Now the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of one of the youngest rosters in the league, and many of the roster players will be playing for wins and a new contract. Ryan Smyth is one of ten unrestricted free agents –to-be, a group that includes both goaltenders and four defensemen. Will playing for money translate into more wins? Or will the Oilers once again come up short of expectations?
In an effort to fully engage their young nucleus, new general manager Craig MacTavish brought in a coach used to working with developing players. Former Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins replaces Ralph Krueger, and will try to find the right formula to get the potential on this roster to turn into real-world production.
The injuries to Gagner and Nugent-Hopkins hang a couple question marks on the beginning of the new season in Edmonton, but there is plenty of talent on the roster with them potentially missing time. Taylor Hall, Eberle, Nail Yakupov and newly-added David Perron should provide plenty of top-six firepower for the Oilers this year.
Edmonton will be more intriguing around the deadline with the potential of forwards being on the move; unlike some of the top teams in the West, the Oilers aren’t handicapped by no-trade clauses on veteran contracts. Gagner is the only forward on the Oilers’ roster with a no-trade clause on his current deal, and his doesn’t kick in until the 2014-15 season.
If the playoffs are out of reach after the Olympics, the Oilers could look to cut back on the almost-$44 million they have committed to their forwards.’
This unit has been a source of a great deal of grief in Edmonton over the last few years, but the addition of Justin Schultz has brought a new dynamic to the unit after the Ducks failed to sign the Wisconsin product.. The 23-year-old posted 27 points in 48 NHL games after dominating the AHL (48 points in 34 games with Oklahoma City) last year.
He will spearhead a new-look blue line that will include former Bruin Andrew Ference, Denis Grebeshkov and Anton Belov. With those three filling in around Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry, the Oilers hope this group takes a significant step forward this season.
Ference, 34, signed a four-year deal quickly after helping Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final. With two Finals under his belt in the last three seasons, the Oilers will look to him for veteran leadership and guidance.
Devan Dubnyk and Jason Labarbera will start the season as the tandem between the pipes in Edmonton, and will need to do better than the combination of Dubnyk, Khabibulin and Yann Danis did last year. Dubnyk’s .921 save percentage was impressive, as were his two shutouts; improved play from the defensemen in front of him should propel Dubnyk to more victories and a better goals against average.
If Dubnyk and/or Labarbera struggle during the season, we might see Olivier Roy at some point. The 22-year-old, who was a fifth round pick in 2009, played 22 games in Oklahoma City last year and, like Dubnyk and Labarbera, has an expiring contract next summer.
Discipline will be critical for the Oilers this season; only the Buffalo Sabres skated more time short-handed on the road than Edmonton last year. While their penalty kill percentage was good for ninth in the NHL (83.4), the 29 power play goals they allowed ranked only 16th in the league.
On the power play, the Oilers tied the Sharks for seventh in the NHL last year, converting 20.1 percent of their advantages. With a more-experienced Schultz at the point and the young forwards developing more chemistry over a full 82-game season, this unit should be primed for big things in the future.
It will be interesting to see how Eakins uses the talent he now has available on special teams, especially the power play. His Marlies ranked only 25th in the AHL with an advantage last year.
This will be a telling year for the Edmonton Oilers. After making extending Gagner for three years this summer, their young core is intact and under contract for the next three years.
But, again, at some point this incredible collection of talent needs to perform and win games.
The move into a four-division NHL could help the Oilers. Their speed and playmaking ability could give older teams like Phoenix, Vancouver and San Jose fits. There will be plenty of opportunities for Edmonton to emerge as a playoff contender this year, but it’s up to their new leaders – from Eakins behind the bench to the players with letters on their sweaters on the ice – to find the right combination.
Oilers fans look to Blackhawks’s young core as the blueprint for their success. If that’s the case, then the 2013-14 season in Edmonton needs to resemble the 2008-09 campaign in Chicago. That season, after being an afterthought for a decade, the young Hawks marched all the way to the Western Conference Final against the Detroit Red Wings.
Are these Oilers ready to take a Chicago-style step forward? We’ll see soon.
Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.