Unscheduled Oil change

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:30 AM ET

When you win just 16 games in a season, there's nowhere to go but up.

The Edmonton Oil Kings put their miserable 2009-2010 Western Hockey League campaign behind them and head into this season with a renewed sense of optimism.

That optimism was on display Wednesday as the team took to the ice in preparation for Friday's season opener against the Red Deer Rebels (7 p.m.) at Rexall Place.

"There is a lot of excitement in the dressing room and there is a lot of excitement in the organization about the future of the Oil Kings," said head coach Derek Laxdal. "There is a lot of young talent that is starting to come through.

"Last year was a tough year. They had a lot of depth issues and a lot of injuries and things didn't go the way wanted. But any time you go through a season like that, the players that come back, they're pretty excited to step on the ice and prove that they're going to have a better year."

With a new coaching staff, the Oil Kings head into the year eyeing a return to the post-season.

The club qualified for the playoffs in its second season, but then regressed a year ago, finishing last in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Prince George Cougars were the only team in the league that fared worse.

"After I got here at the trade deadline last year, I noticed that guys had stopped believing they could win," said winger Mike Piluso. "They were working hard, but it felt like it wasn't possible to win.

"Hopefully that changes this year. We're all excited about the season."

Changing that attitude is one of the mandates of the new coaching staff.

Laxdal, along with assistant Steve Hamilton, inherited a young squad that features an abundance of 17-year-olds.

They replaced Steve Pleau and Rocky Thompson behind the Oil Kings bench.

"The true test is going to come on Friday night and then 20 games into the season," Laxdal said. "We have to instil a confidence in the kids to have the belief in the coaching staff. And when the kids have the confidence in the coaching staff, which we've tried to establish in training camp, they're going to go out and put in the work on the ice."

The strength of the Oil Kings should be in their defence, which features Buffalo Sabres first-round pick Mark Pysyk, highly touted rookie Griffin Reinhart and European import Marek Hrbas.

Up front they'll be hoping Michael St. Croix can improve on an impressive rookie campaign that saw him collect 46 points in 66 games.

"There is going to be a growth pro cess this year," Laxdal said. "Going through training camp, we saw a lot of things that we liked, including the work ethic that the kids put in and the attention to detail.

"But there are mistakes that they make as kids. Five-on-five, we like the direction that we're going in. Special teams are going in the right direction. There is a lot of teaching that still has to be done and now the test is going to come as we're playing for real."

There were a lot of positives for the side going through the exhibition season despite finishing with a 2-3 record.

The Oil Kings dropped both their games at their own tournament, but outshot their opponents handily in both contests. That was something they rarely did last year.

"Our exhibition season was successful," Laxdal said. "It gave us a chance to see what we had in the dressing room. We have 10 17-yearolds on the roster and we have to make the best of that. Our future is very bright, but we have to have a lot of growth this season."


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