This was the year the Edmonton Oilers were supposed to take the next step. The year that they were supposed to push for a playoff spot, and the year that the young trio of stars, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were to continue their ascent to stardom.
The season started sour with news that Nugent-Hopkins would miss the first month of the schedule, rehabbing his shoulder. He returned sooner than expected, but there was still a period of adjustment.
Taylor Hall was moved to the middle and looked out of position to start the year, before he to missed 7 games due to a knee injury in late October.
All three members of the top line are healthy now and the results are starting to show. The trio has 21 points combined in the Oilers last five games. The production has been spread around as each member has seven points a piece in that period.
All three are averaging just short of a point per game and those numbers are starting to rise.
Health & Confidence
The first month of the season was a disaster for a number of reasons. Injuries, poor play and a myriad of factors contributed to the poor start. While there are still a number of things the Oilers need to address, the team goes as their top line goes. With the line not intact early, it was obvious how much they were missed.
The three forwards are healthy and back together and starting to produce at the level everyone hoped and expected. With all three healthy and together, the chemistry and confidence is growing each game and as a line they are attacking harder and much more confident in their puck possession.
Too often they would settle for chances off the rush and were one and done on the attack. They would back defenders on their heels but if they didn’t put the puck in the net, they allowed their oppenent to counter attack in transition. In their last few games they have had more sustained offensive zone time and have continued attacking, resulting in more chances and better results.
RNH the Key
While all three players are emerging stars in their own right, it’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that makes the line go. He’s the playmaker and distributor of the group, the one that creates space for the others around him.
Hall is the power forward of the three, the strong, attacking, drive to the net forward every line needs. He was by far the team’s best player last season and one of the top left wingers in all of hockey. The move to centre early on was one of necessity, but he is clearly more effective on the wing riding shotgun with RNH.
Eberle is slippery and has some of the NHL’s slickest hands. He has great on-ice awareness an abilityto find open space and a very quick release.
Nugent-Hopkins though, is the straw that stirs the drink and unifies the top line. He brings the puck up ice, he controls the puck on the half wall on the powerplay and finds the open lanes for his linemates.
Two years ago it was Eberle that made his mark with a 34 goal, 76 point season, last year it was Hall jumping to star status, this year it just may be Nugent-Hopkins turn to make his mark on the league.
Too Little Too Late?
With the top line rolling of late, the team has also been winning, they have won four of their last five games, but is it enough to get them back in the playoff conversation?
There is plenty of time left, there is five months of hockey still to go, and stranger things have happened.
The reality is though, that they have dug a significant and potentially insurmountable hole for themselves. Even with the recent streak they still sit last in the Western Conference and eight games out of a wild card spot.
They are currently chasing the Phoenix Coyotes and Minnesota Wild who have 34 points a piece and sit in the two wild card spots. The Oilers by comparison sit with 18 points, possible but improbable.
Edmonton fans are hoping the current success continues and there is meaningful games down the stretch. Either way if Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins continue to be dominant offensively they will provide entertaining hockey and a reason to continue to watch the Oilers.
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 email@example.com for questions, comments or if you’re interested in him writing for you.