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New coach Krueger leads Oilers' six questions

by Brian Hunter / Edmonton Oilers

On June 19, 2006, the Edmonton Oilers attempted to complete their rally from a 3-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final, coming up short in a 3-1 Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

That remains the most recent playoff game for a storied franchise that once boasted the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr, so the biggest question on the minds of many Oilers fans heading into the 2012-13 season revolves around whether the club is finally set to end that drought.

The answer: probably not yet. However, with a roster that figures to include the three most-recent No. 1 NHL Draft picks (Nail Yakupov is expected to join predecessors Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall), in addition to a plethora of other young, skilled talent not only up front but along the blue line and in goal, the Oilers are in position to at least challenge for a top-eight seed in the Western Conference and break a streak of three straight last-place finishes in the Northwest Division.

Whether that happens will depend a lot on the answers to the following six questions:

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1. How will Ralph Krueger fare in his first season as an NHL coach?

Before joining the Oilers' staff in 2010 under Tom Renney as an associate, Krueger, who turns 53 on Aug. 31, built his reputation behind the bench internationally. Following a successful playing career in Germany, he turned around the fortunes of the Swiss national team and guided them all the way to the bronze-medal game at the 1998 World Championship. His squads also were forces to be reckoned with at Olympics in Turin and Vancouver.

Krueger has been able to spend the past two seasons getting acclimated to NHL coaching under Renney, even filling in for him briefly on a pair of occasions when a concussion and a death in the family kept Renney away. Now it'll be Krueger's job to manage the ice time his young players and veterans get, as well as figure out the situation in goal. He is well-respected in hockey circles, though, and shouldn't have trouble bringing the room in Edmonton together.

"I think Ralph is a very good coach," current St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told in 2010. "You can see it the way he gets his teams prepared to play and the way they play with patience and discipline. That doesn't happen by accident."

2. Are first-round pick Nail Yakupov and free-agent signing Justin Schultz ready to play at the NHL level?

Edmonton was fortunate enough to add prospects on both offense and defense who could make an immediate impact. Although the Oilers finished nine points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, they won the draft lottery, allowing them to take Yakupov at No. 1 -- and they were able to sign Schultz as a free agent when the Anaheim Ducks couldn't come to terms with their 2008 second-round choice.

Schultz turned 22 this summer and has three seasons of experience at the University of Wisconsin under his belt. There seems to be little doubt he's NHL-ready, and the big question as far as his development goes may be how he handles all the hype surrounding him. Schultz received some negative attention after rejecting the Ducks' overtures to sign with them and becoming a free agent before playing his first NHL game.

Yakupov is 18 and comes off a season in the Ontario Hockey League in which he was limited to 42 games because of various injuries, but his skill level is unquestioned -- he's amassed 80 goals and 170 points the past two seasons for the Sarnia Sting -- and the Oilers showed in the past with Nugent-Hopkins and Hall they're not shy about throwing a dynamite rookie right into the fire.

3. Does Devan Dubnyk have what it takes to be a No. 1 goalie?

Renney split the starts just about evenly last season, with Dubnyk making 42 and veteran Nikolai Khabibulin 40. That number also represents the age Khabibulin will turn in January, and he's in the final season of a four-year contract, so it's important for 26-year-old Dubnyk to show he can be the man in net as the Oilers build themselves into a playoff contender.

A first-round pick by Edmonton in 2004, Dubnyk enters his fourth NHL season with stats that have steadily improved. His appearances have increased each year while his goals-against average has gone down. His save percentages of .916 and .914 the past two seasons are more than respectable on teams that have struggled defensively.

Dubnyk got a new two-year contract over the summer and is ready for the added responsibility that comes with it.

"I'm going to try to continue to earn my starts. That helps ease some of the pressure if you challenge yourself. Then you're never worried about them being handed to you, or taken away," Dubnyk said in the National Post.

4. What are the next steps in the development of Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall
Left Wing - EDM
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 53
SOG: 207 | +/-: -3

Staying healthy would be a good start. Hall has had each of his first two NHL seasons end early because of injury, missing a total of 38 games. Nugent-Hopkins missed 20 games as a rookie, costing him additional points (16 of them, based off his projected output for an 82-game season) and probably the Calder Trophy, which went to Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche.

Hall, who had shoulder surgery in March, improved his numbers as a sophomore despite playing in four fewer games. His goals jumped from 22 to 27 -- he scored one in four consecutive games prior to getting injured on his first shift March 16 against the Calgary Flames -- and his points increased from 42 to 53. He's on the verge of stardom, and if he can stay in the lineup for a full 82 games it would help the Oilers' playoff chances immensely.

Nugent-Hopkins scored 18 goals and tied Landeskog for the rookie scoring lead with 52 points. There was concern about his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame entering the season, and shoulder injuries derailed him down the stretch after a blazing start. But he developed solid chemistry with Hall and Jordan Eberle on a top line that figures to stay intact.

5. What becomes of another Oilers' top pick, once-heralded Magnus Paajarvi?

In projecting various line combinations for the upcoming season, the Edmonton Journal's Oilers blog projected Paajarvi playing left wing on the second line or struggling to crack the lineup. That could depend in large part on whether Yakupov slots in at left wing or right wing and how the depth chart is subsequently affected.

Paajarvi, the 10th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, managed two goals and eight points in 41 games last season after a promising 15-goal, 34-point rookie campaign. He ended up back in the American Hockey League, where he posted 25 points in 34 games for Oklahoma City. At 21 years old, he figures to get another shot at fulfilling his potential at some point.

6. Will the Oilers be a better defensive team?

For all the talk about offense and the plethora of young talent Edmonton possesses up front, unless they're going to score at a rate similar to the Gretzky-era clubs, the Oilers will have to cut down on their goals-against if they want to be in contention past the All-Star break. They gave up 239 goals last season, which ranked eighth from the bottom of the League.

Nick Schultz, acquired from the Minnesota Wild prior to last season's trade deadline, gives them a steady veteran presence to go along with Andy Sutton, Ladislav Smid and oft-injured Ryan Whitney. Jeff Petry and Corey Potter had strong first full seasons in the NHL, and Theo Peckham provides a physical presence. Add Justin Schultz to the mix, and although it's not as flashy a group as the forwards, there's enough present to improve upon the 2011-12 numbers.

Author: Brian Hunter | Staff Writer

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