Oilers: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
What do you say about a team that has finished dead last for two straight seasons and hasn't had a sniff of the playoffs since that glorious, improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006?
"Rebuild" doesn't quite cover what the Oilers have been going through.
As officials and owners haggle over a new downtown home for the Oilers, the team is looking to the time when all of the top draft picks it has acquired mature and lead it back to glory. Management remains steadfast in its belief that the recovery plan it has mapped out will pay dividends sooner rather than later.
"I'd like to think we're very close to being a playoff team," Oilers coach Tom Renney told ESPN.com.
Still, it will be a major shock if all of the young moving parts of this team come together and vault into the playoffs this season.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. Youth is served
The Oilers have brought in some veteran players mostly to infuse the lineup with some more size and toughness, but the core of this team remains peach-fuzz young. There could be a dozen players in the lineup that are 25 or younger, and that number includes virtually every crucial offensive piece to the puzzle. But many of those players already have a season or two of NHL experience under their belt and Renney said they will not use youthfulness as an excuse for not performing at a competitive level.
2. Size and strength
One of the shortcomings of last season's squad was it got pushed around by the bigger, more physical teams in the Western Conference. GM Steve Tambellini brought in big, much-traveled Andy Sutton (6-foot-6), Ben Eager, who won a Cup in Chicago in 2010 but who has been injured for much of training camp, gritty former Oilers star Ryan Smyth and tough-as-nails Darcy Hordichuk. All should give the Oilers a harder edge than they had last season.
3. Captain Canada
Smyth's hockey circle appears ready to close exactly where it should, back home in Edmonton. The 35-year-old forward still doesn't mind sticking his nose in the tough areas of the rink (offensive corners and in front of the net). Even though he has bounced from Colorado to Los Angeles in the past three seasons, Smyth still managed to hit the 20-goal plateau in each of those campaigns.
He's still got the tools to help out on the score sheet, even if he's not going to get the ice time or perhaps the opportunities he got a decade ago when he was "the man" in Edmonton. But anyone who knows Smyth and the Oilers understands he's here to be a force in the dressing room, a role model for young players who may not understand the price of commitment.
4. Pretty, pretty ugly
OK, just how bad were things last season? Well, the Oil managed to be the worst team in the NHL in almost every category (28th in goals per game, 28th in goals allowed per game, 27th on the power play, 29th on the penalty kill, 29th in shots on goal and tied for 28th in 5-on-5 goals). The bright spot? They were 21st in shots allowed per game. Those numbers suggest there is a lot of work to be done in all facets of the game if the Oilers are going to play meaningful games in February and March.
5. The Bulin Wall
After a long court battle, Edmonton netminder Nikolai Khabibulin was convicted of extreme drunken driving relating to an incident in February 2010. He was given a 30-day term, half spent under house arrest and the other half spent in prison. Khabibulin has been candid about the lessons he learned through this experience, but how will the 38-year-old netminder be when he returns to the ice?
Khabibulin, who was coming off back surgery prior to last season, turned in an .890 save percentage and 3.40 GAA. Renney said he looks at this season as a "clean slate" for Khabibulin, and the fact he won't have to answer questions about his impending legal problems should help the netminder's focus.
6. The kid
There was much debate about whether the Oilers would take Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin in the 2010 draft. Hall was the guy, and after a slow start (he had just three goals in his first 18 games), he turned in an admirable rookie season. A legitimate run at a Calder Trophy was thwarted when Hall injured his ankle in a fight in early March. His 42 points in 65 games were good enough for eighth among first-year players and his 22 goals led the Oilers.
Hall told ESPN.com his ankle is fine and he's looking forward to building on his strong first season.
"I don't know if there were any lessons that I really learned, but the speed of the game and the goalies were probably the toughest thing I had to overcome, especially early in the season," Hall said. "There's a game inside the game, how to beat the goalies, how to get used to the speed and really become the player you were in the past. You kind of just want to get back to playing your game, and I found that by the end of the year, I was doing that."
7. The kids
The Oilers made the decision to keep Hall in the lineup along with two other youngsters, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi. All three provided glimpses of great skill, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to that first NHL season as the expectations continue to rise. Eberle led the Oilers in scoring with 43 points, while Paajarvi had 34.
