As the Edmonton Oilers open the 2015-16 NHL season, the 36th in franchise history, expectations in the “City of Champions” are at an all-time high.
With numerous new additions to a perpetually poor roster, the Oilers appear poised to enjoy significant improvement this coming season, however, in order to do so, they will need consistent contributions from their entire lineup. Of course, as we have come to expect, key players such as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will lead the way offensively, while an improved supporting cast will provide the Oilers with greater depth than in years past.
Yet, if the Oilers are to be truly successful, they will need a select number of players to break-out and enjoy the most productive season of their young careers, and in doing so, finally reach their untapped potential.
Expectations are at their peak for Lander in 2015-16, who is expected to become a consistent performer as the Oilers’ third line center-man.
Following the best play of his young NHL career in 2014-15, scoring six goals and 20 points in 38 regular season games, Lander carried his strong play into the 2015 Preseason, leading the NHL in goal scoring with five tallies in a mere six games played. In total, Lander’s six points led the Oilers during the Preseason, while he also led the NHL in power-play goals and tied in a first place finish for short-handed goals as well.
Drafted in the second round, 40th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Lander’s development has been slow, as he has played parts of four AHL seasons and over 100 NHL games before finally becoming a regular at hockey’s highest level. However, as the Oilers third-line center to begin the season, Lander will be provided all the tools necessary to find success, including newly improved line-mates in Nail Yakupov and Lauri Korpikoski.
Having inked a two-year, $1.975 Million contract extension with the Oilers this past April, both Lander and the Oilers hope he can continue to progress and become a reliable and productive NHL player. However, based on his play in 2014-15 and his 2015 Preseason, it appears as though 2015-16 could be the season Lander breaks out and establishes himself as an NHL regular.
Following an incredibly successful season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2014-15, in which he posted a 20-9-8 record, .936% Save Percentage (SVP%) and 1.71 Goals Against Average (GAA), Anders Nilsson returns to North America with heightened expectations.
An elite goalie this past season, Nilsson beat out Ben Scrivens for the role of Oilers back-up goaltender, and remains dead set on securing the Oilers’ starting role.
Having signed a one-year, $1 Million contract with the Oilers in July, Nilsson is making his return to North America for the first time since the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. Originally drafted by the New York Islanders in the third round, 62nd overall in 2009, Nilsson spent three seasons in the Islanders organization, bouncing up and down between the NHL, and the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
In total, Nilsson played 23 games with the Islanders, and an additional 75 with the Sound Tigers before refusing an AHL assignment, becoming a free agent, and subsequently signing in the KHL. Despite his falling out, Nilsson, at 25 years old, retains a wealth of experience, meaning that there is little to no adjustments necessary in his re-acclimation to the NHL game. In fact, he showed just how comfortable he is in the NHL during the 2015 Preseason, stopping all 53 shots he faced in 120 minutes of ice time.
As a result, Nilsson could quite possibly be the biggest surprise for the Oilers this season. Having shown off his incredible skills in the KHL, and now in the NHL, Nilsson’s raw potential could see him not only supplant Cam Talbot for the Oilers starting job, but in doing so earn a contract extension come the conclusion of the 2015-16 season.
This list could not be complete without the inclusion of Nail Yakupov.
As we all know, Yakupov was drafted first overall by the Oilers in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and thus far has not come anywhere close to living up to his high selection.
Despite an impressive rookie campaign in which he led the Oilers in goals with 17 in the lockout shortened 48 game season of 2012-13, Yakupov’s game has progressed at an extremely low rate. In his sophomore season, Yakupov scored just 11 goals and 24 points in 63 games, and carried a dismal -33 rating. This past season, 2014-15, Yakupov showed improvement, especially in his defensive game, yet scored just 14 goals and 33 points over 81 games, alongside a -35 rating.
Yakupov retains incredible skills and talent, of this there is no doubt, however, at this point in his NHL career, he has yet to effectively apply them on a consistent basis. Despite this inability, the Oilers showed their faith in Yakupov this past April, re-signing the young Russian to a two-year, $5 Million contract.
As a result, motivation should be of no concern in 2015-16, while Yakupov will also stand poised to improve due to the increased depth of the Oilers roster and his line-mates. Centered by Lander, Yakupov opens the season with Korpikoski at his right-wing, while he will undoubtedly also see time on the Oilers power-play, a unit which will consist of any given combination of the Oilers top players in Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid.
Ultimately, Yakupov as all the tools, motivation, and skilled teammates necessary to succeed in the NHL. As a result, it should be anticipated that Yakupov will finally enjoy a break-out NHL campaign, and in doing so, become a legitimate first overall pick.
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Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.