in (Khabibulin)," Horcoff said. "I think for him, he's got something to prove after last season. The guy works extremely hard, and I know he's looking forward to getting a fresh start here.

"For Devan, we just want him to continue to improve and take steps to prove he can be one of the better goalies in this League. Those two together are going to give us a chance to win every night."
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