Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Edmonton Oilers.
Here's an example of how bad the Edmonton Oilers have been: last year, they posted a 10-point improvement on the two seasons prior, and still won the draft lottery for the third consecutive year.
Granted, this time it was a stroke of luck. The Oilers were bad in 2011-12, but they weren't Blue Jackets bad. Fortunately for them, the hockey gods hate Columbus, so they gave Nail Yakupov to Edmonton instead.
But Oilers fans and Oilers management are sick of drafting first overall. While others might yearn for such a consistent windfall, this organization has grown weary of fortune by way of misfortune. It's time to contend.
The necessary improvements will have to come mostly from within. The aforementioned Yakupov and Anaheim defector Justin Schultz add to one of the league's most promising young cores, but if the last few years in Edmonton have taught us anything, it's that you can't expect the rookies to change the world. The task of leading this group to postseason contention falls at the feet of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, a fact underscored by the recent, mammoth contract extensions to the latter two. Their time has come.
Can the Edmonton Oilers take the next step?
For the most part, the Oilers concentrated on re-signing restricted free agents, agreeing to terms with Jeff Petry, Devan Dubnyk, Theo Peckham and Sam Gagner, who really came into his own midway through last season.
Justin Schultz was the big get in free agency. A top-four defenceman in the making that seemed set to join the Anaheim Ducks (who drafted him, likely expecting to, you know, have him) the first rounder instead played out his four years at the University of Wisconsin, avoiding signing his entry-level contract, then allowed the Ducks' rights to him to expire. Once freed from the oppressive shackles of sunny Anaheim, he bolted for Edmonton, where the weather is much, much worse, but the need for an elite defenceman to deify is much, much greater.
Schultz has never played an NHL game, but he could be an impact player immediately. "We hope to God he can step in right away and contribute or we are completely boned," Steve Tambellini said. (Okay, the actual quote is, "We believe he can step in right away and contribute," but we all know what he meant.) Schultz will be given every opportunity to crack the Oilers' top four.
Same goes for first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov, who is, by all accounts, quite good at hockey.
Finally, the Oilers signed Dane Byers, I think to provide Schultz and Yakupov with a veteran mentor who knew what it was like to step into the lineup having played very few NHL games.
At forward … The Oilers have some serious firepower. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle enter year 3, and both could be point per game players if they stay healthy.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the surefire Calder winner until injuries derailed the back half of his rookie campaign, but with an extended offseason to put a little meat on his bones, he could be a much stronger player as well. Might he approach point per game pace?
Nail Yakupov should make the team out of training camp, and Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner are extremely skilled players that will round out the top two lines. Don't forget about Magnus Pajaarvi, either. He had a rough sophomore season, but he's still hovering around the depth chart, awaiting an opportunity.
The issue with this top six won't be scoring. They'll do that. It will be preventing goals. It will be up to new coach Ralph Krueger to finally get these guys playing consistent, 200-foot hockey. Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth should be able to help with that. The veteran forwards will be counted on to model responsible play and hard work from line three.
On defense … The Oilers are much less promising.
Who knows how the pairings will shake out once Krueger is done with them, but Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry had success together last season and will likely make up one half of the top four. The second half should be comprised of Ryan Whitney and a Schultz. (To start the season, expect it to be Nick Schultz, who came over from the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline. However, a strong showing in training camp or early in the season from Justin Schultz and he could move up in a hurry.)
That said, Ryan Whitney has had his troubles staying healthy and Nick Schultz can play both sides. Might we see a Schultz n' Schultz pairing if and when Whitney goes down?
Either way, it's a defence corps devoid of high-end talent that will continue to struggle slowing that sort of talent on a nighty basis. They could use a little support from the forwards.
In goal … Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin will continue to split the load, although the division of labour likely won't be as even as last year. In 2011-12, Dubnyk started 42 games to Khabibulin's 40, and the two posted relatively similar numbers (although Dubnyk's even-strength save percentage of .927 was much better than the Bulin Wall's .914). This should be the year Dubnyk claims the starter's job for good.
Sung to the tune of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way", it's "The Nuge Can Play", by the Team 1260 in Edmonton. It is terrible.
Steve Tambellini enters year five as the Oilers General Manager. Thus far, he's shown a flare for winning lottery drafts (and he recently showed the world that it's not as easy as it looks), and some in the Oilers' fanbase are growing impatient that he's forward-thinking enough to build a team that can turn those lottery wins into regular wins. If the Oilers are in the basement again this year, will Tambellini's employment be in jeopardy?
It should be, especially since there's no one else to blame if things go wrong. Sure, you could blame new coach Ralph Krueger, who takes over from the departed Tom Renney, but if he struggles, Tambellini has to be the one held accountable. Especially after the hiring process. From Copper and Blue:
I've got questions, concerns even, about this hiring process. The only other confirmed interviewee was Marc Crawford and the much-ballyhooed (by the local media, at least) Brent Sutter didn't get a phone call. While there are plenty of problems with the way the media went about covering this, the focus has to be on the Oilers here. In an effort to find the best possible coach for the team, they interviewed all of two candidates. Seems a bit light, no?
It has to be Taylor Hall. He finally got that shoulder surgery he's apparently needed since before his rookie season, he signed a seven-year contract extension worth $42 million, and he's the face of the franchise (now that his face no longer looks like this). The Oilers' success hinges on Hall staging his first completely healthy campaign.
Nail Yakupov would be the easy pick here, but I'm going to go with Justin Schultz. While Yakupov has a large contingent of other forwards to play with and be overshadowed by, Schultz's road to first chair on the Oilers' blueline is relatively wide open. Expectations back there are low, meaning Schultz should be able to turn heads early on.
He's not a bust in the strictest sense, but in terms of failing to meet expectations, the player that concerns me most is Jordan Eberle, who put up 34 goals and 76 points last season with an 18.9 shooting percentage. That's high, and it's bound to come down. If it does, and Eberle's goal totals fall with it --perhaps helped along by a higher emphasis placed on defence in Krueger's new system -- fans may begin to wonder if it was wise for Steve Tambellini to offer that contract extension when he did.
HUSBAND: What are you reading, honey?
WIFE: Just the sports section of the Edmonton Sun. Did you know the Oilers drafted a Russian first overall?
HUSBAND: God! No! God!
WIFE: Isn't that terrible?
HUSBAND: Russians are the worst thing in the world!
WIFE: You know, it's strange that they enjoy hockey at all, since it's a team sport, but they're not team players.
HUSBAND: It's a paradox. They're just so enigmatic.
WIFE: Unpredictable, too. One day, Yakupov might score a hat trick. The next day, he might try to hurt us!
WIFE: Oh Fred, what if he tries to hurt us?
HUSBAND: He likely will, honey, because he's a bad person. But tell you what. This house comes pre-wired for a security system. Why don't we go get one and install it today?
WIFE: That would make me feel a whole lot safer.
NARRATOR: Nail Yakupov. Russian.
Paid for by the Prejudiced Security Companies Association.
The Oilers will flirt with a playoff spot, and with healthy seasons from Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, strong rookie campaigns from the new recruits, continued development, some residual lottery luck, and a renewed commitment to two-way play under new coach Ralph Krueger, they might even get one. But that's a lot of stuff that has to go right. I don't see it happening. A seventh straight season in ninth or lower awaits.