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Oilers off-season acquisitions have same focus

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
The last time the Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs was in 2006. Craig MacTavish was their head coach and Ryan Smyth led the team in goals. Smyth is now retired, having hung up the skates with a memorable celebration in last season’s final game. And MacTavish is now the general manager of the club he once directed from the bench.

MacTavish’s main focus is getting the Oilers back to where they once were and the turnover of the roster under his watchful eye is indicative of that. Of those who played at least one game for the Oilers during the 2012-13 season, only eight remain in the system (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Petry, Anton Lander and Mark Arcobello).

Craig MacTavish was the head coach of the Oilers the last time they made the playoffs. His job now is to bring them back as general manager. (Getty Images)

“I knew immediately that there was a lot of change that had to occur,” MacTavish reflected, following his free agency haul on July 1. “I was hoping that there wouldn’t have been this dismantlement this year at the end of the year but it takes time to transition your team from an unsuccessfully performing group to a high-performance group. I think through the course of the last 13-14 months we have made some pretty good strides there, not the least of bit will be the development of the guys we’ve brought in and drafted and are in the process of developing into stars.I think all of these moves are going to go a long ways to addressing a serious shortcoming in our on-ice performance and I think we can expect to be much better next year. I certainly do.”

MacTavish says he has more of an opportunity to zero in on individual needs this off-season, target specific players and add size and depth to the organization.

MacTavish traded for defenceman Nikita Nikitin and winger Teddy Purcell. Leon Draisaitl was selected third overall in the draft and then the club signed Benoit Pouliot, Mark Fayne and Keith Aulie in free agency. What all of the new Oilers have in common is their unified focus to join the hungry Oilers and help them win.

“It’s a young group that desperately wants to win,” Aulie said. “Just from playing against them in the past, they’re hard working. It’s going to be exciting. It’s an exciting team. I think there’s a lot of work to be done. Obviously, there’s nowhere to go but up. As young guys, myself and these other guys here with me, we just want to come in and make a positive impact and just help this team out because it’s exciting to be part of a team that’s on an upswing. We understand how much pride this city has in the team and we just can’t wait to make a positive impact.”

Benoit Pouliot (right) is one of the players the Oilers signed in free agency. He enjoyed success last season with the Eastern Conference Champion Rangers. (Getty Images)

It’s a difficult journey from the bottom to the top, but that’s where the Oilers want to be so they’ve set up base camp with the supplies they’ll need for that climb. They’ve stockpiled young offensive talent like Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov and Draisaitl. Their development system is now loaded with good defensive prospects as well as sizeable skilled players up front.

The veteran presence acquired in free agency is also a welcomed addition to that mix.

“The rebuild is pretty far on its way now with some of the guys they have and especially with this off-season with some of the guys they’ve brought in. I don’t think it’s so much at the beginning stage any more and I think that’s really going to help,” Fayne said.

Players like Andrew Ference, who was brought in last season, or Pouliot have been a part of a winning culture with their past teams. MacTavish said Pouliot had a “vital role” during New York’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Pouliot says he is now ready to help the Oilers in their own quest.

“I’ll try my hardest,” Pouliot said. “Some people don’t know how hard it is to get up there. It’s a tough mountain to climb. Once you get going, once you get that feeling that you can do this, you can go far, that’s what happened in New York. It was a good playoff run. It was fun and everyone enjoyed it. You get closer as a team at the same time. Hopefully I can do that here. I know Ference a little bit. He’s been through it in Boston and he’s one of the best leaders you can have. If guys can follow his lead and I can jump in and help in that department then it’s going to be fun.”

For a player like Purcell, the message from management is clear: we want you to help us get to where we want to be.

“(The new players) had dinner with management and the coaches and they just said to have fun with it and embrace it,” Purcell said. “They said how good the fans are, how patient they’ve been and they’re just waiting for us to get back in the playoffs and be successful again. It’s going to be really exciting. There’s going to be a lot of pressure but as an athlete you want that pressure.”

Purcell is right, the pressure is on. But MacTavish appears to have his players understanding the mission. Now that their focus is unified the next step is on-ice performance. It’s something MacTavish hopes is not far away.

“The potential we have as a group to succeed far and away exceeds the teams that we’re chasing,” he said. “I am under no illusion that we are not chasing those teams. The hope is that gap ultimately diminishes and then disappears and then emerges again as we pass by.”

The climb is underway for Edmonton and the new roster is hoping they can ease the journey.

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