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FEATURE: Building from within

The Oilers focus next season begins with their young players, who are expected to take a step forward in their development

by Michael Arcuri @arcurimike / EdmontonOilers.com

EDMONTON, AB - As the Oilers look to build off their Western Conference Final run, the focus turns inward.  

There will be lots of work done throughout the off-season to improve upon a strong '21-22 season, but according to President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Ken Holland, one of the most important areas of improvement will be from players already on the roster.

"One of the things you need is an internal push. I said this (during exit interviews) in the room -- if you're 24-and-under, we need you to take a bigger piece of the pie," Holland said. "Whether you're on the team or you're in the American Hockey League, we need you to push."

Luckily, the Oilers find themselves with a stable of young players who are either knocking on the door of the big club or are pushing for more responsibility from Head Coach Jay Woodcroft. The Oilers saw 384 games played by players aged 23 or younger last season, and it will be those players who are leaned on to help build around the club's dynamic locker room core.

One of those players is Ryan McLeod, who may have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the former Bakersfield Condors head coach's arrival.

The familiarity between the two helped the 22-year-old centre find his footing at the NHL level. Woodcroft was well acquainted with McLeod's elite penalty kill abilities in the American Hockey League, and the coach utilized the speedy forward in the same role to help fix a struggling Oilers PK after his February 11 arrival. By the final month of the season, the penalty kill was operating at 92.5 per cent, with McLeod playing a large part in the unit's success.

Video: RAW | Ryan McLeod 06.07.22

"Coming in, it's a hard league. It's the hardest league in the world. It was a lot of fun coming in as a young guy, but I had a lot to learn at the start," McLeod said about his rookie season. "When you're first up, you're kind of just getting your feet wet and learning the ropes. I took some steps in the second half and in the playoffs. It's motivating for the summer but you have a lot to work on and a lot to solidify for next year."

McLeod's offensive game also jumped in the final three months of the season. The forward recorded 14 of his 21 points from February onward, which helped provide confidence that the former second-round pick could play and contribute at the NHL level.

McLeod isn't the only Condors graduate whose game will need to take another step for next season. Evan Bouchard will be looking to improve off his impressive first full season on the Oilers backend. The 22-year-old finished the year with 43 points (12G, 31A) in 81 games and added another three goals and six assists in 16 post-season contests -- showing off the offensive pedigree that made him the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

Down the stretch and in the playoffs, Bouchard was tied to the hip of veteran defender Duncan Keith. The former Norris Trophy winner was impressed with his partner's offensive instincts and his booming shot, but he knew he was there to share his experience with the blossoming defenceman and help him develop the defensive side of his game.

"It's tough as a young guy. You're coming into the league and there are a lot of good players," Keith said. "The main thing you probably try to focus on is being good defensively, and he's already got his offensive game going pretty well. That's only going to get better as he goes along here, so nothing but great things to say about Evan and the year that he had and his future in Edmonton here with the team."

Video: RAW | Duncan Keith, Connor McDavid 06.07.22

The experience provided by both the Oilers veterans and the lengthy playoff run can be used as a teaching tool for the younger players. The first-hand observation of the level of play needed to hang with the game's elite can only benefit an Oilers team that hopes to add from within.

"The experience is great for me," Evan Bouchard said. "To be part of a run like this is special and it shows you what it takes to get to this level, but it shows you that you got to put more into it to get to the final and to win it."

Striving for internal growth is so important to a franchise because a follow-up to a deep post-season run is never a guarantee. After the Oilers reached the cup final in 2006, it was 11 years before Edmonton would see post-season hockey again. After falling a game short of making the Western Conference finals in 2017, another five years would pass before the Oilers escaped the first round. That history is not lost on the Oilers core players who have experienced both the bad and the good of Oilers playoff past.

"We have grown up from that point. We were young. Maybe at the time, we thought that getting to Game 7 in the second round is automatic every season. That is not the case clearly, and we learned the hard way," Draisaitl said. "Now guys like Bouchard and McLeod are going to know what it takes to get back into the playoffs next season. You learn from it. Sometimes it's the hard way and we had to learn it the hard way."

Video: RAW | Leon Draisaitl, Evan Bouchard 06.07.22

Zach Hyman was witness to a young Toronto Maple Leafs team following a similar path to the Oilers, but one that hasn't been able to surmount the same hurdle as Blue & Orange. Prior to joining Edmonton, Hyman was a part of a group that had made the playoffs five consecutive years but was unable to get out of the first round. The recently turned 30-year-old has a belief that this run will benefit the Oilers youngsters moving forward, as well as, the Oilers roster as a whole.  

"It's valuable. It's only an impact if you progress on it and if you build on it and take a step forward," Hyman said. We've got a really good core, then we've got a lot of really good young players. For those young guys to experience that type of run and that playoff environment scoring big goals and contributing, I think that's invaluable and those are the guys who are going to take a step over the summer and make our team even better."

The mandate for growth and development goes to all the Oilers up-and-coming players. Forwards like Kailer Yamamoto (20G, 21A) and Jesse Puljujarvi (14G, 22A), who both set career highs in points last season, will be asked to take the next step. Players like 2020 first-round pick Dylan Holloway, who made his NHL debut in the Western Conference Final, and defenceman Phillip Broberg will be expected to knock down the door of the Oilers roster during training camp.

Video: SJS@EDM: Broberg ties it with his 1st NHL goal

The emphasis on improvement doesn't fall entirely on the shoulders of the prospects and young NHLers. Ken Holland cited an important 2022 NHL Entry Draft and Free Agency as the two other keys to '22-23 success. However, it is those young and cost-controlled players who can make the difference in a salary cap world where the gradation between teams is so narrow. Striving for consistent and lengthy post-season runs remains the top priority for Holland who works to juggle prioritizing the present, without disregarding the future.

"Part of getting better is internal, with some young people getting better. That's why there is that fine line of blowing out futures for today and this year, but if you want to be consistently banging away at being good, you must have people coming through the system," Holland said. "They join the team, they play cheap, they get better, they get a bigger piece of the pie and you pay them while someone else goes."

"It's not the sexy thing," Holland said when comparing the development of prospects to the big moves he made the last offseason. "We need Broberg and Holloway to push their way on the team and Bouchard, McLeod, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto to take the next step. That's all part of getting better."

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