EDMONTON – They’ve missed the NHL playoffs since losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final but the Edmonton Oilers are talking about this being the year they end that dubious streak.
Two years into a top-to-bottom rebuild that’s seen them finish last overall the past two seasons, the Oilers have a long way to go to become contenders.
Coach Tom Renney’s team is laden with talented, young forwards in Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall picks in 2010 and 2011, as well as former first-rounders Jordan Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Ales Hemsky.
Edmonton added to its core of veterans with Ryan Smyth, back for a second tour of duty, Cam Barker, Andy Sutton, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk.
In goal, Devan Dubnyk begins his third NHL season looking ready to take the starter’s job away from veteran 38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin, who is coming off two sub-par seasons.
There’s no place to go but up.
“We’re still a lump of coal in lots of ways, but it certainly has great potential,” Renney said. “The players of real influence are young, you know, and they still have a lot to learn.”
Renney talked about making the playoffs last season. However, the club didn’t have nearly enough depth to overcome long-term injuries to Ryan Whitney, captain Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Hemsky and Hall.
“Our mindset is definitely making the playoffs,” Horcoff said. “We want to be a competitive team right through the end of March and early April.
“Really, the only way you’re going to get some of these young guys to grow is to get them in pressure situations, where the intensity is at a level where they’ve never played before. It’s important for us to get to that.”
With Hall, Paajarvi and Eberle back for their sophomore seasons, Nugent-Hopkins on the roster, a healthy Hemsky and the addition of Smyth, the Oilers should have a more potent attack. They will have to be—Edmonton scored just 193 goals last season, 28th in the NHL.
“I really believe we’ve got a lot of depth at forward,” Hall said. “We had some guys come in last year, myself included, who weren’t used to the NHL.
“I think this year we have a little bit more of a grasp on it. The guys we added, like Smyth, Eager and Hordichuk, they can play. That creates some competition for jobs, for what line you play on. If you want to be a playoff team, there has to be that competition.”
Hall, felled by an ankle sprain, had 22 goals and 42 points in just 65 games. A concussion and shoulder injury requiring surgery limited Hemsky to 47 games.
Whitney, who quarterbacks the power play and logs the most minutes, led Edmonton defencemen with 27 points despite playing just 35 games while being hampered with an ankle injury.
“Coming in last year, you really don’t know what to expect,” Hall said. “This year, we’re used to the NHL, used to our surroundings and that’s better for any player.
“Whether we can translate that to being better players and producing more has yet to be seen.”
Even with the addition of Barker, a former third overall pick who was bought out by Minnesota last summer, and Sutton, there are questions about the depth of Edmonton’s defence.
Whitney’s surgically repaired ankle kept him out of pre-season games. Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, Theo Peckham and Barker will have to play a lot, as will the 36-year-old Sutton.
“We definitely have more experience with the guys we’ve got,” Gilbert said. “You need that.
“You can have young guys, but you’re playing against the best players in the world and it’s tough to match up every single night without that experience. Injuries do happen, but I see more depth.”
Special teams will have to be better if the Oilers intend to move up the standings. The power play ranked 27th last year while the penalty-killing unit was No. 29 overall.
Then there’s the goaltending tandem of Dubnyk and Khabibulin. Dubnyk appeared in 35 games last year while Khabibulin endured a 14-game losing streak and finished with an .890 savepercentage, worst among NHL starters.
“It goes without saying that special teams win games,” Horcoff said. “Plain and simple, more often than not when you win the special teams battle you win the hockey game.
“We feel like we’re a team that did some good things on both side of that last year, just not over extended periods of time. We have to find way to be more consistent, for sure.”
The Oilers appear ready to make a move. The question is how far and how fast?
“Where this goes remains to be seen, but that’s coaching and my leadership that has to help guide that ship,” Renney said.