NHL preview: Oilers ready to take next step

Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle are looking to capitalize on Edmonton's enormous potential.(CP/Jason Franson)

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You know what they say about potential—it means you haven’t done anything yet. Well, the Edmonton Oilers haven’t done anything in about seven seasons, the longest playoff drought in the NHL. Folks inside the organization have had their fill of hearing about the “up-and-coming Oilers,” a platitude that is beginning to boomerang on the team as it enters yet another season where a playoff berth is anything but assured.

Edmonton was the worst faceoff team in the NHL last season (46.1 percent), and ranked 23rd in 5-on-5 goals for and against ratio. They were one of two teams in the league—the other being the Leafs—to be outshot by six shots on average, per game. They are embarrassingly easy to play against, lacking players who can retrieve the puck once it’s lost or any real grit that leaves a mark on visitors to Rexall Place. Sure, with young stars like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner -the eldest of the group at 24, who will start the season on the sidelines with a broken jaw-they have a budding top six with Stanley Cup potential (there’s that word again). But without a sturdy bottom six, they’re like a hot rod with no drive train. It is time this club grew up into a real hockey team, instead of a highlight machine that fizzles out sometime in February or March.

New GM Craig MacTavish and the first-year coach he hired, Dallas Eakins, are determined to change the discourse about the Oilers. “One of the steps that we want to make this year is to eliminate ‘young guys’ and ‘old guys’ from the dialogue surrounding our team,” MacTavish said prior to training camp. “There’s been far too much of that.” Eakins agrees—it alienates players and lowers expectations. “Usually when people talk about a young team it means it’s OK to lose,” he said. “Well, it’s not OK.”

Eakins’s message at his first Oilers camp was simple: “You will either compete hard or you will… not… play. I do not care how old you are, how much money you make, how much term you have left on your contract.”

With Nugent-Hopkins on the mend from off-season shoulder surgery, the new coach’s first major experiment will be a training camp audition at centre for Hall. Eakins’s maniacal focus on fitness is well-documented, and if he does not find enough Oilers willing to finish checks and stand up for one another, the plain-spoken coach will be talking to MacTavish about acquiring more grit and toughness, tout de suite.

Having come over from Boston, free-agent defenceman Andrew Ference will help infuse some stability and expectation inside the Oilers dressing room, while UFA centre Boyd Gordon is one of the NHL’s top faceoff men. Winger David Perron, 25, marked the first significant trading up by MacTavish, who sent 2009’s 10th-overall pick Magnus Paajarvi to St. Louis for the two-time 20-goal man. Both Hall and Eberle left the Canadian Olympic orientation camp with specific instructions to shore up their defensive games, which simply has to happen if they are to lead Edmonton anywhere.

No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk’s numbers are better than most people realize. Playing behind a porous group, Dubnyk managed a .920 save percentage (14th best among NHL starters) last season, and only four NHL goalies saw more rubber. A dab more consistency from him and an upgraded defensive effort from the skaters, and perhaps the Oilers will take that next step.

A playoff spot. Now that would change the conversation in Edmonton.

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