Oilers counting on the kids

The Oilers' ascent from the NHL basement will rely heavily on the play of rookies (left to right)...

The Oilers' ascent from the NHL basement will rely heavily on the play of rookies (left to right) Magnus Paajarvi, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. (DOREEN THUNDER/QMI Agency)

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Having finished last for the first time in franchise history, the Edmonton Oilers have nowhere to go but up.

How fast the Oilers came climb out of the basement depends on the type of impact Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi make during their rookie seasons.

The Oilers are banking their future on the three highly touted prospects as they head into this season in a rebuilding mode, icing a young but potentially talented lineup.

Hall, 18, the first overall pick in the entry draft, has the tools to become an NHL star and will get every opportunity to develop as a player this season.

Eberle, 20, and Paajarvi, 19, appear ready to make the jump to the NHL after being allowed time to develop in junior and in the Swedish Elite League respectively.

Their supporting cast includes a number of players not far removed from being considered the future of the franchise, but who have struggled to take their game to the next level.

Forwards

The rookies are expected to get plenty of ice time - the Oilers plan on riding them regardless of results.

The team is hoping to develop into a contender within a few years and views this season as an opportunity to develop young talent without the burden of expectations.

The young forwards will be supported by the likes of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Gilbert Brule, all former first-round picks who seemingly have levelled out in their development and are looking for breakout seasons.

Dustin Penner, who had a career year in 2009-10, is back, as are Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky - both of whom have struggled to regain the form that helped them lead the Oilers to the 2006 Stanley Cup final.

Defence

For the first time in his career, Tom Gilbert will be expected to take on the workload of being on the top pair of defencemen.

Heading into his fourth full season, the Bloomington, Minn., native showed he was capable of the job late last season playing along Ryan Whitney, who was acquired at the trade deadline.

In support of the two will be Ladislav Smid, Kurtis Foster and Jim Vandermeer, all of whom are expected to take on bigger roles with the club, especially considering the Oilers told veteran defenceman Sheldon Souray to go home and await a trade.

Leadership will be provided by Jason Strudwick, who was re-signed by the club mainly because of his influence in the dressing room.

Goal

Nikolai Khabibulin lasted just 18 games with the Oilers last season before his back gave out.

A surgically repaired back and a drunk-driving conviction later, the veteran goaltender will try to give the Oilers their money's worth this season heading into his second of a four-year deal.

If Khabibulin's back gives out again this season, or if his legal issues stemming from an appeal of his conviction force him out of the lineup, the Oilers will rely on a pair of up-and-coming goaltenders in Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk.

If that fails, they've signed veteran Martin Gerber for insurance purposes.

Coaching, management

General manager Steve Tambellini vowed changes were coming, and changes were made.

Having been forced to rebuild after the worst finish in franchise history, the Oilers blew out a number of veterans and underachievers to make room for their young talent selected in the draft.

Moulding that talent will be Tom Renney, who took over as coach earlier than expected from Pat Quinn, unceremoniously removed from his post after one season and given a consultant's title.

Intangibles

The Colorado Avalanche was able to get into the playoffs last season with a young lineup - a formula which the Oilers hope to copy this year.

However, the club is being careful not to put heavy expectations on the rookies, even though they dazzled during the pre-season.

If the youngsters can get strong support from the veterans around them, the Oilers could be one of the surprises of the season. If not, the Oilers brass wonıt mind if the consolation prize is another high draft pick for next year as they look to become a contender down the road.

Fantasy pool hero

Ales Hemsky

Unsung hero

Sam Gagner

Tough guy

Steve MacIntyre

Sleeper

Andrew Cogliano

Rookie to watch

Taylor Hall

On the decline

Ryan Jones


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