NHL rookie camps are underway. Most players have their new contracts. Training camps will soon be opening. It’s time for another season of hockey. But in Edmonton, will anything be different this year compared to the last eight?
1. What are the odds the Oilers challenge for a playoff spot?
The Oilers happen to be in a very challenging division that includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and the always improving Anaheim Ducks. The Oilers finished last in their division behind the horrible Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. So the real question is, did they improve enough to move up? There’s a goods chance those two aforementioned teams still won’t be good, and we don’t know what to expect from the Coyotes. The San Jose Sharks are the wildcard in this division, because either they will be great, or we’ll finally see them take a step back. In the regular season that is. Edmonton should at least be in the running. Maybe.
2. What can we expect from Taylor Hall?
He finished seventh overall in league scoring last season, but no one really noticed. That’s what happens when you play for a terrible team and you don’t really know how to backcheck. Hall is the kind of player who needs another stud forward alongside him, like a Getzlaf to his Perry, a Crosby to his Malkin, or a Toews to his Kane. Yes in other words, he needs a big all-star centreman to help him out. Not to say that on his own Hall can’t be a star. But too many times it was evident he was trying to carry the team on his shoulders and it proved to be too tall a task. Hall shouldn’t be the captain in the waiting. He should be the point-producing speedy winger that opposing teams can’t contain. Will he improve upon his career high in points? There’s no reason why he won’t, but hopefully he won’t be doing it on his own.
3. How good will the Oilers be down the middle?
To somewhat continue on the previous point, the one glaring position that Edmonton isn’t great at is at centre ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a first overall pick, but he can he considered a true number one centre? At the moment, he seems like a solid number two guy. Can he become more? Maybe. But right now he’s not. However the Oilers don’t have any other options. They drafted Leon Draisaitl, which was a great selection, but we don’t even know if he’s going to make the team. He could be their number one or two guy in the future, but he isn’t right now. The rest of the options include Boyd Gordon, Anton Lander and Mark Arcobell, none of whom inspire much confidence. You can’t build a team in a day, but there really needed to be some more focus on this all-too important position.
4. How about Nail Yakupov?
Yes, the good old Russian enigma. Unfair perhaps, but it’s the perfect narrative to write about, isn’t it? Yakupov didn’t have a great season last year, we all know that. He’s got the skills, but will he ever really be an impact NHL player? The Oilers need him to be, whether to help them to succeed, or to get them a good return in a trade. He’s always going to be the wild card, even though it’s perfectly clear he’s committed to the team and committed to getting better. There’s all the reason to have faith in this kid, despite everything that people perceive about him. Maybe he wasn’t developed well. Maybe he’s in a position to fail. But the player does bear some responsibility. How will he handle that?
5. Will the Oilers goals against average be better?
All seems well at the goaltending position with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. Sure, they aren’t really proven NHL goalies, but there’s stability, something the Oilers haven’t had in a while. And the potential is there for this tandem to really succeed. The Oilers have always had the skills to score goals, but keeping the puck out of their own net has long been a challenge. One area the team did improve this offseason is getting some size on the blueline. Guys like Mark Fayne, Keith Aulie and Nikita Nikitin aren’t household names, but they will make life difficult for opposing teams to get to the crease. And there’s always the off chance young guys like Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom will make the team, giving the Oilers some real skill on the back-end.
Yes, there is a chance the Oilers will improve. There’s also a chance there are still too many deficiencies to make them an actual contender. Every year it’s the same story. The Oilers have potential, but will that potential come to fruition? For the sake of the fans, hopefully it will at some point. It just might not be this season.