The Edmonton Oilers were expected to take a step forward in their rebuild last season, but instead slipped back and finished near the bottom of the NHL standings again.
Since taking over the team toward the end of the 2012-13 season, general manager Craig MacTavish has revamped his roster while being careful not to disrupt the Oilers' young, talented core.
MacTavish has been working to bridge the gap between the present and the future, trying to get Edmonton back into contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Oilers have not been there since getting to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.
Yet for all the work MacTavish has put in, there seem to be more questions than answers heading into the 2014-2015 season.
Here are five questions facing the Oilers this season:
1. Who fills the second-line center role with Sam Gagner gone? -- Gagner was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for right wing Teddy Purcell, who flipped him to the Arizona Coyotes, but his departure left a gap in the Oilers lineup which has yet to be filled.
The Oilers made a commitment to Gagner a year ago, signing the center to a three-year contract extension which included a no-movement clause in the second year. However, after breaking his jaw in a preseason game Gagner struggled and finished with career-lows of 10 goals and 37 points in 67 games.
The Oilers were pursuing an offensive center during the offseason but were unable to bring one in. That forces them to fill the role internally, with Mark Arcobello, Anton Lander and Leon Draisaitl the frontrunners.
Arcobello had four goals and 18 points in 41 games with the Oilers last season and spent the other half of the season with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.
Lander, 23, spent the majority of the last season with the Barons; he had one assist in 27 games with the Oilers.
Draisaitl, selected No. 3 by the Oilers at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, is projected to fill the role eventually. Whether the German-born forward will be ready to do it this season remains to be seen. Yet the Oilers are expected to give the rookie every opportunity to make the team.
"He's a good player and he's made a commitment to get in here [Edmonton] and train," MacTavish said. "It's clear and obvious to all of us that he wants to be an NHL player and he wants to do it as quickly as possible and he's going to give himself every opportunity to do that. Even the two months that he's spending in Edmonton now is going to go a long ways to helping him fulfill that goal of his, which is to play in the NHL this year. In talking to him he has a really good idea of what he needs to improve on. That's the focus of his training, and I think that he's going to get a great opportunity to prove that he's ready."
2. Will Nail Yakupov have a bounce-back season? -- Selected No. 1 by the Oilers in 2012, Yakupov had a strong rookie season but regressed last season. The talented right wing struggled in his own end, which created friction with first-year coach Dallas Eakins. Yakupov heads into the 2014-15 season wanting to put last season behind him. He reportedly also has mended fences with Eakins, meeting this offseason to iron out their differences.
"I'm not even thinking about last season," Yakupov said. "I'm concentrating on this season. I'm hoping to have a good year and I'm doing everything I can in order to do that. We'll see what it's going to be like this year. I promise I'll work hard and play 100 percent. I hope it's going to be good for me and good for the team. We have to play better than we did last year so we'll see how it goes."
3. Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be able to carry the load at center? -- Nugent-Hopkins was pegged as the Oilers' No. 1 center the moment the team made him the first selection in the 2011 draft. Nugent-Hopkins was signed to a long-term extension last season, confirming his place in the team's future with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Unlike Hall and Eberle, however, Nugent-Hopkins still is looking for his breakout season. Nugent-Hopkins had 19 goals and 56 points in 80 games last season, well off the point-per-game pace of his rookie season.
Lacking depth up the middle, the Oilers will rely heavily on Nugent-Hopkins on both sides of the puck. He'll be counted on to log big minutes against some of the top centers in the Western Conference.
If Nugent-Hopkins gets hurt, the Oilers could be in big trouble.
4. Can Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth provide the Oilers with solid goaltending? -- Going into last season the Oilers felt the tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera would provide adequate goaltending. Dubnyk, however, was unable to mask Edmonton's deficiencies on defense and LaBarbera did not provide enough competition for the starting role.
The Oilers went on to use six goaltenders before settling on Scrivens and Fasth, each of whom was acquired during the season. How they perform this season will play a role in how close to a playoff spot the Oilers are able to get. Neither has been a starting goaltender in the League for any extended length of time, and each was third on his team's depth chart before being traded to Edmonton.
5. Can Taylor Hall drag the Oilers into playoff contention? --
Left Wing - EDM
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 53 | PTS: 80
SOG: 250 | +/-: -15
Having established himself as their best offensive player, Hall will be counted on heavily to carry the Oilers this season.
The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, which marked the start of the rebuild, Hall has become the heart of the club and is coming off a his first 80-point season.
Hall declined an invitation to play for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship in May in order to devote an extra month to his offseason training. Despite all the changes the Oilers have made, they only will go as far as Hall takes them.
He needs to have another outstanding season for the Oilers to get near a playoff spot. How close they get will depend on the type of production Hall is able to provide.
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