FANTASY POOL HERO: Ales Hemsky
UNSUNG HERO: Sam Gagner
TOUGH GUY: Darcy Hordichuk
SLEEPER: Jeff Petry
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
ON THE DECLINE: Andy Sutton
The Edmonton Oilers did not think things could get any worse after finishing last in the overall standings two seasons ago for the first time in franchise history.
They were wrong.
Last season, the club was actually unable to match its win total from 2009-10 and finished last in the overall league standings again.
However the addition of rookies Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi gave the club and its fans hope that better days were ahead.
Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, was having a strong rookie campaign until an ankle injury brought it to a premature end. Eberle finished as the team’s leading scorer.
Heading into the this season, the biggest question for the Oilers is whether this summer’s first overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, is ready to make the jump to the NHL out of junior.
Regardless, the Oilers continue to rebuild with a youth movement, bolstered by the return of a favourite native son.
Ryan Smyth is back for his second tenure with the Oilers after requesting a trade out of Los Angeles this summer.
The Oilers’ success will depend on how the youngsters continue to develop in their second year and how much gas the veterans have in the tank.
Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi are expected to get as much or even more ice time as sophomores than they did as rookies. The success of the club eventually will be determined by the type of NHLers the three become. Unfortunately for the Oilers, they may have to go through more growing pains this season.
However, the three won’t be counted on to do it all on their own. Smyth’s return gives the club a proven leader and, if healthy, possibly another 20-goal scorer. Ales Hemsky heads into the season with two surgically repaired shoulders. The Oilers have long hoped the talented winger would develop into a legitimate star, however, injuries have held Hemsky back in the past couple of seasons. In an attempt to keep Hemsky and the rest of the young talent out of the medical room, the Oilers added some bulk up front in the form of Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager.
The success of the Oilers defence corps will depend on how Ryan Whitney’s right foot holds up. The club’s top defenceman is recovering from foot surgery this off-season, having been injured last year when his skate caught a rut. When healthy, Whitney is expected to log well over 20 minutes a night on the Oilers blue line, but heading into camp he was still unable to play.
Without Whitney, the Oilers will expect Tom Gilbert to take on a bigger role, and count on more from Theo Peckham and Ladislav Smid. Veteran Andy Sutton was acquired to add size and experience. Yet with little depth beyond their top six, the Oilers could be in big trouble if injuries again take their toll.
Having come into camp healthy and with an impaired driving conviction behind him, Nikolai Khabibulin is hoping for a bounce-back season with the Oilers.
The club has yet to receive full value for the four-year, $15-million free agent contract they gave the veteran. Khabibulin played just 18 games with the Oilers before a back injury brought his first season to a premature end.
Last season with a impaired driving conviction lingering over him, Khabibulin had one of his worst years as a professional, winning just 10 games. Having served his time in an Arizona correctional facility over the summer, Khabibulin looks to regain the form that made him the team’s undisputed starter. That position has come into doubt by the emergence of Devan Dubnyk, who looks poised to take over the role heading into his second full season.
General manager Steve Tambellini and coach Tom Renney still have rope to work with, having been forced to undergo a rebuilding program with the team bottoming out. The Oilers have promising young talent that will need to continue to develop in order to appease a fan base that is growing restless of missing the playoffs. The Oilers aren’t expected to make the playoffs this year, which takes some heat off the front office, but if they’re not playing meaningful games in March and early April, the temperature is sure to rise.
The Oilers have been battling with injuries the past number of seasons, which had contributed to their rapid decline after making it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006. The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since and won’t again if they continue to lose a record number of man-games to injury. The key to a competitive season for the Oilers is to stay healthy.
They don’t have the depth in the organization to overcome a handful of injuries, especially on the blue line, which could be the team’s weakest link this year.