EDMONTON - At a time when the Edmonton Oilers are selling hope over results, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi provided a glimpse of a brighter future this season.
Despite Edmonton missing the NHL playoffs for the fifth straight year and a second consecutive 30th-place finish, the three rookies have raised expectations and given fans a reason to believe better days are ahead.
"There's definitely a different feeling," captain Shawn Horcoff said. "I think last year there was a lot of uncertainty. Where do we go from here? What's going to happen?
"We knew there was going to be a lot of changes made in the off-season, so there was a lot of questions in everyone's mind. It's a totally different feeling this year. I think we understand the direction we're going.
"We have a real good base. The talent, especially the young talent that came in this year, really showed everyone, fans in the city, they can play and they're going to be able to play at a high level early."
With a 4-3 overtime loss to Colorado on Sunday, the Oilers finished with a 25-45-12 record and 62 points. That's the same total they had in 2009-10 when they recorded a 24-47-8 mark.
While there was no progress in the standings, in large part because of a rash of season-ending injuries to Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Whitney and Sam Gagner, the outlook is much different from a year ago.
"Unfortunately, it didn't show up in the points total, but I can tell you, and I was in that room the last three years, this group this year really impressed me," veteran Jason Strudwick said. "There was a lot of positive people in that room, a lot of energy.
"Obviously, that's something the young guys definitely bring, along with an immense amount of talent. Looking ahead, I see a lot of good things for this team."
Hall, 19, taken first overall in last year's draft, had his season cut short by a high ankle sprain. He played just 65 games but still produced 42 points, including 22 goals.
"We've finished last two years in a row," Hall said. "I think we have the pieces to the puzzle to put a good season together next year.
"We don't want to promise the fans or you guys something we're not going to do, but it's time that we start winning. Losing can't be acceptable next year."
Hall, a two-time Memorial Cup champion and MVP with the Windsor Spitfires was enjoying a solid rookie campaign before falling out of contention for the Calder Trophy after hurting his ankle in a fight with Derek Dorsett of Columbus.
"It's not fun losing," Hall said. "Coming into this year, I'm not used to that, but I guess you come to an organization and you have to rebuild. That's just the way it goes. You go in cycles.
"I think we're doing it right here. We going to get a high (draft) pick and that's exciting for the future, but this year was tough losing and something I'm not used to. Next year, we're hoping to win. For me personally, that's what I want to do, too."
Eberle, 20, selected 22nd overall in 2008, led the team in scoring with 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) despite missing 13 games with a sprained ankle.
"I think a lot of people know that we're better than how we finished," Eberle said. "Injuries played a part, but at the same time, we have some work to do. I think we know that.
"We're all excited to put in that effort, though. I think you can tell just by how excited we are for the off-season. We're not saying, 'I'm so glad this season is over.' It's more, 'I can't wait for next season to start.' "
Paajarvi, 19, taken 10th overall in 2009, took some time to settle in as he adjusted to cultural and language differences from his native Sweden. But he finished strong and posted 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists).
"It was up and down this season," Paajarvi said. "The second half was a lot better.
"A lot injuries. People got traded. I got more ice time and I got more responsibility. I think I took it sometimes better, sometimes not better."
But Paajarvi had no difficulty expressing his feelings about his first season and expectations for next year.
"It really, really sucks to lose," he said. "It sucks to lose this many games. I don't think anybody here wants to do that again. I sure don't want to do that.
"I think we're going to have a better team next year for sure, no matter what. We've got guys who've played one more year in the NHL and I think that's going to help a lot. We're going to come back knowing what it takes a little bit more."
With Edmonton's injury woes, Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi weren't the only youngsters to see a lot of action. Such callups from Oklahoma City as rookies Teemu Hartikainen, Jeff Petry and Linus Omark were thrown in to the fray.
"If you look at some of the guys who came up from the AHL and played a lot of minutes, that definitely helps in confidence," Eberle said. "The confidence a lot of the guys gained this year, just from getting the opportunity to play and being put into situations where you can play, we are going to get better."
A work-in-progress or not, expectations have changed.
"We want to have a playoff spot this time next year," defenceman Theo Peckham said. "We don't want to just rely on the old, 'We're rebuilding' stage.
"The excuses for losing kind of get old. For us right now, it's having a good summer, training hard and coming back next year ready to go."