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January 10, 2013 | 5:44pm ET
Season Preview: Edmonton
By Spike Coffman, TheFourthPeriod.com

The Edmonton Oilers are hoping that this is finally the year they break through and rise in the Western Conference. After a strong start last season, the Oilers faded and again found themselves as the worst team in the Northwest Division. The Oilers did luck out and win the draft lottery and for the third-straight year found themselves with the first-overall pick in the Draft. Nail Yakupov became the latest highly-talented offensive prospect to join the Oil. This should be the year that this Oilers team takes their next step towards becoming a playoff team.

Forwards

Offensively, the Oilers will be led by Jordan Eberle, who had 76 points in only his second full season in the league last year; he will be expected to improve on his game-to-game basis. The other two Oiler young guns -- Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- also had strong seasons last year and will look towards becoming better players and leading in the shortened schedule. One issue the Oilers had last year was secondary scoring, Sam Gagner had 47 points on the season, which is including his eight point night against the Blackhawks. If you take away those eight points his season really resulted in a slower than expected campaign. Ryan Smyth was next in team scoring but age is becoming a factor for Captain Canada, who will turn 37 in February and has had a decline in points in the last four seasons. After that the Oilers become a pretty thin unit on offense.

Defense

On defense, the name to remember will be Schultz, but which one? Is it Nick or Justin? The trade deadline deal that brought Nick Schultz adds stability to the Oilers' defense as they had a difficult time of keeping the puck out of their own net last year. Nick Schultz had 165 total blocked shots last season, and between him and Ladislav Smid they'll take a lot of pressure off the goaltending. The real wild card will be rookie Justin Schultz, the Wisconsin Badger left school a year early and shunned Anaheim to become a free agent and sign with Edmonton. One positive of the lockout is Schultz has been playing in the AHL, gaining pro-experience and he was second in league scoring behind Eberle. One concern the Oilers seem to have every season is how long Ryan Whitney will be healthy. Whitney is a key part of the offense but hasn't played more than 51 games in the last two seasons.

Goalies

Steve Tambellini paid a high price, in many people's opinions, to secure Devan Dubnyk as his No. 1 goalie. Dubnyk had a good season with strong numbers, but he is still unproven as a top goalie. In spending the cash to have Dubnyk, he's taking the risk that he will be the legitimate the starting goalie. The Oilers still have Nikolai Khababulin in presumably a backup role in the last year his contract. It's a good back up plan if Dubnyk falters down at any point in the season. If the Oil want to go anywhere in the standings it will be determined by the goaltending tandem.

Projected Outcome

The Edmonton Oilers should be able to battle for a playoff spot for a good chunk of the season, but it will really come down to their defense and goaltending. They have the assets needed to make a climb up the standings, but it's going to be wait-and-see for Edmonton fans this season. Expect them to finish third in the Northwest.

3 Players to Watch
 
Nail Yakupov
The three players to watch in Edmonton starts with Nail Yakupov. Last summer's first-overall pick will be looked to add more offense and have similar strong rookie seasons like Eberle, Hall, and Nugent-Hopkins did. The Russian forward is used to North American ice after playing last season with the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
Eric Belanger
Eric Belanger had an awful season last year, scoring four goals on the season down from his usual totals in the teens. While killing penalties and faceoffs are his specialty, it would help if he could chip in with a couple additional goals.
Justin Schultz
How will Justin Schultz adjust to the NHL? This could be the team's No.1 defenseman the Oilers have lacked since Chris Pronger requested a trade out of town.

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