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NHL.COM: Captaincy, new coach among Oilers' issues

by Brian Compton / Edmonton Oilers continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The Edmonton Oilers entered the 2013 NHL Draft without the No. 1 pick for the first time since 2009, but they didn't win enough games in 2012-13 to end what has become a seven-year Stanley Cup Playoffs drought.

Changes have been made on and off the ice with hopes that the hiatus will not be extended another season. Steve Tambellini is out as general manager and Craig MacTavish is in, while Dallas Eakins has replaced Ralph Krueger behind the bench.

Andrew Ference, a Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins in 2011, signed a four-year contract to lead the Oilers' new-look blue line, which includes Denis Grebeshkov and Anton Belov. Justin Schultz has a season under his belt and is primed to put up even bigger numbers as the power-play quarterback.

Here's what to watch in training camp as the Oilers prepare for the 2013-14 season:

1. When will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins make his season debut? -- A lingering shoulder injury prevented the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft from performing to his full capabilities last season, which played a huge role in Edmonton missing the playoffs.

The Oilers' No. 1 center is skating with the team in training camp, but it appears more likely he'll return to the lineup closer to Nov. 1 than Oct. 1, when Edmonton opens the regular season at Rexall Place against the Winnipeg Jets.

"It feels good. It's nice to able to be on the ice skating with the guys right now," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I'm involved quite a bit, so it's good. There has been a lot of rehab and stuff, but it feels good so far."

With Nugent-Hopkins out, the Oilers appear to be shifting left wing Taylor Hall to center on the top line. Nugent-Hopkins, who agreed to a seven-year contract extension Sept. 19, said he's confident Hall can handle the job.

"I think he'll be good. He's a good faceoff man to start with, which is huge," Nugent-Hopkins said. "He's a smart player and he'll be able to pick it up right away. If I can help him out a bit with little tips and things like that, I sure will, but think he'll do a good job."

2. Is Dallas Eakins ready for life as an NHL coach? -- After a successful run as coach of the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League, Eakins arguably was the most sought-after coach by NHL general managers this summer. MacTavish hired him June 11, and Eakins has said all the right things since then.

The new coach knows the fan base is growing impatient. It's time for results, and it's time to return to the playoffs.

"We're not building, we're not a young team," Eakins said. "Our expectations are to prepare to win every night and that's what we're going to try to do.

"We can't move forward without looking at what's gone on in the past, but saying that, I don't care what happened here last year, the year before and the year before that. This is a fresh start for this team with a couple of new coaches, new players, but most importantly, different expectations."

3. Who is the captain? – Eakins has yet to select a replacement for Shawn Horcoff, who was traded to the Dallas Stars on July 4 in a deal that brought defenseman Philip Larsen to Edmonton.

Signs point to Ference getting the job. The 34-year-old is expected to be a tremendous influence on the team's young core on and off the ice. If Ference isn't selected, Eakins could opt for one of his younger stars, Hall or Sam Gagner.

"Whether they want to make me captain or Jordan [Eberle], or Andrew or [Gagner] or whoever it is, I think we're going to be a team that leads by committee," Hall said. "We have so many young guys and guys that have started in the League at the same time and I feel like whoever is the captain isn't going to be the main voice in the room. I think it's going to be everyone."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

Author: Brian Compton | Deputy Managing Editor

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