After three consecutive last-place finishes, the youthful Edmonton Oilers are hoping to make positive strides under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.
Kicking off their season on a positive note, though, could prove difficult at Rogers Arena.
The Oilers try to pick up a rare road win Sunday night over a Vancouver Canucks team hoping to bounce back from an ugly loss in its opener.
Edmonton opened 8-2-2 last season but struggled down the stretch, finishing 32-40-10 and last in the Northwest Division. Despite those lackluster results, the Oilers open 2012-13 with plenty of optimism thanks in large part to their immensely talented core of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (19 years old), Taylor Hall (21) and Jordan Eberle (22).
Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, will center Edmonton's top line with Hall - the first overall pick in 2010 - on the left and Eberle on the right. Nugent-Hopkins had 18 goals and 34 assists in 62 games as a rookie last season while Hall posted 53 points in 61 contests. Eberle, meanwhile, led the team with 34 goals and 42 assists.
Edmonton is also counting on 19-year-old forward Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, to make an impact. He's expected to skate on the second line with center Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky.
"We have a lot of skilled players and we will work pretty well this year," Yakupov said.
After allowing 232 goals last season to rank 23rd in the league, the Oilers hope the addition of 22-year-old free agent Justin Schultz will help improve the defense.
Schultz starred in the AHL for Oklahoma City during the lockout, compiling 18 goals and 48 points. Krueger, though, expects some bumps along the way as Schultz adapts to the NHL.
"We're going to be patient with him and everybody needs to be patient with him," said Krueger, who replaces Tom Renney behind the bench. "We're very confident he's going to become a top player, but he needs his time to deal with the game without the puck. It will be a lot more challenging here. The physical battles down low in our end will be a lot more difficult."
Schultz could be in for a rude awakening Sunday at Vancouver (0-1-0), which has outscored Edmonton 33-16 during an 8-1-0 run at home. The Canucks also went 5-1-0 overall in this series last season, winning the last four meetings by a 15-7 margin.
"It's a game in Vancouver where everybody's expecting Vancouver to take the points so let's go right at them, right away and let's play to win and not to try and keep the game close or not to lose," Krueger told the team's official website. "It's about playing forward, playing with our speed and using our weapons all the time. That's what we're going to worry about."
Vancouver appears to have plenty of concerns of its own if its season opener is any indication.
While many were looking forward to the Cory Schneider era, he started poorly Saturday in a 7-3 loss to visiting Anaheim. Schneider, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract over the summer, allowed five goals before being removed in favor of Roberto Luongo early in the second period.
Luongo, on the trading block after taking a backseat to Schneider, stopped 10 of 12 shots and Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Luongo would get the start Sunday.
Alex Edler and Daniel Sedin both had a goal and an assist for Vancouver, which is without injured forwards Ryan Kesler (shoulder, wrist) and David Booth (groin).
Devan Dubnyk is expected to start in goal for Edmonton. He went 0-3-1 with a 3.22 goals-against average against the Canucks last season.
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