What a start to the 2007-08 season for the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night.
After floundering down the stretch with an injury-depleted squad that literally seemed incapable of generating any offence at the end of last season, the Oilers opened with style and panache against the San Jose Sharks.
Who would have thought of a Craig MacTavish-coached team with offensive style and panache ... inconceivable.
Full marks to MacTavish and the Oilers organization for taking the governor off and letting some of the younger guys go. There is genuine excitement for fans in watching offensive-minded first-round draft choices like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano given opportunities to play even after making a mistake or two.
The positive messaging by MacTavish since the opening game of the pre-season on Robert Nilsson, and the two rookies can't be overlooked as well, since it is completely opposite of some of the messages that were being sent out last season with some young, struggling forwards.
This season, the Oilers appear to be creating a more positive environment for young players to succeed. Of course Nilsson, Gagner and Cogliano have done their part by playing well.
Combined with the off-season acquisitions Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen and Dustin Penner and the healthy return of Jarret Stoll the Oilers will certainly be a far more entertaining team to watch.
Welcome home, boys?
Speaking of returns, it will be very interesting to watch how fans respond to former captain Jason Smith and the much-maligned Joffrey Lupul when the Philadelphia Flyers meet the Oil tonight.
My guess is Smith will a receive a chorus of cheers and Lupul already knows the boos are coming
Jason Smith was a class act as an Oiler. A blue-collar throwback player, Smith was the physical embodiment of the "dive on the grenade for each other" type of hockey that got the Oilers to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final in 2006.
If you hear some yard-ape next to you tonight boo Smith, don't be afraid to tell the loser to shut up.
As for Lupul, I still can't believe what happened here last season, and how fickle Oilers fans were.
By the end of the season the legions of Lupul-haters out there was stunning, reinforcing a city's reputation for being tough on their own.
Let's establish a couple of things here though.
Unquestionably Joffrey Lupul struggled, and ultimately he is responsible for a great part of what Craig MacTavish referred to as a "failure" last season.
But, the Oilers did not help him. They never really put him in a position where he could succeed.
Lupul is a complementary player. He is a shooter and he needs someone to get him the puck to excel. Though the right winger almost never got a chance to play with the team's best offensive player, Ales Hemsky. Granted Hemsky is a right winger, too, but the talented Czech freelances out there so much, would have mattered who played what wing?
Lupul also often got overlooked on 5-3 situations, rarely getting freebie opportunities to gain offensive confidence. When you are getting bypassed for the likes of Alexei Mikhnov and Petr Nedved on the few nights when those guys are dressed the writing may have been written on wall. So I guess would be being stuck on a line with borderline NHLer Toby Petersen for the final 30 games as well.
Nonetheless Lupul made the symbolic gesture of purchasing a house in Edmonton and committing to having a yearly golf tournament in Edmonton for charity.
He also joined Oilers strength and conditioning coach Chad Moreau and several Oilers players working out in California, recognizing that he had to be improve that aspect of the game. In the end he did not get a second chance to win over the fans or for that matter MacTavish, and he will probably be reminded of that every time he comes to town.
I sure hope the coach and fans have a little more patience with the Oilers latest arrival from Anaheim in Dustin Penner. You would hate for these sorts of things to become a re-occurring trend wouldn't you?