The Edmonton Oilers enter the upcoming season as one of the more intriguing teams to watch. Finishing dead last in two of the last three years (and not much better last season) there has been little hope for playoff action in Oil Country.
What they have done, however, is assemble some of the most exciting, dynamic young talent in the NHL. The fact that much of that talent is completely unproven at the professional level almost adds to the intrigue and anticipation of what it could bring.
After their poor finishes, the Oilers have aspirations of being a playoff team and bringing a buzz back to Edmonton. Here are 5 things to watch for in the upcoming season that could tip the balance either way.
5. The Health of Ryan Whitney
The success of the Oilers and their defence could rely heavily on the health of Ryan Whitney. With the emergence of Ladislav Smid as a bonafide shutdown guy and the progression of Jeff Petry to a top 4 NHL regular, Whitney may not have to log the big minutes he’s had to in the past. He remains, however, one of the most complete defencemen on the roster and capable of playing big minutes as well as providing much needed leadership when in the lineup.
He still makes the best first pass of any defenceman on the team and gives the Oilers another D-man who can play in all situations. Not only would they miss Whitney’s presence if it was out of the lineup, but the depth behind him is somewhat suspect. If Smid and Petry indeed form the top paring, as they did to finish last year, that leaves valuable, but all defence no offence Nick Schultz, an unproven Justin Schultz and depth defencemen Corey Potter, Andy Sutton and Theo Peckham to fill Whitney’s shoes should he go down to injury.
With question marks already surrounding the group, a healthy Whitney would go a long way in providing stability.
While there are question marks surrounding many aspects of this team going into next season, perhaps none more so than the goaltending position.
With the plethora of young stars up front and the progressions of players such as Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry on the backend, as well as the addition of Justin Schultz, the Oilers feel they have young blue chip talent at both positions.
They are slighty more unsure of perhaps the most important position, and that is between the pipes. The real question is; can Devan Dubnyk be the goaltender of the future and grow with the other young stars?
He certainly has all the tools, the pedigree and did take a big step forward in the second half of last season. There is no reason to think he won’t take the job and run with it.
The issue becomes, what do they do if he falters? The current backup is Nikolai Khabibulin, who was an elite goaltender at one time, but is now well past his prime and injury prone. Number three on the depth chart is journeyman Yann Danis, who had a stellar season in the AHL, but would be a stop gap at best. None of the prospect talent, namely Olivier Roy or Tyler Bunz, are anywhere close to stepping into a starter’s role.
The situation will bear watching, and if Dubnyk continues his positive progress it will be a non-issue. If that doesn’t happen, there may be search underway for a new #1 in Edmonton.
3. The Justin Schultz Saga….continued
The soap opera that was Justin Schultz earlier this year has died down somewhat, now that he has signed and has taken a backseat to the NHL CBA talks. That doesn’t mean, however, that he has been forgotten. While there are many around the league that will be looking to see him fail, Oiler fans are hoping he is the next great young offensive defenceman in the league. Blessed with an elite offensive skillset, he will be given every opportunity to play top powerplay minutes and put up some production.
While there has been much hype about Schultz, both negative and positive, the fact remains he is still an unproven rookie who has not yet played his first professional game. All indications show that he is a mature and polished product, but regardless there will be many interested onlookers, when Schultz steps out for his first shift.
2. The Arrival of Nail Yakupov
With the drafting of Yakupov #1 overall, and possibly one of the most dynamic offensive players to come around in sometime, it has had the fanfare one might expect. With the Schultz saga taking place following the draft and the ongoing CBA talks overhadowing much of the on-ice activity, you can understand it.
However, whenever the season does start, it will be hard to overshadow the exciting and charismatic Russian, even with stars such as Hall, Eberle and RNH. He brings electrifying talent with the ability to bring you out of your seat.
The thought of him playing on a line with one or two of the other three has Oiler fans salivating at the chance to come out and watch them play. There was even talk of a number #1’s line with RNH centring Hall and Yakupov, not too many teams can boast that.
While the ultimate goal of the Oilers and their fans alike is to make the playoffs this year, regardless of the numbers, Yakupov is another big reason to watch the Oilers this season.
1. Progression of the Big 3
Possible looming lockout aside, the Oilers have made some of the biggest news in this offseason. No it wasn’t signing a Parise and Suter, or landing Rick Nash in a blockbuster deal, but the drafting of
Yakupov and signing of Schultz did put them on Sportscentre headlines for at least a few days.While there is certainly excitement and optimism going forward with those items, the biggest reason and the most compelling story for Oiler fans is once again their trio of young Canadian superstars of last year.
Whether it was because they did it together and put up production as linemates, or it was just the obvious chemistry, the trifecta of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are talked about in the same breath quite often.
Eberle emerged as the team’s MVP and as a star in the NHL with his production and smooth offensive skill. Both Hall and Nugent-Hopkins were well on their way to the same if not for injuries that derailed both of their seasons. Nugent-Hopkins was a lock for the Calder Trophy and Hall with 27 goals in 61 games, was well on his way to a 30 and maybe even 40 goal season.
A large majority of the Oilers success will be based on how these three players perform. If they take the next step, and not just point production but in their complete game, the Oilers will be a playoff team.
Yes there needs to be an improvement in goal and on defence and more secondary scoring for a playoff position to be recognized, but Hall, Eberle and RNH are the engine that makes the Oilers go and will have a say in how the team finishes.
With the addition of Yakupov and Schultz to the already dynamic offense the Oilers have, whether they’re a playoff team or not, they will be one of the most intriguing and exciting teams to watch this season.
Carl covers the Edmonton Oilers for THW as well as providing additional prospect coverage. Follow him on twitter @carlTHW, connect on Facebook or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, comments or if you’re interested in him writing for you.