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Hall, Oilers trying to survive growing pains

DETROIT – It was Saturday night in Chicago. Ryan and Terri Hughes sipped wine in the lobby bar of their hotel. Edmonton Oilers winger Taylor Hall(notes), who lived with the Hughes family for two years in junior, drank water to hydrate for a game the next night – and soaked up the anonymity.

“He said, ‘It’s really cool to be in a city where nobody knows you,’ ” Ryan Hughes said. “Nobody was really bugging him or talking to him. For him, it was nice just to kind of come down a little bit, because I guess it’s pretty intense in Edmonton, right?”

Oh, it’s intense. Teammate Andrew Cogliano(notes) called Hall “a big fish in a pretty small city.” Hall was the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft this year, and he went to Edmonton, the NHL’s northernmost outpost, where Wayne Gretzky once won Stanley Cups, where the fans yearn to live in the City of Champions again after four years out of the playoffs.

But Hall doesn’t turn 19 until Sunday. He’s the youngest player on a young team. And the education of the Edmonton Oilers, as it so often is in these situations, has been a one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back process. After a 2-1 victory over the Blackhawks, the defending champions, the Oilers lost Tuesday night to the Carolina Hurricanes, 7-1, and Thursday night to the Detroit Red Wings, 6-2. Hall slipped to a team-worst minus-8.

There was one word for it: schooled.

“That’s what this is,” Oilers coach Tom Renney said. “We’re at the University of the National Hockey League.”

The Oilers are looking at this as a learning experience. They finished dead last in the NHL last season, and they rank dead last in the NHL now. But they know the only way out of the abyss is through the draft and development, and they want Hall, 19-year-old Magnus Paajarvi(notes) and 20-year-old Jordan Eberle(notes) – all first-round picks – to grow together.

Hall had nothing left to accomplish in junior. With the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, he was a back-to-back Memorial Cup most valuable player. He convinced the Oilers he was ready to handle the expectations and attention, dealing with a media horde in a predraft visit to Edmonton, telling the brass in a predraft interview he wanted to go No. 1.

“He needs to play against men,” Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini said. “We know there will be some hard nights, and we know there will be some nights where are fans are going, ‘Yeah, I hope I can see that on a nightly basis soon.’ ”

There have been flashes. Hall has three goals and six points. He has shown his speed and competitiveness. But he can’t beat opponents one-on-one the way he did in junior and must be more disciplined defensively, as the media has well documented. This is not North Carolina, where Jeff Skinner(notes), the No. 7 overall pick in the NHL draft this year, has been flying under the radar, wowing scouts with his hands and hockey sense, and leading rookies with 15 points.

“He’s had some growing pains,” Cogliano said of Hall. “Obviously it hasn’t been the easiest, but I think he’s done well for an 18-year-old and the amount of pressure he has, especially playing in Edmonton. He’s handled it pretty well.”

Eberle, who shares an apartment with Hall in Edmonton, said: “A lot of stuff that’s been said in the media if things aren’t going well doesn’t really get to him. … He’s always in a good mood.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Renney benched Hall for most of the third period Tuesday night against the Hurricanes.

After the Oilers practiced Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena, Hall hopped across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, and visited the Hughes family. He had dinner. He played with the kids – Bryce, about to turn 13, and Curtis, 11. “Of course,” Ryan Hughes said, “a game of mini-sticks broke out in the basement.” For a couple of hours, Hall could be a kid again.

But then it was back to the world of men. Renney gave Hall a lot of ice time Thursday night against the Red Wings, more than 19 minutes, against what Renney called “an absolute legit contender for the Stanley Cup.” Hall was out against elite, mature players like Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes).

Hall tried to one-time a pass on a bad angle; he fell down. Hall tried to race up the left wing; defenseman Brian Rafalski(notes) easily pushed him off the puck. Pucks kept bouncing off Hall’s stick; pucks kept going into the Edmonton net. Hall finished the night minus-3.

Asked about the Hall-Cogliano-Eberle line, Renney talked about trying to “minimize the damage” and “survive it” and “get something going.” In regard to his young players, he used the term “psychological maintenance.” He made it clear how incrementally the Oilers’ progress is being measured by saying: “We inch along.”

“The bottom line is,” Renney said, “there comes a point in time where it is good to watch, and maybe in some instances we’re getting to that point now where they can kind of just take a deep breath and collect themselves and see what’s going on in front of them. That being said, it’s back on the horse and stay in the rodeo.”

When the doors opened to the media after the game, Hall drew a crowd of reporters in the middle of the dressing room. As his teammates pulled off their gear around him, he answered questions. He handled it well. He spoke in terms of the team, but he might as well have been speaking about himself.

“It takes a lot of character,” Hall said. “Certainly there’s going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I’m not used to this kind of … um, you know, losing as much as we are. But I still feel that we’re a quality team. I think we have a lot of stuff to learn, but at the same time, I think we’re going to be good one day.”