EDMONTON - With training camp opening up, the Edmonton Oilers head into the season with a renewed sense of optimism.
In reality, when you finish last for two consecutive seasons there is only one direction to go. How much the club improves this year will depend on whether they can stay healthy, whether their young players can build on their rookie seasons and whether the veterans can provide leadership and stability.
There are not a lot of spots up for grabs on this year’s roster, but there are some decisions to be made. The biggest involves the Oilers first overall pick last summer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and whether the club feels he’s ready to step into the NHL.
Here’s a look at the Oilers projected depth chart for forwards heading into the season.
Ryan Smyth – Shawn Horcoff – Ales Hemsky
Taylor Hall – Sam Gagner – Jordan Eberle
Magnus Paajarvi – Eric Belanger – Ryan Jones
Ben Eager – Gilbert Brule – Linus Omark
Extra forward: Darcy Hordichuk
Good chance to make the team:
Anton Lander - Nugent-Hopkins -Teemu Hartikainen
Ryan Smyth – The heart and soul of the club is back, but will the Oilers get the same player who left in tears four years ago? The heart is as big as ever, but can the body hold up for the entire season?
Shawn Horcoff – Has probably been miscast due to the size of his contract, which makes him a lightning rod for criticism. Horcoff is an honest player who puts in a blue-collar effort night in and night out. His $6.5-million price tag this season, however, is anything but blue-collar.
Ales Hemsky – At the top of his game, he can be the most electrifying player on the ice. Keeping him on the ice, however, has been an issue the past two seasons. How will two surgically repaired shoulders hold up, and what kind of motivation will the fact he’s in the last year of his contract provide?
Taylor Hall – Lived up to the hype until an ankle injury put a premature end to his season. He’s back bigger, stronger and there’s little reason not to believe he won’t be better. How far the Oilers go could depend on how far their budding star takes them.
Sam Gagner – Once the cornerstone of a rebuilding project himself, Gagner has been unable to improve on a strong rookie season. Heading into his fifth season, the time has come for him to put up the type of numbers the club once envisioned him doing.
Jordan Eberle – Finished as the team’s leading scorer by default last year. Is confident he can avoid the sophomore jinx, but that curse has a habit of biting even the best of them. Ask Jarome Iginla.
Magnus Paajarvi – Opened last season looking like the best of a strong young crop, but the taxing schedule seem to get the better of him. Having a year under his belt could benefit him the most.
Eric Belanger – Veteran brings in a lot of leadership qualities the team has lacked in the past couple of seasons. He also provides the club with someone other than Horcoff who can win a face-off.
Ryan Jones – Is coming off his best season as an NHLer and was rewarded with a new contract. As long as he doesn’t forget what made him successful, should be in line for another strong campaign.
Ben Eager – Provides muscle with an ability to play the game. As long as he doesn’t lose his mind like he did during the playoffs in San Jose, should be a good fit with the Oilers.
Gilbert Brule – Health issues have dogged Brule since arriving from the Columbus Blue Jackets three years ago. The fact the Oilers reportedly tried to trade him and couldn’t because of it doesn’t help either.
Linus Omark – Next to Hemsky could be the most innovative player on the roster. But there’s more to the game than the shootout. Needs to show he can be an offensive threat on a consistent basis.
Darcy Hordichuk – Is popular with teammates and fans because of his willingness to drop the gloves. Taking unnecessary penalties however, will eat into that popularity.
Anton Lander – Was very impressive at the Young Stars tournament. If he can do the same at main camp, the Oilers may have no choice but to keep him.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Will he stay or will he go? That is the question. The first overall pick last summer will likely be a star for the club one day. The best route for him to get there is what the Oilers have to determine.
Teemu Hartikainen – Impressive in his brief stint with the Oilers last season. Will challenge for a spot on the roster this season, meaning someone else may have to go.