Future lies with young guns

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

Apparently the future wasn't now for the Edmonton Oilers.

Heading into the season, the bar was set high -- in large part due to the play of their rookies the previous year.

But perhaps masked in that late surge of 2008 was the fact the club set an NHL record for shootout wins in a season, and the team played without the burden of expectations down the stretch.

"The year started with a lot of promise and maybe with some false hope, based on how we played last year," said head coach Craig MacTavish.

"I think the 19 overtime wins probably inflated our expectations a little going into the year.

"Our expectations were high based on the way our young players developed and the additions we made. Erik Cole was highly sought after, and for whatever reason was not a good fit here on our first line and that hurt us."

Lost in the disappointment of another spring without playoff hockey in the city is that they are still very much a young team.

The majority of players the Oilers were counting on to get them into the post-season, weren't even in the league during their run to the Stanley Cup final three years ago.

Yet it's that sophomore group of players that will eventually be responsible for snapping the playoff drought.

"I don't know if expectations were too high," said winger Robert Nilsson. "You're always going to have high expectations on yourself. You're supposed to have high expectations.

"The way we played last season was the way we wanted to play the whole year. All of us young guys have been up and down this year. We knew it wasn't going to be easier this year. I don't think it's bad to come into a year with a positive attitude, but it did affect us not getting off to a better start."

Perhaps the biggest load to bear coming into the season was on Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano.

All the dynamic duo were asked about going into the season was how they would avoid the sophomore jinx. And despite doing everything they could in the off-season to evade the pitfalls of a second-year player, both struggled.

Neither was able to match their offensive totals from their rookie season.

"I felt like this year I came in physically stronger, I felt really good on the ice and for me next year, I just have to work on maybe the mental side of the game a little bit more," Gagner said.

"In the first part of the season I felt I was playing well, but when the points weren't coming I started to panic and got off my game. It didn't go well from there so I just want to continue to focus on getting mentally stronger and getting better and better every year. It's just too bad that it's over this early."

Gagner, 19, is going to be a star in the league as evidenced by his 22 points in his final 22 games, which included his first career hat-trick.

"You want to be a guy that can play well at the end of the season when it matters," he said. "It obviously felt pretty good for me to turn it around."

On the back end, both Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov took strides in their development. Both improved on their point totals from last year, although Gilbert was unable to match his 13 goals from his rookie season.

"I just felt more comfortable out there," Gilbert said. "Having a full year under my belt helps. The game slows down for you, you adjust to it, you learn things from every game. I took a lot from last year and brought it into this year.

"Goals were down for me, I missed too many open nets which was the thing for me. But I'm still learning, there are still things that I have to improve in my game. So I have to go back this summer and keep working on things."

Grebeshkov also has some work to do to become an elite defenceman. However, despite at times driving his coaches crazy, he still showed vast improvement.

"For myself, I thought it went pretty well," he said. "For me personally, it was my best season. I hope to do better next season. I know the expectations for me next season will be higher."


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