It’s been six seasons since the Oilers made the playoffs. The road has been even longer as they spent three of those years among the worse teams in the league. Could it be possible that the light at the end of the tunnel is near for the Oilers? One of the youngest and most experienced teams in the league now features a No. 1 overall draft pick for the third consecutive year and a new man behind the bench in Ralph Kruger. Between Kruger and GM Steve Tambellini, the players know expectations are high and they should be for a team of this caliber.
The team struggled in many area where you’d be surprised to learn. They were among the best in the league (3rd) on the power play but they were atrocious when playing even-strength hockey. A team that features three lines with names they have should not finish 22nd in even-strength goals and the problem was largely based on defensemen who failed to get the puck out of their own zone and into the forwards sticks while being forechecked.
The top line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov will be very exciting to watch. Having Yakupov on the wing will provide another finisher on offense, with Jordan Eberle being bumped down to the second line with Sam Gagner and Ryan Smyth. They will provide the main spark for the team, along with supporting cast Magnus Paajarvi, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. The power play will continue to be one of their strengths, as Kruger was in charge of that unit under former coach Tom Renney.
The defense is the area where they struggled. On both sides of the ice, they struggled to break the puck out of their own zone and to create quality scoring chances for the forwards. On defense, they were lacking physicality and size and it showed on the ice as they played soft. They did get the young prized defenseman Justin Schultz in free agency. Some hockey insiders placed him in the echelon of free agents this summer such as Ryan Suter. Another player named Schultz, Nick, will have a chance to spend the entire season here after coming at the trade deadline. Both will have a chance to provide better talent along with Ryan Whitney and Jeff Petry.
With goaltending, 26-year-old Devan Dubnyk was supposed to be the young goalie of the future to compliment the young players in front of him. He struggled last season as he carried a 20-20-3 record. Most those games came when they were long out of the playoff chase, so we can only hope the experience can carry on to this season. He’ll contend with Nikolai Khabibulin for the starting role. Khabibulin is in the final year of his contract while Dubnyk has two years remaining.
They are on the brink of hitting their window of opportunity for contenting for a championship. Of their many young players, Paajarvi (RFA) and Ladislav Smid (UFA) are in the final year of their contract. Before you know it Hall, Eberle, and Petry will each be at the end of their rookie contracts and will look for a salary increase. They won’t be able to afford all of those players so Tambellini has to win now or face the problems the Detroit Lions of the NFL face: years of high draft picks will cause salary cap problems when it comes time to re-sign them. Compared to other teams in the division, they are far behind Vancouver and Minnesota but they could contend with Colorado for third in the division. They could finish anywhere between 8th-13th in the West, but rest assured they won’t have a No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013.