Next weekend, the rookies head to Penticton for the Young Stars tournament. The weekend after that, main camp is in full swing. And, finally, on the 20th of September, a game! The real deal doesn't start until October 9th, but we've been almost six months without puck and we'll take what we can get!
Of course, the Oilers pre-season will be more intriguing than most, highlighted by the arrival of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
and his quest to make the jump to the NHL. He's not the only new face, of course, with a significant portion of the roster having been turned over by GM Steve Tambellini. Four of the top 13 forwards on the team will be new (old and new in the case of Ryan Smyth
) and that number might be five if RNH shows well, while two of the top six defensemen are fresh. The players and coaching staff wanted an influx of more veteran "transitional" players to help them take a step forward; they got exactly what they asked for.
We know that over the course of the next six months, we'll get to watch this team mature and develop as they take steps towards becoming a winner. Ultimately, the question is, how long will it take? Can the team jump from 15th to 8th over the course of one off-season? The merits of both sides of the argument will be hashed and re-hashed many times before the Penguins hit town next month, but I've identified some key questions whose answers will be crucial to the conclusion.Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins make the team?
History would suggest that the answer is yes; rare is the occasion that first overall draft choice is sent back to Junior. Nugent-Hopkins dominated the WHL with 106 points last year in just his second Junior season, showcasing an innate playmaking ability and sense for the game. There's little or no question that he'll be an offensive force in the NHL one day soon, but the argument for a third year of Junior plus the World Junior experience will loom strong.Will Nikolai Khabibulin bounce back?
With his off-ice issues finally put behind him, perhaps a poor start to his Oilers career can be moved past as well. After being felled by injury in Year 1, Khabibulin struggled to a below average season in Year 2 while watching Devan Dubnyk
soundly outplay him. There's no question that Dubnyk will see more playing time this year, but Khabibulin will be put in a position to earn his fair share, a right that he's earned through a lengthy and solid NHL career.Is Ryan Whitney healthy?
For my money, he's the singularly most important player on the Oilers roster. The team is deep enough at forward to withstand the loss of any individual, but I don't believe that to be true on the blueline. Whitney has played exceptional hockey since being acquired from Anaheim, a calming and stabilizing presence that improves every area of the club. The points pace he was on last year was a bonus, with his real value being an ability to eat huge minutes in all situations to shelter the rest of a defense corps that is still under construction. He had a setback with his surgically repaired foot last month, so here's hoping a few more weeks of rest will be all the doctor orders.Will Ales Hemsky re-sign or be traded?
When healthy, he gets the nod as the best offensive weapon on the team. Problem is, you've got to go back a few years to find an example of a healthy Ales Hemsky
. Speaking with him in July, he says he feels better and stronger than he ever has. If he's right, and comes back with the consistency he usually displays when healthy, he should easily be on track for a 70+ point season. He's a pending UFA, though, and a rebuilding Oilers team probably can't take a chance if he's not signed to an extension by the trade deadline.Will Taylor Hall pick up where he left off?
When Tom Renney and I last spoke, we found ourselves in agreement that Taylor Hall
would have scored 30 goals had he stayed healthy for the entire year. He had posted 22 when his season ended with 17 games remaining on the calendar, and he had routinely started to dominate games after finding his way earlier in the year. I get the feeling that Hall might explode this year more than most pundits expect him to and I fully expect the 30 goal total to be surpassed by this rising star.Will the special teams improve?
Nowhere to go but up, as they say, this team will need to be much better in the special teams if they want to make a playoff push this season. Dead last on both units in 2010-11, the team has added a couple of key weapons to make a jump. On the PK, Eric Belanger
is a steady force who is lethal in the dot. On the PP, Ryan Smyth
is as learned as they come in Net Presence 101.Will Cam Barker live up to his potential?
A former third overall pick (behind Ovechkin and Malkin once upon a time), Barker got off to a good start in his NHL career with Chicago before having it go off the rails following a trade to Minnesota. He was a favorite of coach Joel Quenneville in Chi-Town, but basically fell apart in the State of Hockey en route to being bought out by the club in June. He's got all the tools, and certainly should have the motivation, and he'll get every chance to play in the top 4 with the Oilers.Who will win the 14th forward job?Chris VandeVelde
, Teemu Hartikainen
, Anton Lander
, Ryan O'Marra, Lennart Petrell
...the list is almost never ending. And that's just if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
didn't make the team!Who will win the seventh defenseman job?Jeff Petry
showed very well last season but will need to play top 4 minutes to make his NHL presence justified this year, which could make it simpler for him to at least start the year munching minutes in the AHL. Plus, he doesn't have to clear waivers. Taylor Chorney
does need to clear waivers, so maybe he gets the nod as D7 to start the year. Or maybe newcomer Colten Teubert
impresses and makes it an even more difficult decision.
Next week, a preview of the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton and the faces to watch out for! In the meantime, catch me on CHED every weeknight from 6pm-9pm!Follow Dan Tencer on Twitter | @dantencer