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2013-14 Edmonton Oilers Preview

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Updated: 9/24/2013 2:04 pm

Since losing to the Carolina Hurricanes as an upstart eighth seed in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, the Oilers have yet to make it back to the postseason, giving this once-proud franchise the longest current playoff drought in the NHL. Even worse, the Oilers have rarely been competitive during the downturn, as the seven-season playoff drought includes four last-place finishes and only two seasons of 80 points or more.

The Oilers finished 10 points out of a playoff spot during last year's lockout-shortened campaign and it wasn't long before the heads began to roll. General manager Steve Tambellini was fired in mid-April and replaced by Craig MacTavish, who had previously coached the club from 2000-09. MacTavish then fired head coach Ralph Krueger after his first season at the job and replaced him with Dallas Eakins, Edmonton's fifth different head coach in the last six seasons.

The turnover didn't stop with management or coaches, however, as MacTavish also chose to part ways with players like former captain Shawn Horcoff, fellow forward Magnus Paajarvi and defenseman Ryan Whitney.

Under Eakins, the Oilers, who are loaded with talented and highly-touted players stockpiled through the draft, are expected to play with more grit and determination, or the roster upheaval could claim more victims.

FORWARDS - Thanks to their poor play since the trip to the Cup Finals in 2006, the Oilers have been given ample opportunity to dig themselves out of this hole via the draft, but attempts to do so have barely moved the dial on the ice.

For three straight years from 2010-12 the Oilers used the top pick at the NHL Entry Draft to land a trio of talented forwards in Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ('11) and Nail Yakupov ('12). All three players have displayed flashes of brilliance on the ice, but that yet to translate into the fearsome offense that one expects from such a heralded group of scorers.

Sure, the Oilers are dangerous with the man advantage, but while their power- play ranked eighth in the NHL last season the club finished 21st in even- strength goals. By preaching tougher play and accountability to his players, Eakins expects to get a better 5-on-5 effort from his players in 2013-14, or the club could be forced to suffer through another season of squandered potential.

While Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov have all shown the ability to score, the Oilers need at least one of them to grab the reins and lead this team to the next level.

Hall led the Oilers in points last season, recording 16 goals and a team-high 34 assists over 45 games. Yakupov also impressed as a rookie, leading the club with 17 goals while also finishing the year with 31 points in 48 games.

Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, had four goals and 20 assists in 40 games in his second season as an NHLer and continued to have difficult staying healthy. Unfortunately, his injury problems are ongoing as Nugent-Hopkins could miss the first month of the season due to his long recovery from offseason shoulder surgery.

With Nugent-Hopkins beginning the year on the shelf, Hall could begin the season at center. The natural left wing would likely center the top line, while Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick by Edmonton in the 2007 draft, was expected play the middle on the second unit before getting injured in the pre- season. Gagner, who is out indefinitely after suffering a broken jaw in an exhibition game, had 38 points on 14 goals and 24 assists last season.

Right winger Jordan Eberle is another first-round pick (22nd overall, 2008) and he will battle Yakupov for playing time on one of the top-two lines. Eberle had 16 points and 21 assists in 48 games last season, finishing one point behind Gagner for second place on the team in scoring.

Also back for the Oilers in 2013-14 are Ales Hemsky, who had nine goals and 20 points last season, and fellow winger Ryan Smyth. At 37 years of age, Smyth will try to bounce back from a dreadful 2013 season that saw him post just two goals and 11 assists over 47 games.

There will also be several new faces up front for the Oilers, including left winger David Perron and centerman Boyd Gordon. The 25-year-old Perron, who was acquired from St. Louis in the Paajarvi trade, is a speedy player who had a pair of 20-goal seasons during his time the Blues and is coming off a 10-goal, 25-point effort in 48 games with St. Louis last season.

Gordon, meanwhile, offers little scoring punch but provides depth as a checking centerman. He could help a team like the Oilers, who are loaded with skill, but often skip the dirty work.

Edmonton's main goal this year is, of course, to make the playoffs and getting this talented offense to take the next step is the way to get there.

DEFENSE - While the forward group is loaded with untapped potential, the defense is even more of a work in progress.

While Darnell Nurse, this past summer's first-round pick, could get a shot to make the team, second-year player Justin Schultz will likely log big-time minutes at the top of the rotation.

Schultz was second to Jeff Petry in average ice time during his rookie campaign in 2013, but he certainly experienced some ups-and-downs. Blessed with a dynamic offensive skill set, Schultz led Edmonton's blue line in both goals (8) and assists (19) but he also had a team-worst rating of minus-17.

Petry, who was paired with Schultz for much of last season, had three goals and nine assists in 2013.

MacTavish also brought in veteran blueliner Andrew Ference, a mainstay on Boston's defense over the last several seasons, to try and bring some stability to the back end. A solid all-around defenseman, the 34-year-old Ference signed a four-year, $13-million deal with Edmonton this summer after posting four goals, nine assists and a plus-nine rating in 48 games for the Bruins last year.

Ference could form a shutdown pairing along with Ladislav Smid, who logged major minutes for the Oilers last season despite offering just one goal and three assists over 48 games.

In addition to the 18-year-old Nurse, who was the seventh selection at the most recent draft, the Oilers also boast another highly-touted defenseman in Oscar Klefbom, the 19th overall pick of the 2011 draft. Both players could push older defenseman like Nick Schultz (no relation to Justin) and Corey Potter for playing time in 2013-14, although the veterans appear to have the inside track for at least one more season.

GOALTENDING - Last season, Devan Dubnyk supplanted veteran Nikolai Khabibulin as Edmonton's starting goaltender and enters this season with the No. 1 job all to himself.

Khabibulin departed to sign a free-agent deal with Chicago and the Oilers replaced him with Jason LaBarbera, who at 33 years of age seems to be a better backup option than his 40-year-old predecessor.

Dubnyk performed well under difficult circumstances for the Oilers last season, facing a ton of rubber on a nightly basis thanks in part to a defense that had a rough time getting the puck out of its own end. Still, the 27-year- old managed to record a strong .920 save percentage to go with a 2.57 goals against average and 14-6-6 record in 2013.

LaBarbera is coming off a solid showing in Phoenix, where he went 4-6-2 with a 2.64 GAA and .923 save percentage in 15 games (10 starts) last season.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - With the onset of realignment, the Oilers will play this season in the Pacific Division, which will boast four teams -- Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver -- that qualified for the playoffs last spring. The switch could make it difficult for Edmonton to end its lengthy playoff drought this season, unless Eakins finds a way to make everything click in his first year as an NHL head coach. Edmonton desperately needs to prove it's more than just a collection of former high draft picks. But, if they miss the playoffs badly again in 2013-14, MacTavish's roster purge from this past summer could look like a walk in the park.

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