After finishing dead last in the NHL for the past two seasons, the re-building Edmonton Oilers are hoping to take a step forward this year. Their young stars Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have a year of experience under their belts, and 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is hoping to make the team out of camp. The biggest question for the Oilers this is season is their goaltending. It was a definite weakness last year, and the personnel haven’t changed. But the addition of a few veterans, and a healthy roster might lift the Oilers out of the basement. But just how high can they go?
Hall and Eberle are healthy, and will certainly benefit from last seasons experiences. While Dustin Penner and Andrew Cogliano have departed, the return of Ryan Smyth should help boost the offense. The wily vet scored 23 goals with the Kings last season, and will provide much needed leadership on and off the ice. Eric Belanger has also joined the fold, as well as tough guy Ben Eager to fill the void left by the departure of enforcer Steve MacIntyre. The x factor for the Oilers offense is whether or not Nugent-Hopkins will make the team. The youngster is supremely talented, but might benefit from another season in junior as he continues to mature physically. The team will also be counting on players like Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff to stay healthy and for Sam Gagner to continue to build off of a solid campaign last season.
The Oilers defense had some injuries last year, but still had some major holes even when healthy. The additions of Cam Barker and Andy Sutton will definitely toughen up the blueline. Ryan Whitney will be counted upon heavily to provide some offense from the back end, and he and Ladislav Smid will be key components in the Oilers powerplay. Special teams were dreadful last year, so there isn’t much place to go but up in that respect.
Legal troubles aside, Nikolai Khabibulin will be looking for a fresh start this season. The veteran’s stint in Edmonton has been forgettable, but a lucrative contract insures he will still find time in the crease this year. But right behind him is Devan Dubnyk, the guy Edmonton is hoping will make a big step forward this season. The Oilers goaltending tandem certainly won’t garner much enthusiasm, but Khabby has the ability to be a big time goalie and Dubnyk has been making great strides. But, as is always the case in the NHL, the success for the team relies heavily on what’s happening in the crease.
Is there anything to suggest at this point that the Oilers won’t finish last for the third year in a row? The biggest reason for a move up in the standings is a healthy roster. There were key injuries last year that really derailed the Oilers hopes of getting out of the basement. With talent like Hall, Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi up front, this team could be on the verge of exploding offensively, but will the rest of the line-up hold up? The Oilers can’t be worse, and that’s one thing fans can hang their hat on. The addition of Smyth will be huge for this young team, and if they can avoid the injury bug and get solid goaltending, there’s a good chance they will not be the first team to stand up on draft day 2012.