EDMONTON – After three woebegone seasons of futility, the Edmonton Oilers are no longer bringing a knife to a gunfight.
The Oilers open the abbreviated NHL season Sunday with high hopes centred around a core of young sharpshooters, notably the latest No. 1 overall draft pick, Nail Yakupov.
Rookie head coach Ralph Krueger says a fast start is critical, given the team has a killer 17-day, nine-game road trip in late February.
“It’s going to be a good opportunity at the start with 10 home and seven road games to establish a good base,” Krueger said.
“We feel good about the schedule.”
Fans are also feeling very good about Yakupov, the bushy-browed Russian teenager with a sweet set of hands and a reputation as half puck wizard, half showboat.
For his part, the 19-year-old has kept his head down and his nose clean at training camp, sticking to pabulum bromides on working hard.
“We have a lot of skilled players and we will work pretty well this year,” he told reporters.
Yakupov knows the heat is on after a so-so performance for his country at the recent world junior championships and controversy over comments in his native tongue that Canucks play “dirty.”
In a testament to the Oilers’ newfound skill level, Yakupov is not even slotted in on the first line.
That honour has gone to NHL sophomore and fellow teenager Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Burnaby, B.C., native—the first overall pick in 2011—centres the top line with 2010 overall No. 1 Taylor Hall on left wing and Jordan Eberle on the right.
The trio is expected to make up for its lack of size and experience with dynamite scoring potential.
All three played together in Oklahoma City for the Oilers farm team during the 113-day lockout.
Eberle led the way with 25 goals and 51 points in 34 games. This week he was named the Oilers’ assistant captain.
Nugent-Hopkins is coming off a promising rookie season of 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games.
Hall was second in team scoring to Eberle with 27 goals in 61 games last season, and didn’t start playing this year until November as he recuperated from shoulder surgery.
Yakupov is penciled in on the left wing with Sam Gagner at centre and veteran Ales Hemsky on the right.
Captain Shawn Horcoff is expected to centre the third line flanked by the redoubtable Ryan Smyth to his left and big-bodied Finn Teemu Hartikainen on the right.
Arguably the biggest off-season addition to the Oilers was defenceman Justin Schultz.
A 22-year-old free agent sought widely for his laser-beam breakout passes, Schultz snubbed other suitors last summer to sign with Edmonton.
The hope is that Schultz will ignite rushes with passes that in recent years have too often have forced Oiler forwards building up speed through the neutral zone to reach waaaay back for the puck or see it clink off the back of their skates.
Schultz was an American Hockey League star for Oklahoma City in the lockout, racking up 18 goals and 48 points and pushing Eberle for the scoring lead.
Krueger, however, says the six-foot-one, 163-pound Schultz will, like all rookie rearguards, learn that life at hockey’s top rung is a grind.
“He’s going to have some adjustments to make here. We’re going to be patient with him and everybody needs to be patient with him,” Krueger said.
“We’re very confident he’s going to become a top player, but he needs his time to deal with the game without the puck. It will be a lot more challenging here. The physical battles down low in our end will be a lot more difficult.”
Joining Schultz on the top three defence pairings are veterans Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Ryan Whitney, Nick Schultz and newly acquired Mark Fistric. Ther blue-line corps could turn out either strong or fragile, as it’s vulnerable to a steep drop off if injuries mount.
In goal, 26-year old Devan Dubnyk takes over as the No. 1. He is expected to play two thirds of the 48 games with the rest going to the aging but still occasionally brilliant Nikolai Khabibulin.
Oddsmakers have the Oilers leaping up to the middle of the NHL standings, and the first playoff spot since 2006 looms.
If they fizzle, it will be because they lost a lot of 6-5 hockey games with fans walking out buzzing about two highlight reel goals.
Given the frozen wasteland of recent campaigns, Oiler fans can probably live with that.