SUN Hockey Pool

Time to get giddy with it

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

The last time the Edmonton Oilers won their division it was called the Smythe. That was back in 1986-87. The last time the copper and blue opened the Stanley Cup playoffs at home, the copper was orange. That was April 4, 1990.

The last time the Oilers finished with more than 100 points in the standings was 21 years ago.

You need to know all that stuff this year. All those things are possible going on probable, if not this year, certainly in the immediate future.

For the last two months of last season, throughout the off-season and through a long, tedious preseason that almost everybody in Edmonton couldn't wait to get over and done with, Oiler fans have been getting giddy. Way too giddy, some would suggest.

The Oilers were pretty pathetic in the preseason, looking nothing like they did at the end of the season the year before in front of their fans at Rexall Place.

Of the Canadian teams, only the 80-1 Toronto Maple Leafs are a longer shot to win the Staley Cup than the 30-1 Oilers. This is a team which has an insane schedule with 12 of their first 15 games on the road.

Only two teams in the league last year didn't have a 25-goal scorer and the Oilers were one of them. They have one goaltender who has to prove he wasn't a one-year wonder. They have another netminder who will be 39 on opening night. And a third goalie from the minors.

The Oilers had the third-worst record in the conference at home last year and have managed to get past the first round of the playoffs only three times in the last 15 years.

There's a real question about team toughness. And until proven otherwise with two talented power play combinations on paper, there is the concern that nobody around here seems to know how to coach a powerplay.

NO SUPERSTAR PLAYER

The preseason publications are predicting playoffs but at the same time don't have an Oiler to put on their cover because there's no Jarome Iginla star-status player on this team and not many you'd list in the league's top 40.

Projecting division titles, home playoff openers and/or 100-point seasons might be just a little bit premature, even if there are people around here who go back to 1979-80 when a bunch of talented young kids came together at the same time and made hockey history. Still, none of these guys is Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier.

So throw cold water on all this giddiness?

Heck, no. I say. Stir it up.

There are 30 teams in the NHL. Look at what you're about to watch here and the prospects for keeping the best of this bunch here for some time, and ask yourself this: Where else would you rather be watching NHL hockey for the next six or seven seasons?

It's going to be a ton of fun in Edmonton.

I liked the quote from Craig MacTavish at the start of training camp.

"A lot of previous years I'm trying to generate optimism and enthusiasm, but this year I'm probably more interested in quelling it a little bit."

But if you strung together the odd observance here and there since the end of last season into one large quote, this is what Craig MacTavish thinks of his hockey team:

"I can't remember a period over the last 15 years where we've been so excited. ... This is the best chance we've had in a long time to win the division. ... Our goal is to win the division this year. It's a very achievable goal. ... Young players have developed. Now we have lots of depth at virtually every position. ... We have a real good chance to do some great things this year."

LAST YEAR NO MIRAGE

There's every evidence that what we watched last year - with the arrival of young talents Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson and Tom Gilbert - wasn't some sort of mirage.

How do you not do some positive projecting since this team put such a terrific stretch run together despite not having Shawn Horcoff, Sheldon Souray, Ethan Moreau and others in the lineup?

Maybe you have to watch this team on a regular basis to believe that the slow but steady growth of Ales Hemsky finally has him on the verge of superstar status. There's more here than the upsides shown by Gagner, Cogliano, Nilsson and Gilbert with other under-25 players like Dennis Grebeshkov, Dustin Penner, Kyle Brodziak and maybe Ladislav Smid. The arrival of Eric Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky to go with last year's acquisitions - Souray and Penner - if anything, has been underplayed. And with Gilbert Brule, Marc Pouliot, Rob Schremp, Taylor Chorney, etc. there are plenty of prospects to either further develop or package in trades. And the Oilers are still $4 million or so under the cap - a lot more than that if somebody's goalie gets hurt and a team is inspired to take Dwayne Roloson and his $3 million contract.

Maybe the Oilers won't win the division. Maybe they won't open the playoffs at home. Maybe they won't have their first 100-point season in the standings in 21 years.

But there's too much young talent here for much of it not to develop, there's too large a young nucleus here not to be able to be able to fill in around it with free agent players who will want to be here if the Oilers prove themselves to be a top team this year.

Get giddy. The next few years are going to be a lot of fun in Edmonton.


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