30 in 15: Young Oilers seek end to playoff drought
Friday, 09.20.2013 / 3:00 AM
By Brian Compton
NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Edmonton Oilers were supposed to take the next step in 2012-13 and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. They came up short, and a changing of the guard took place in April when Craig MacTavish replaced Steve Tambellini as general manager.
Dallas Eakins then was named coach June 11. Since that time, changes have been made with the hope of ending Edmonton's playoff drought.
For starters, Eakins has given the dressing room a makeover. Although the franchise has a rich history highlighted by five Stanley Cup championships, Eakins wants the room to be more about the current players, a roster that's hardly short of talent.
"I thought it was really important that our team be featured in there," Eakins told the Oilers website. "I'm going to do my best to have every guy on our roster … there will be a picture of him somewhere in our room.
"It's important for the players that that's their dressing room. This is no disrespect and this man would understand it. That is not Mark Messier's dressing room. That is this group of players' dressing room."
Perhaps a greater belief in one another is exactly what these Oilers need in order to get over the hump and qualify for the playoffs. With a young core in place and a new regime running the show, Edmonton could be primed to end that postseason drought in 2013-14.
"I think accountability is one of the more important things in the dressing room," right wing Jordan Eberle said. "Things can't be left out. I think with Dallas, if there's a problem, he'll address it to your face. That's how a team should function.
"That being said, guy to guy in the locker room, it's the same thing. Accountability is important. I think if a guy is not trying or not working hard, someone should say something. That brings the whole team together."
If the Oilers are going to find their way into the playoffs, they'll need a healthy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The No. 1 pick of the 2011 NHL Draft had four goals in 40 games last season playing with a nagging shoulder injury that was surgically repaired in April.
Nugent-Hopkins is skating, but it's unlikely he will be ready when the Oilers open the season Oct. 1 against the Winnipeg Jets at Rexall Place. It could take another month before Nugent-Hopkins is in Edmonton's lineup, which means the Oilers have to be prepared to find ways to win some games in October without their No. 1 center.
"I'm not too sure when I'll be ready. I can't say," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I'll know over the next few weeks. I'll definitely get a good feel for it, skating with the guys and talking to doctors and stuff. We'll see. We just have to make sure that it gets back to 100 percent and I'm ready to go."
With Nugent-Hopkins out, the Oilers have shifted Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, from left wing to center. It's a temporary move until Nugent-Hopkins is able to return, and one Edmonton is confident Hall can handle.
"It's a little bit of an adjustment for him," associate coach Keith Acton said. "We're going to do some things that are different as far as defensive play in our own zone and as a centerman normally that's a little different than being a winger. The way we're going to play coming back into our own end, it's not always going to be the centerman that's going to be the low forward. It's the first guy back and he's going to stay the low forward.
"That's not completely foreign to him. He has a certain foundation in that area."
The biggest difference in Edmonton's top six will be the addition of left wing David Perron, who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues on July 10. A two-time 20-goal scorer, Perron could increase his offensive production skating alongside crafty center Sam Gagner and perhaps Nail Yakupov or Ales Hemsky.
Boyd Gordon, another center, was signed to a three-year contract by the Oilers on the opening day of free agency. Gordon, who turns 30 Oct. 19, spent the past two seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes and had four goals and 10 assists in 48 games in 2012-13. Penciled in to be a bottom-six forward who can win faceoffs and kill penalties, Gordon may have to play top-six minutes in Nugent-Hopkins' absence.
"I just want to be a reliable, steady player," Gordon said. "I think I've established my role, what I can do and what I can bring to a hockey team. I can provide a little depth and fill in here and there for guys if they get hurt."
Despite their tremendous amount of skill up front, the Oilers allowed nine more goals than they scored last season.
Seeking more leadership on his blue line, MacTavish signed Edmonton native Andrew Ference to a four-year, $13 million contract July 5. Ference, 34, has played 760 NHL games and won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. He joins a blue line that includes Denis Grebeshkov, who played for the Oilers from 2007-10, and Anton Belov, who arrives after spending the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Justin Schultz enters his second season in Edmonton after signing as a free agent last summer. He had 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 48 games last season.
"Obviously there's going to be a lot of new faces and a lot of key players that have been successful," veteran forward Ryan Smyth said. "Ference obviously with the Stanley Cup, also his playoff performance; Boyd Gordon, with his faceoff abilities, and his defensive role, specialist.
"These guys are an addition to help the hockey club, and [MacTavish] has done a good job thus far. Now it's all for us to go out and do the right things and get the wins on the board."
Devan Dubnyk is coming off another solid season (2.57 goals-against average, .920 save percentage in 38 games) and has emerged as the No. 1 goaltender in Edmonton. The 2012-13 season marked the third straight in which Dubnyk's save percentage was .914 or higher, and his GAA has dropped from 2.71 to 2.67 to 2.57 in the past three seasons.
"From a statistical comparison, he measures well against the other goalies in the League," MacTavish said.
Dubnyk will have a new backup this season; Nikolai Khabibulin left for the Chicago Blackhawks during the offseason and was replaced by Jason LaBarbera.
LaBarbera, 33, went 4-6-2 with a 2.64 GAA and .923 save percentage in 15 games with the Phoenix Coyotes last season.
Dubnyk and LaBarbera have spent a lot of time together over the past few summers working out together in Calgary, which should make for a friendly, cohesive tandem.
"I've known him for a long time so I was really excited, obviously, when that signing happened," Dubnyk said. "You have to have a relationship with any partner, but obviously when you get a rare chance that it's someone you know and have such a good relationship already, it's just kind of a bonus.
"He's a real quality guy who's been around a long time. He works hard and I think he's just going to be a great guy to have in the room for the young guys. He's been through a lot, seen a lot. He's a solid presence back there. … I know he'll be good for us here."