- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Toiling at the bottom of the league standings for years, the Edmonton Oilers have stockpiled through the draft what is considered a loaded pool of prospects.
The Oilers boast a roster with a promising crop of talented young players, including Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. But despite that bevy of potential, the club still hasn't been able to put it together.
Will this be the season it turns the corner?
Former Oilers forward Eric Belanger isn't betting on it quite yet. The talent is there, but the experience is still lacking. And what the Oilers have done is thrust some of these bright young stars into the type of roles that have traditionally taken years to earn.
"I remember when I started in the league, guys started on the third or fourth line and were working their way up. You have good veterans, you don't have the pressure to perform every night," Belanger, 36, told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. "I think the game has changed dramatically in that way.
"A lot of the young players coming into the league play right away and it's tough for them. I saw Taylor Hall putting so much pressure onto himself. They want to make the playoffs. It's tough because they have to perform every night and they don't have that veteran presence if they don’t do well for a few games."
The difficulty Edmonton has had in attracting free agents compounds the problem. To lure players and compete with other more enticing locales, the Oilers have had to dish out both dollar and term. The team plunked down $20 million over five years for free-agent forward Benoit Pouliot and added defenseman Mark Fayne on a four-year, $14.5 million deal.
Belanger, who will be working as an analyst for RDS this season, said the key will be to stand behind those players they've committed to long term and hope to add veterans via trade. Even that is becoming increasingly difficult, however, with the proliferation of no-move or no-trade clauses among top players.
"They try to sign veterans, but it's a tough place to sign, to get free agents to go there," he said. "They try to do it via trade but now all the top-liners are on long contracts and they have no-trade [clauses] and [Edmonton] is not on the top of the list. It’s tough for them, but I feel bad for the fans because they are the ones paying the price for the last eight years."
Edmonton has not earned a posteason berth since the team's stunning run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. And though rookie coach Dallas Eakins was supposed to bring about a definitive culture change, with promises of "bold" moves and aggressive retooling from general manager Craig MacTavish, last season still left a lot to be desired.
The Oilers, at 29-44-9, finished in 28th place in the league. They ranked dead-last in goals-against per game, giving up 3.26 on average.
"I just think, first of all, there is a question mark in net," said Belanger, even though the Oilers acquired Ben Scrivens in a trade with Los Angeles in January and added Viktor Fasth as well. "I just don’t know. There are a lot of question marks there. The young guys were given a big role early in their career, which I don’t think was the right thing to do."
Still, there have been positive signs. Belanger loved last summer's trade to acquire David Perron from St. Louis. MacTavish made moves to try and improve the team’s defense, adding Nikita Nikitin and Keith Aulie.
Belanger, a 16-year NHL veteran, hopes to see the rest of the kids flourish as well this season. He said the team’s shortcomings aren't for lack of effort, but rather experience. So, what is reasonable to expect of the Oilers this season?
"It's hard to say. Everybody thought this team was going to be good last year or two years ago, but they didn't really respond to the expectations," Belanger said. "This year, I don't see them making the playoffs."
939dESPN Stats & Information
941dESPN Stats & Information