"It's kind of cool we came in all in the same year," Hall said. "People forget that Sam Gagner's only a couple of years [older] than I am, so he's kind of in that group, too. If we ever become a winner, it would be really cool to see us win with that group because we kind of grew as players and as people in our first NHL season."
8. The new kid
When you finish dead last two straight seasons, there's going to be no shortage of top-end talent coming through the pipeline. This fall, it's another No. 1 overall pick that has Oilers fans salivating: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
It would be a shock if Nugent-Hopkins didn't stick around for at least the first nine games of the season before the first year of his entry-level deal kicks in. During recent preseason games, Nugent-Hopkins seemed to find some chemistry playing with Hall and Eberle.
9. The other Ryan
We got to know Ryan Whitney when he was part of a fresh-faced crew in Pittsburgh on the cusp of greatness. The big defenseman was traded to Anaheim before the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, but seems to have found a real home in Edmonton, where he is one of the leaders along the blue line. Renney said Whitney was the team's best defenseman before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Although Whitney has had some bumps along the road in his rehab, he told ESPN.com he's excited to get back and help this team realize its potential. Assuming Whitney can stay healthy, this season should reinforce his role as a "go-to guy" for the Oilers.
10. The blue line
While much attention is focused on the young offensive stars, the Oilers won't be sneaking into a playoff spot unless their defense is significantly improved. Renney believes it will be, with a healthy Whitney and players slotting into roles that fit them, including Cam Barker. Tom Gilbert is another big body that was perhaps asked to do too much last season, but Renney hopes to get more from Gilbert by managing his ice time. While Andy Sutton brings veteran experience, the Oilers are also curious about where Colten Teubert, a 6-foot-4 blueliner who was the Kings' 13th overall pick in 2008, fits into the picture. "He's close," Renney said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering ninth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• If there is a coach tailor-made to help transform the considerable potential in this Oilers lineup into something more tangible like wins and points, it's Tom Renney.
He understands the challenge is to create an atmosphere of winning where there has been only losing for a number of years and not to let players use their inexperience as a crutch.
"Your opponent doesn't give a crap how old you are," he said. It's important for the young Oilers to be participants, "and not be spectators in our own games." -- Scott Burnside
Best bet: Ryan Whitney
Productive in the past with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks, Whitney has visibly flourished on a squad where he's the unquestioned top dog on the blue line. The 28-year-old could be in for a career season. Having all that young firepower up front for the Oilers doesn't hurt, either. -- Victoria Matiash
Risky pick: Ales Hemsky
After last season's shoulder injury, Hemsky has had surgery on both his wings. The young players developing around him on the depth chart can only work to help boost his overall production. So many positives, yet the injury history still says he won't last the whole season. If you can afford to take the leap of faith on Hemsky, there are few players who could out-produce their draft value to the same extent if everything goes well. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: Devan Dubnyk
A former first-round pick, Dubnyk has the potential to be the dominant backstop for a team chockfull of exciting young talent. There's no guarantee this will be his breakout season -- there's still the matter of Nikolai Khabibulin being on the roster -- but he's certainly worth a look. -- Tim Kavanagh
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Oilers:
• May 29: Re-signed LW Ryan Jones.
• June 24: Selected C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall selection at draft.
• June 26: Acquired LW Ryan Smyth from Los Angeles for C Colin Fraser and 2012 seventh-round pick.
• June 30: Re-signed D Ladislav Smid.
• July 1: Acquired D Andy Sutton from Anaheim for D Kurtis Foster.
• July 1: Signed LW Ben Eager, LW Darcy Hordichuk, D Cam Barker and C Eric Belanger.
• July 4: Re-signed D Theo Peckham.
• July 15: Re-signed D Taylor Chorney and C Ryan O'Marra.
• C Andrew Cogliano (traded to Anaheim)
• D Kurtis Foster (traded to Anaheim)
• LW Jean-Francois Jacques (unrestricted free agent, signed by Anaheim)
• RW Zack Stortini (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• D Jim Vandermeer (unrestricted free agent, signed by San Jose)
• D Sheldon Souray (contract bought out, signed by Dallas)
• C Colin Fraser (traded to Los Angeles)
• G Jeff Deslauriers (unrestricted free agent, signed by Anaheim)
• LW Liam Reddox (restricted free agent, signed by Swedish club Vaxjo)
• G Martin Gerber (unrestricted free agent, signed by Swedish club Vaxjo)
• D Jason Strudwick (unrestricted free agent)