Time to Shine for Youthful Edmonton Oilers
By Pat White (@patwhite9126)
Before the Los Angeles Kings went on their unprecedented run to the Stanley Cup in 2012-13, the last eighth-seed to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals was the Edmonton Oilers in 2005-06.
Unfortunately, that was the last time the fans in Oil country sniffed the playoffs.
After the departure of Chris Pronger, the Oilers went from 95 points and a Cup finalist to 71 points and out of the playoffs. But with the struggles of the storied franchise came a youth movement that has included three No. 1 overall picks.
The young core of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and Devan Dubnyk is one of the most talented groups in the league. Hockey pundits have lauded over the Oilers youth movement and their competitive potential. Heck, they’ve even had a show on the NHL Network highlighting the growth of the team.
Now approaching the fifth year of the rebuild project, it’s time for the Oilers to move past the “potential playoff contender” label and into the contending category.
The young kids showed growth last season. Hall finished ninth in the league in scoring with 50 points in 45 games. Eberle had a down year from his 2012-13 34-goal, 76 points campaign, but still racked up 37 points. Yakupov proved worthy of the No. 1 pick with 31 points and Schultz anchored the power play unit that finished seventh in the league at 20.1 percent. Possibly the greatest growth was Dubnyk proving that he is a reputable starting goaltender. His numbers only slightly improved (14-16-6, 2.57 GAA, .920 SV%), but his confidence in net was evident and he won games with gutsy performances.
Individual statistical improvements are promising signs, but hockey is a team sport. The upcoming season is more about growing results, not growing individuals.
At the helm now is general manager Craig MacTavish, who knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. He won three Cups in the Oilers’ dynasty days in the late 80’s, and one with the Rangers in 1993-94. MacTavish also was the bench boss when the Oilers made their Cup run in 2006. He inherits a young team poised for a breakout year, but has also added the pieces to make it happen.
Ralph Krueger was relieved of his duties after one season in Edmonton, and MacTavish brought in former Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins to run the team. Eakins had success with the Marlies, making the playoffs in two of his four seasons including one Calder Cup Finals appearance. More importantly, his “player’s coach” reputation played a major role in the development of Maple Leafs’ players Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer and Matt Frattin. Eakins knows how to handle young players, and finally gets his chance to do it at the NHL level.
Defense and goaltending have been part of the Oilers struggles in the last three years. I touched on Dubynk’s growth, but the addition of Andrew Ference will pay dividends. Aside from Ference’s physical, hard-nosed style, his leadership and playoff experience is a key ingredient to a playoff team. The team is well constructed by building through the draft. The next step was adding the necessary pieces with veteran leadership. Ference fits that bill and fills the void left after captain Shawn Horcoff was traded to Dallas. Ference joins a defensive corp with the Schultzes, Justin and Nick, Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, newly acquired Philip Larsen and Anton Belov.
Speaking of Belov, the Oilers may have struck gold again by winning the sweepstakes of a free agent defenseman who has never played in the NHL (Justin Schultz). Belov, 26, is coming off his most productive season in the KHL with Omsk Avangard where he racked up nine goals and 17 assists. Belov is big at 6’3, 185 pounds and is another puck-moving defenseman alongside Schultz. He needs to adjust to the NHL game and become more defensively responsible. At 26 years old, his maturity should make the adjustment easier for him.
The Oilers also improved the forward unit acquiring David Perron from St. Louis for the inconsistent Magnus Paajarvi. Perron brings more playoff experience to the Oilers, and a winger that has proved in the past that he can be a 20-goal scorer. I see him as a third line player that can provide secondary scoring for the bottom-six forward, something the Oilers lacked last season.
All these moves look nice and Edmonton looks prepared for the playoffs as I type all this in late July. But I predicted they would sneak into the playoffs last season, and I was let down. The prospect of a young team playing in a new arena in a few years gives Oilers fans something exciting looking forward.
Enough of looking forward. The time is now.
The only thing that gets people more excited than an up-and-coming team is a competitive one. The rebuilding phase is over and now it is time for the players, coaches and management to kick it into the next gear. With the realignment, winning the division doesn’t only just go through Vancouver, but Los Angeles, San Jose, and Anaheim- three serious playoff contenders last season. Not to mention another rebuilding team in Colorado.
Turnarounds in the NHL don’t take all that long to achieve. Look at Montreal’s quick rise back into the playoff picture in the East. The “we’re a young team” attitude is a tired charade at this point. The Oilers have the pieces in place, the coach that should handle the team well, and the veterans to glue the locker room together. Hall and Eberle have done it on the statsheets, but now they have to wear those letters on their jerseys with pride and lead the team.
The pressure is on now and the players know it. I’m sticking to my prediction that the Oilers can sneak in as an eighth-seed, but I’ve been wrong before.
What do you think? Are the Oilers a playoff team or once again on the outside looking in?