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Oilers see successful blueprint in Chicago

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO – Back when Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup above their heads to conclude the 2010 season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked on with a smile on his face.

"I was actually at my friend's house watching it on TV," said Nugent-Hopkins, now an 18-year old star rookie for the upstart Edmonton Oilers. "It was pretty cool. I was rooting for them, actually. I really liked the Hawks. I liked the way they played. They were a fun team to watch. They had some high offensive young guys who worked their bags off. It's always fun to watch that."

People are starting to say some of those same things about this Oilers team, which is full of young talent and off to a fast start. Edmonton (9-5-2) finds itself atop the Northwest Division with 20 points and is third in the Western Conference prior to Sunday night's game at United Center (7 p.m. ET) against the West-leading Blackhawks (10-4-3).

"(The Blackhawks) are a good team to go by. They went through that whole rebuilding stage that Edmonton’s been going through. They obviously got some great picks and made some good decisions. They’ve had a great team for a few years and they still do. Hopefully we can emulate something like that, because that’s definitely what we’re trying to do." -- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Like Chicago did before them, the Oilers are banking on their young stars acquired through the NHL Draft to lead the way back to greatness. As the Hawks went through the learning process of how to win, they had some of the most exciting young players in the League. The Oilers can now say the same thing – starting with guys like Nugent-Hopkins (No.1 overall pick in 2011) and Taylor Hall (No.1 overall pick in 2010).

"(The Blackhawks) are a good team to go by," Nugent-Hopkins told after the Oilers' Sunday skate. "They went through that whole rebuilding stage that Edmonton's been going through. They obviously got some great picks and made some good decisions. They've had a great team for a few years and they still do. Hopefully we can emulate something like that, because that's definitely what we're trying to do."

It's looking a lot better this season than it did a year ago – when the learning curve was simply too high for such a young team. Thus far this season, the Oilers are getting by with improved defensive play, outstanding goaltending by veteran Nikolai Khabibulin (a former Blackhawk) and all that young talent mixing in with talented veterans like Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky.

"There is definitely some similarity (to the Blackhawks)," said Hall, who has three goals and 10 points while playing the left wing next to Nugent-Hopkins. "They won the Cup really early after their rebuild. They drafted (Patrick Kane) in 2007 and Toews the year before and they were in the Western Conference Finals in 2009. That's a pretty quick turnaround. You've got to give credit to them for doing that so quickly. The way that our team is shaping up, we certainly have a lot of potential … but we're trying not to think about that right now."

Still, when they do think about it there is a certain amount of confidence to be gained just by knowing Chicago won the Cup in 2010 led by guys like Kane and Toews followed by the Boston Bruins last season – who also had some young stars to go with excellent defense and goaltending.


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"It just shows you that it doesn't matter how old you are or how young you are," Hall said. "You can still win it. You can still be the best team that you can be and if you surround yourself with good people and good coaching like we have here, you never know what you can do. (The 2010 Blackhawks) were a team that everyone was rooting for just because they were so young and everyone can kind of relate to them."

Kane isn't quite as quick to make the same comparative leap, pointing out that Edmonton seems to keep "getting younger" every season with high No.1 picks. However, even he admitted the similarity is pretty strong when you look at how each team plays and where he, Toews, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins were all selected in the draft.

"They have a lot of skill," said Kane, who's made a switch from left wing on the top line to center of the second line. "I've watched some of their games this year and they're a fun team to watch. They have some fun players who make a lot of good plays, so, yeah, I can see the similarities that way for sure."

The advanced two-way skillset of Nugent-Hopkins (seven goals and six assists) is probably the most noticeable difference in this rendition of the Oilers, who are wrapping up a tough six-game road trip on Sunday night. He's added some juice to the top-line, which also has Jordan Eberle (22nd overall pick in 2008) on the right side.

Throw in the continued development of former first-rounders Sam Gagner (No.6 overall in 2007) and Magnus Paajarvi (No.10 overall in 2009) and the comparison to how the Blackhawks eventually returned to the top of the League in just a few short years comes into focus.

Can these Oilers learn something by merely looking across the ice at the Hawks and what they could eventually accomplish in Edmonton?

"No question," Oilers coach Tom Renney said. "Our whole organization can. It can be done. It has been done before and we're going to do it, however long that takes. We're going to get there ourselves and this organization (Chicago) is a good example of how that can get done."
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