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Future finally bright for Oilers

It was late May, and a bunch of Windsor Spitfires were on a getaway to Cancun. They were at a restaurant about 9 o’clock one night when Taylor Hall(notes) got a tap on the shoulder from three strangers.

“Hey, can we get a picture?”

“For what?” Hall asked.

“We’re from Edmonton. We’re big fans, and we’re hoping you come to the team.”

Hall couldn’t believe it. He was in Mexico, where the only ice is in drinks. The NHL draft was still about a month away.

“I was kind of like, ‘I thought this would be the place where I kind of got some anonymity,’ ” Hall said. “But at the same time, it’s really fun to meet fans and kind of hear what they’re all about.”

Since the Edmonton Oilers drafted Hall first overall on June 25, the fans have been all about Hall, Jordan Eberle(notes) and Magnus Paajarvi – the three young wingers who represent the future of the franchise.

Proud of the legacy of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, upset by last season’s last-place finish, Oilers fans are desperate to restore Edmonton as the City of Champions. They can’t help but see the kids as saviors.

“I don’t know if our fan base is unique to others, but I know it well,” said Kevin Lowe, the Oilers’ president of hockey operations and a star defenseman in their glory days. “I know they have a good understanding of what can be. It’s not just us talking about our prospects, which typically happens. It’s the national media and people everywhere. They see the potential of those guys.”

The problem is, it’s only potential at this point. None of the three has played an NHL game. Hall is only 18, Eberle 20, Paajarvi 19.

The Oilers not only finished in last place last season, they finished 12 points behind the next-worst team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have cleaned house – from the head coach to the captain to the equipment guy – but still have significant issues, such as defenseman Sheldon Souray(notes) trying to get out of town and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) trying to stay out of jail.

There is hope. Then there are expectations. And with Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi set to break into the NHL together, it could be a season-long struggle to stay patient and keep perspective, inside and outside of the organization.

“Our job in the near future,” Lowe said, “is to temper expectations and try to build it slowly and give these kids – and the other players, for that matter – the necessary time to be a good team.”

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At least they have each other. Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi stood side-by-side, decked out in their blue Oilers sweaters, at the NHL Players’ Association’s rookie showcase on Wednesday morning in Toronto. A cameraman aimed his spotlight straight at Hall, while Paajarvi stayed mum and Eberle ducked out of the way.

“I’ll let him steal the spotlight,” Eberle said, smiling.

Hall has spent little time in Edmonton since the draft, and while he recognizes the pressure will be “a whole different monster” than it was in the Ontario Hockey League, he says he’s excited and sounds confident. He should be. As Lowe said: “I don’t think there’s a person around that doesn’t think Taylor Hall’s going to be a good player.”

Hall knows how to say all the right things.

“I think a lot of people are certainly expecting me to make the team, and so am I,” Hall said. “But until I play that 10th game [and burn a year of junior eligibility], nothing’s for sure. I want to make sure I go in there with the best attitude I can, make sure I’m doing the right things and not only make the team, but be a big contributor. I want to be a go-to guy and someone they can rely on.”

If it weren’t for the back-to-back Memorial Cup MVP awards, there might be more attention on Eberle, the 22nd overall pick in 2008, who made a name for himself by scoring clutch goals for Team Canada at the past two world junior championships, then joined a team of NHLers at the 2010 world championships.

“Quite frankly, Eberle could have made the team last year,” Lowe said. “But we had a bunch of young guys, the world championships were in Canada, in Saskatchewan, his home province. We just felt in the long run it might be better that he played another year of junior.”

Paajarvi, the 10th overall pick in 2009, might be receiving more attention, too. He starred at the world championship for Sweden.

But Eberle and Paajarvi seem happy to have Hall absorb most of the attention – or at least to share it among the three of them.

“I think it helps when you’ve got guys around the same age coming in at the same time,” Eberle said. “It kind of steals the spotlight away from you. I think for sure it takes some pressure off each of us.”

Said Paajarvi: “There is a young core coming up. If we all can make the team and build on something good, I think the team can do pretty well.”

The young core goes beyond the Big Three. The Oilers have more promise up front. Sam Gagner(notes) and Andrew Cogliano(notes) haven’t matched the point totals they posted as rookies when the broke in together in 2007-08, which could be a cautionary tale when it comes to Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi. But Gagner is still only 21, Cogliano only 23. Gilbert Brule(notes) and prospect Linus Omark are only 23, too. Even Ales Hemsky(notes) is still only 27. Dustin Penner(notes) turns 28 on Sept. 28.

The excitement over the new kids also takes some attention away from the disappointment in the old kids (young vets?), perhaps easing outside tension, even as inside tension could increase with more competition for ice time. The new kids can learn from the guys who have already been through the wringer.

“I’ve been through the ups of being very successful, and I’ve been through the downs where you go 20 games without scoring a goal,” said Cogliano, the frequent subject of trade rumors, still waiting to sign as a restricted free agent. “For those guys, it’s going to happen – maybe not for Taylor Hall, but I think for the other young guys on our team, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and times they’ve never experienced.”

Just knowing guys like Gagner and Cogliano are there could be enough.

“Even if it’s just unsaid, you know that they’ve been through it and they know what you’re going through,” Hall said. “Certainly when I went to Edmonton, it was one of my first thoughts. It’s a very young team, not only with us three guys, but with the other guys on the team. It’s a young nucleus, and things are really looking up.”

* * * * *

Even Lowe struggles to balance hopes and expectations. He looks at the evolution of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, and while he hopes he has a Sidney Crosby(notes) or Alex Ovechkin(notes), he knows he can’t expect that. He looks at the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup last season with young guns Jonathan Toews(notes) and Patrick Kane(notes), and calls that “hopefully more attainable.”

“The Blackhawks, if you look at what they did, they would be more of the model that we’re hoping to emulate,” Lowe said.

On one hand, Lowe cautions that the Blackhawks didn’t win the Cup until eight years after drafting defenseman Duncan Keith(notes). But on the other hand, Lowe looks at the Colorado Avalanche, which leapt from 28th overall in 2008-09 to the playoffs last season. The Avs blew up the organization and went young – and it worked.

“I’ve never really talked to them, but my view of them last year was, I don’t think they expected to be that good,” Lowe said. “I expected they were in the building process. I don’t know if that’ll happen to us next year, but it wouldn’t surprise me because of kind of what we have.

“Some people say – the real people that assess the game say – that in a perfect world we would be the bottom end of the tier for another year or two, then go from there. But back to Colorado, I don’t know how you plan that.”

The Oilers are trying to temper expectations in the short term, but they’re hoping for more, just like their fans. And whatever happens this season, everyone expects a lot from Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi in the long run.

“To be able to go through this with a couple of other guys is very cool,” Hall said. “We know that the city of Edmonton, they’ve gone through some tough times. We expect a lot of big things, not only out of us in the next few years, but out of the team. Hopefully we can bring a championship back there soon.”