To be a fan of the Oilers right now means that one must have a ton of faith and a boatload of patience. It's been a long time since 2006 when the Oilers made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It's been a rough ride for the Oilers since the lockout, but the future appears to be bright. The repeated failures in the regular season have netted Edmonton a slew of young talent, many of which are currently contributing to the team at the NHL level. This year, another #1 overall pick may make the team and start his NHL career, but this team still seems to be a long way from being a playoff contender.
A year after finishing last overall in the NHL, the Oilers decided to go with a complete rebuilding approach, inserting first overall pick Taylor Hall and rookie Jordan Eberle into the opening night lineup. Another rookie, Magnus Paajarvi, also saw significant playing time as the Oilers figured that making their young players better was more important than trying to trade for high-priced forwards or sign free agents to crippling long-term deals. While this approach works well for future development, it comes at the expense of the present. Once again, the Oilers limped through the regular season, finishing last overall for the 2nd straight season. Their prize? Highly-regarded prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the latest top draft pick to potentially make the Oilers as a rookie.
Pertinent Stats from 2010-11
Points: 62 (30th NHL, 15th West)
Goals For: 191 (27th NHL)
Goals Against: 260 (28th NHL)
Power Play: 14.5% (27th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 77.0% (29th NHL)
Offense: As you can see from the numbers above, the Oilers were by no means an explosive team offensively. Ales Hemsky continues to be the veteran "leader" of the offense, but injuries derailed his season last year, causing him to finish with 42 points in only 47 games. In truth, most of the Oilers' top offensive players spent time on the shelf. Taylor Hall was having an excellent rookie campaign until he was injured, and managed to finish the year leading the team in goals despite missing 17 games. Jordan Eberle (who I have a serious man-crush on) scored a spectacular first NHL goal and didn't look back, leading the team in scoring despite missing 13 games himself. Sam Gagner missed 14 games and finished with 14 points. If all those players can bounce back from injuries and play 75-82 games, the Oilers will have a decent offense.
The injury woes were not limited to the forwards. Ryan Whitney missed signficant time due to injury, appearing in only 35 games but tallying 27 points. His return combined with the addition of Smyth (who is back in Edmonton after spending time in New York and Los Angeles) will bolster a power play that was just awful last year.
The big question mark surrounds Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He's an undersized forward (6'0", 164 lbs) that has a ton of speed and a huge offensive upside. He has already signed an entry-level deal and all indications are that he will be given an opportunity to make the team out of training camp. The biggest concern would be his size, but the Oilers have done pretty well with allowing younger players to jump right in with both feet.
Defense: The loss of Whitney last season was a blow, as he is their best overall defenseman. He has strong offensive upside and can hold his own defensively, and the team will be looking for him to recover and be the anchor of the Oilers' defense. To assist Whitney, the team signed a pair of depth defensemen to deals, Andy Sutton and Cam Barker. Sutton is a stay-at-home defenseman who has little-to-no offensive talent, but can eat up minutes and play with physicality. Barker is a former first round pick who has struggled in his career to this point, never living up to expectations in Chicago or Minnesota.
Last year did see an increased role for Ladislav Smid, a bigger defenseman who plays with a slight mean streak. While not very gifted offensively, his game is evolving into a nice counterpoint to Whitney's smooth skating and puck handling, and the team is hoping that with Barker hopefully becoming the defenseman many thought he'd be and the addition of Sutton, the team finally has two pairs of defenseman that can hold their own against the top forwards in the West.
Goaltending: Remember when Nikolai Khabibulin was considered a top-flight goaltender? Me either.
The Oilers have been and continue to hope that Khabibulin can regain the form that saw him win a Cup in Tampa, but that seems to be a little misguided at this point in his career. He "enjoyed" yet another quality year, posting a 10-32-6 record with a .890 SV% and 3.40 GAA. Granted he didn't have a ton of help in front of him, but that save percentage is particularly troubling for a goalie once considered among the best in the game. At this point, he needs to become less a liability than anything else, as he is not giving the Oilers a chance to win.
However, Edmonton does have Devan Dubnyk waiting in the wings in case Khabi falters once again. He saw significant playing time last year, and his numbers (12-13-8, .916 SV% and 2.71 GAA) were respectable for being on a bad team. Perhaps it's time to get rid of the dead weight that is Khabibulin and go full-on with the youth movement and see if Dubnyk can handle a full-time starting job.
Player to Watch: I'm going with Eberle here, just because I think he's going to be a stud. His first goal was magical, and I could see him easily becoming a consistent goal-scorer in the NHL in a couple of years. He's a little on the small side, but he's still got some growing to do and could get bigger. He's also got to learn the defensive side of the game, but at 21 years old he's got a long time to develop other aspects of his game. I think he'll be a little over-shadowed outside of Edmonton by the flashier Hall, but he's going to be as important to the improvement of this franchise as Hall.
Player With Something to Prove: Barker has bounced around a little bit now (going from Chicago to Minnesota to Edmonton), and it's time for him to show that he was worth a high draft pick when he was taken by the Blackhawks. He was supposed to be a smooth-skating defenseman who could quarterback a power play, move the puck and play with size. Unfortunately his defensive zone coverage has always been questioned, and he has just lacked the on-ice intelligence to match his raw talent. Perhaps playing for a young team that has no expectations will cause him to relax and just play his game, but that remains to be seen.
The Skinny: Once again, the Oilers are going to struggle this season. They are still years away from contending, and with many teams in the West (especially the Northwest) seemingly getting better, the playoffs are still a dream. However, this is a franchise headed in the right direction, and another year for the young players will allow them to get one step closer to having this franchise restore their former glory.