Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Optimism in Oil Country

In what feels like an eternity ago (2006) the Edmonton Oilers reigned as Western Conference champions and came within one win of capturing Lord Stanley's mug for the 6th time.

While Oiler fans managed to refrain from rioting after the game 7 loss, there has been very little to cheer for since that memorable run with the team missing the playoffs for the past 5 seasons. In particular the last 2 campaigns have been especially difficult to stomach with the Oilers ending up in the league's basement as April and the end of the season came around.

While it's been a painful time in Oil Country, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike their aging rivals to the south (Flames), the Oilers have managed to assemble an impressive crop of young talent highlighted by first overall picks Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Add in other impressive prospects like Jordan Eberle (scorer of tsn's goal of the year), Magnus Paajarvi, Sam Gagner, Anton Lander and Linus Omark along with the increasing likelihood of a new arena and Oiler fans do have a reason to be optimistic about the future of the team.

The Ottawa Senators were the last team to hold consecutive No. 1 picks, when they picked in the top spot in 1995 and 1996. The season following Ottawa’s second consecutive No. 1 pick began a run of qualifying for the playoffs the next 11 seasons including a president’s trophy and trip to the finals in 2007.

Although 2011 # 1 overall pick Nugent-Hopkins has yet to tie up the laces for an NHL game – his play in the pre-season demonstrated his high end skill level, vision and hockey sense. His production is far from a guarantee, but the other youngsters have all gone through the inevitable growing pains of at least one NHL season. Last season, Oiler rookies, Eberle, Hall and Paajarvi all flirted with the 20-goal plateau, with Hall eclipsing it. Oiler fans should be able to expect increased production from the trio this season.

But talent and youth alone can only take you so far. And , GM Steve Tambellini has made some clever moves in the offseason to assist and support the development of the youth.

The addition of guys like Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk and Andy Sutton should provide some much needed functional toughness to a team that has high end talent, but in a lot of cases average size. Since injuries have been a big concern over the past couple of seasons, the hope is that the addition of toughness will lead other teams to take less liberties with skilled players like Hall, Eberle and Hemsky.

Another sorespot over the past 2 seasons has been in the faceoff circle and Tambellini has attempted to remedy that by the addition of Eric Belanger, who will also hopefully benefit the team's previously disappointing penalty killing unit.

Finally, the return of fan favourite Ryan Smyth will add an element of leadership and mentoring that was clearly lacking. Smyth will be a role model for the young stars on and off the ice. Horcoff may have been helping with the off-ice component, but on the ice.....well maybe not so much!

While patience is a virtue and things don't change overnight, things are definitely headed in the right direction in Oil Country.

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