EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers have one main goal in 2010-11: protect and develop rookie whiz kids Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.
Anything else is gravy for a team that finished dead last in the NHL last season and has finally given up the pretension it’s one or two big-name free-agent signings away from the playoffs.
“There’s a lot more energy (with the rookies). It’s very contagious. Guys pick up on it,” said veteran defenceman Tom Gilbert.
“The (kids) are on the ice every second of every practice and they’re pushing you to become a better player. They’re going hard, competing hard.”
The newcomers and the promotion of Gilbert and partner Ryan Whitney to first-team defence are just a small part of what’s new in the Alberta capital.
General manager Steve Tambellini blew up the hockey side of the operation this past off-season after the rock-bottom finish (27 wins and 62 points) brought them junior scoring sensation Hall—the team’s first-ever first-overall pick.
Veterans like captain Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani were cut loose or traded. Head coach Pat Quinn was kicked upstairs and replaced by assistant Tom Renney. Malcontent defenceman Sheldon Souray, with his US$4.5-million contract, was told to stay home until they can find a way to trade him.
Even the trainer and locker-room attendants were re-assigned.
What’s left is one of the youngest teams in the NHL, one that is going to have some growing pains and long nights, but will be more exciting to watch than last year’s squad.
Eberle, the Oilers’ No. 1 pick from 2008, and Paajarvi, the top pick in 2009, are ready for The Show but will need time to adjust to the speed of the NHL game and the grind of its season.
After them, the scoring gets very thin very quickly. Ales Hemsky, the Czech with the soft hands and deft touch around the net, is back after missing three-quarters of last season with a shoulder injury.
Dustin Penner hopes to improve on the 32 goals he scored in 2009-10, but more help is needed from winger Gilbert Brule and centres Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano.
Centre Colin Fraser, scrappy Zack Stortini and leviathan winger Steve MacIntyre (six foot five, 250 pounds) will be counted on to keep the peace and keep the kids from getting concussed.
On defence, the stalwarts are gone: Lubomir Visnovsky and Steve Staios were traded at the deadline.
The Oilers are hoping that this is the year Ladislav Smid blossoms into the shutdown defenceman they desperately need. Kurtis Foster, acquired from Tampa Bay, and his big booming slapshot are being counted on to fill a top-four defence spot and anchor the power play.
Jim Vandermeer and Jason Strudwick also figure in the mix on the back end.
In goal, 37-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin hopes his wonky back holds up and allows him to play 60 games in the second year of his four-year, US$15-million free-agent deal.
Khabibulin was knocked out after just 18 games last year and required surgery to repair a herniated disc. While recuperating he was caught and found guilty of driving his Ferrari drunk near Phoenix. He is now appealing his sentence and, depending on how that’s resolved, may have to leave at a moment’s notice to join the Arizona penal system.
Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk have been battling it out for the No. 2 spot. Neither played their way into the starting role after Khabibulin went down.
The Oilers are on the knife’s edge. With a depth chart this shallow, if they get hit with injuries like they did last year, they’ll plummet to the NHL bottom faster than a detached elevator.
But Tambellini, with the handling of the Souray situation, has signalled he’s OK with that. Souray—a weighty US$5.4-million cap hit this year—has demanded a trade, accusing Oiler brass of pushing him to come back too early from injury.
By telling him to stay away until a deal is done, the message has been sent that a team four years removed from the playoffs is no longer willing to abide those players—no matter their skill level—who criticize the organization and divide the locker-room.
Souray sits because the Oilers have decided to take a stand.