(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
There was a lot of promise for the Edmonton Oilers heading into the 2013 season. With their young kids playing together in Oklahoma, many felt they'd be the readiest of the 30 NHL teams when the lockout finally ended, and their young legs and early chemistry would allow them to rack up enough points early to make the playoffs, even if they faded.
That's not what happened. Despite promising rookie showings from Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, not to mention steps forward taken by the likes of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, the Oilers remained a team on the wrong side of the cusp.
The result: bold moves in the front office, as Craig MacTavish was rescued from his AHL coaching gig in Chicago to be the club's new General Manager, and Ralph Krueger was given the boot after less than a calendar year and only 48 games as coach.
Krueger's hasty dismissal was evidence that no one in Edmonton is willing to wait anymore. There's been plenty of patience, especially as teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh stand as a testament to what a a long run of sucking can do for a franchise's future, but that patience is wearing thin. There's no longer any excuse, some are saying. Can the Oilers finally break through?
Whoa there, Nail. Calm down. All you did was score the first game-tying goal of your NHL career against the defending Stanley Cup champions, led by one of the league's best goalies, with precious seconds remaining on the clock, shortly after what you thought was the game-tying goal had been called off. Show some respect. A few helmet pats and a stoic skate to the bench, please.
The Oilers' major focus this offseason was improving defensively. To that end, they committed $13 million to four years of hometown boy Andrew Ference, whose veteran presence and experience could help to mature and settle their blueline group. (And the departure of Theo Peckham might contribute to that as well.)
Up front, they added Boyd Gordon, a major part of the stifling, defensively airtight Phoenix Coyotes under Dave Tippett. His job will be to do what Ference is doing up front, helping the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, and, potentially, converted winger Taylor Hall the ins and outs of being a 200-foot pivot.
There's room for Hall to try centre now that Shawn Horcoff is off to Dallas. He was traded to the Stars on July 5 for defenceman Philip Larsen.
Denis Grebeskov returned to the Oilers from the KHL as well, and finally, the Oilers added David Perron, prying the skilled winger out of St. Louis in exchange for as-of-yet disappointing prospect Magnus Paajarvi.
Forward: The Oilers are led up front by almost second-team NHL All-Star Taylor Hall, who's good, but just isn't quite as good as Alex Ovechkin II. Maybe next year. Or maybe he won't even be in contention for the left wing spot, since the Oilers plan to try him at centre in training camp, but who's to say the PHWA will even notice if that happens?
Hall's turn in the middle will likely be a short-term fix until Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returns from shoulder surgery, at which point, those two will likely re-form the top line trio with Jordan Eberle. On line two, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, and David Perron.
It's not a huge top-six by any means, but each one of these guys is damn crafty. The Oilers could be one of the league's most explosive offences.
Line three could see Boyd Gordon between Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky, who is stoked to still be in Edmonton, and line four will feature face-punchers Ben Eager and Mike Brown, because, well, they have to go somewhere.
Defense: The Oilers will likely continue to ride their top pair of Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry, with Andrew Ference drawing into the top-four as the stay-at-home guy alongside sophomore Justin Schultz.
Schultz is the key here. Smid and Petry are better than they're regarded, and they're a decent duo together, but neither is a natural number one. If Schultz can mature his game to that point, and it's possible, the Oilers will be vastly improved. With their speed and craftiness, they need to be a group that thrives in transition, and that only happens if Schultz grows into an elite breakout-starter.
The acquisition of Ference bumps Nick Schultz back to the bottom-pairing, which is likely where he belongs at this point, with one of Philip Larsen, Denis Grebeshkov, and Corey Potter. 7th overall pick Darnell Nurse is an outside possibility as well.
Goalies: Devan Dubnyk remains the starter in Edmonton, though management's faith in him has never really seemed all that strong. Earlier in the summer, he expressed his surprise that the Oilers were in such hot pursuit of someone to replace him.
There are two ways this can go. Either Dubnyk will finally prove them wrong, perhaps fueled by the perceived slight, or he won't. In the latter case, the Oilers will struggle, since offseason signings Jason LaBarbera and Richard Bachman probably aren't up to it either. But their pursuit of another guy will be a little more justified, at least.
Dallas Eakins finally makes the jump to the NHL as the Oilers' coach, although he's easing himself in here with a team full of young prospects. His top priority: changing the culture. Eakins insists the rebuild is over, as is the notion of forgiving the Oilers their flaws because they're young. From the Toronto Star:
“I’ve asked the media here to stop referring to our team as a young team,” he said in an interview. “You do that and really you’re just talking about a few individuals and alienating a bunch of the other guys. Usually when people talk about a young team its means it’s OK to lose. Well, it’s not OK.
“We’re an NHL team with expectations.”
Hovering over Eakins is new GM Craig MacTavish, who replaced the ousted Steve Tambellini and will answer to Kevin "look at all my Cup rings, you two-tier savages" Lowe.
Remember this weirdo?
All that young talent. Even if the Oilers aren't able to put it all together this year, they remain one of the league's most entertaining teams because they're capable of a big-time offensive outburst at just about any moment. With the flashy David Perron joining the group, these guys could be on the highlight reel nightly.
Dallas Eakins. That goes double if Eakins is able to install a system that maximizes the club's offensive potential without leaving them defensively suspect. Ralph Kruger was able to do neither, which is probably why he was fired.
Devan Dubnyk. Don't expect management to mollycoddle him or just sit back and let him continue to do the job if he struggles.
The Pacific Division. If you thought the Northwest Division was tough to crack, well, first of all, that's hilarious, but second of all, it just got a whole lot harder. The Oilers now find themselves in a division with the Coyotes, Sharks, Kings, Ducks, and Canucks. For a team that couldn't get out of the Northwest, this is some scary stuff.
The good news for the Oilers is the Pacific Division is bound to toughen and tighten them up. There's simply no way they can continue to be defensively porous if they want to compete on this coast. The bad news is that the tightening and toughening process probably isn't going to happen overnight. Despite their talent, the Oilers remain a small defensively soft club. Unless Eakins works some magic and the entire group takes a massive step forward, expect them to finish outside the playoff bubble once again.