Maturing with age

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Kids with confidence. Even a bit of swagger. It's been almost 20 years since you could say that with a straight face about any edition of the Edmonton Oilers.

That said, let's not get all carried away about the team that will debut against the Calgary Flames at Rexall Place tonight - it's 2006, not 1986. Still, it's not difficult to see the impact last spring's wild ride to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup has had.

The dynamic is tangible. What's more, we're talking about a team that will try to take another run at the silverware as one of the six youngest outfits in the NHL and with its core intact, despite the trade of Chris Pronger and the losses of Michael Peca, Jaroslav Spacek and Sergei Samsonov.

HIGH SKILL LEVEL

Will youth be served?

"I think the future is very, very bright here for a long time," coach Craig MacTavish said. "Largely because of not only the skill level, but the age of the skill level.

"The emphasis right now is to eliminate one word when you talk about these players. When you say they're the best young players in the game, well, now you've got to eliminate 'young' and make it the best players in the game. When you do that, you win trophies."

With an average age of 27.4 on the opening day roster, the Oilers aren't faced with rebuilding an aging team that was bolstered at the trading deadline, only to be dismantled. This isn't a team on the decline.

Ales Hemsky, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Raffi Torres and even Joffrey Lupul, who went to the Western Conference final with Anaheim, are a year older and, you'd think, better.

"We learned a lot as a young group of guys," Stoll said. "We've got a great core group that, hopefully, will be here for a long time. We've got a kind of quiet confidence about ourselves knowing our best game is good enough."

Only five teams - San Jose, Nashville, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Washington - are younger than the Oilers. Of the teams that made conference finals, none are younger.

With 10 players 25-or-under and still on the learning curve, how much did last spring help that process?

"It's a great opportunity for the young guys to be part of building something great," MacTavish said.

"With that opportunity goes obligation. So far, I've sensed and seen that they're living up to those obligations to try to make themselves and our team the best team in hockey."

Of course, the experience of getting to Game 7 doesn't guarantee anything. The Flames found that out after pushing Tampa Bay to the limit before the lockout.

BUILDING

Even so, there's every opportunity for this team to build on lessons learned and prove their date with Carolina was more than a hot streak or a flash in the pan.

"All those players who played so well last year, the young players, all of a sudden their eyes have been fully opened in terms of how effective they expect to be," MacTavish said.

"They measured themselves against the best players in the league and they came out favourably in those measurements. I see a real sense of, 'Why not me?' in terms of getting the notoriety and accolades."


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