by Zach Laing
1. Youthful exuberance.
Going into this season, the Edmonton Oilers will feature a team that is headlined by young stars Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov, Oscar Klefbom, Justin Schultz and potentially Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and/or Griffin Reinhart -- just to name a few. There are four first overall picks in that group, not to mention three more that were taken in the top 10.
There is no denying that this team still has a lot of space to close in order to make a serious jump in the standings. However, all of the signs given from the team indicate that there truly is change. In order for the team to take the next step, the young Oilers will rely on new head coach Todd McLellan, who has already instilled a new attitude throughout the entire roster. The skill that these players possess are elite and watching them be able to play together will be quite enjoyable, given the lack of success that has plagued the team for 10 years.
Todd McLellan brings a level of integrity and charisma that hasn't been seen in Edmonton for some time. There is no denying that the way McLellan has handled his players has been fantastic, a dramatic change from what was seen early last season under Dallas Eakins. The comments he has made about every player have been positive and he’s also talked at length about making sure that players are not playing out of their element, something that has been all too frequent in Edmonton in recent seasons.
Take Justin Schultz for example. The expectations were sky high for him coming into Edmonton following the lockout, then following comments made by Craig MacTavish about him having "Norris Trophy potential" set him up in a position to fall on his face. And that’s just what happened. This season, Schulz has come into camp on a mission to prove his worth to the team after signing a one-year, $3.9 million contract in the offseason. He certainly has a lot to prove, but some early indications have shown the positive impact McLellan has had on Schultz and many others on the Oilers roster.
3. Prospect depth.
One thing (maybe the only thing) the that Oilers have done very well the last few years is fill the team’s cupboards through the draft. In last year's NHL Entry Draft, the Oilers restocked the cupboards by selecting four defensemen in Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, John Marino and Ziyat Paigin. None of these names jump off the board as huge studs, but they all have the potential to one day play NHL minutes and give the Oilers options right now, should they need or want to improve the team right now through trades.
Upcoming Oilers like Leon Draisatil, Darnell Nurse, and Griffin Reinhart are all recent draftees that are vying for a spot on this year’s roster. It’s entirely possible that all three might fall short of securing a roster spot coming out of camp this fall but their play is forcing the team to make tough decisions right now. Something that the front office hasn’t had to do in a long time. This depth bodes well for the Oilers and should be a big part of the organization’s future successes.
1. Nikita Nikitin.
It might seem unfair to list an individual as one of a team’s biggest weaknesses, but have you seen Nikita Nikitin play? If you’re an Oilers fan looking for reasons to stay grounded and temper your expectations for this season, look no further than Nikitin. A symbol of all that was wrong with the Edmonton Oilers prior to this summer’s overhaul, Nikitin once again looks to play a part in Oil Country this year. Nikitin’s presence on the team serves to remind us all that the dark days are not long behind us, and that you don’t necessarily need to be ‘in shape’ to be an NHL player. Or, perhaps more accurately, to be on an NHL team.
Nikitin possesses a reasonable shot from the blue, but his lack of foot speed and general haphazardness ensure that the bums stay squeaky in Oil Country whenever he’s on the ice. A disappointing, albeit injury-plagued, first season was marred by inconsistent play, and rumors of him being out of shape to start the year didn’t endear him to the Oilers faithful. Given his contract status, the Oilers will be hard-pressed to move him, and if the Oilers have to rely on Nikita Nikitin every night, it could be yet another long, disappointing season in northern Alberta.
2. Andrew Ference.
Andrew Ference is essentially Nikita Nikitin but older, and with less potential to be good this season. Some fans in Oil Country still believe that Nikitin has the ability to not be a tire fire on skates, but that optimism stops at the feet of the incumbent Oilers captain. A long-serving journeyman defender with experience for days and an excellent workout program, Ference once again looks set to patrol the Oilers blue line in 2015-16.
Blessed with below average everything, Ference will attempt to inspire the team to success in spite of these limitations. Ference seems ideal for the No. 7 role in Edmonton, in that he looks great in a suit and does most of his good work off the ice, but his being the captain makes putting him in the press box difficult. That the Oilers chose a fringe player to be their captain in the first place is a conversation for another day, but as long as the Oilers keep Ference as their leader he will probably play, and the Oilers will probably suffer.
3. Uncertainty in net.
Cam Talbot was one of Peter Chiarelli’s biggest acquisitions this summer. The career backup had an excellent 2014-15 campaign, putting up elite-level numbers with the Rangers in a relatively small sample size. The Oilers have made a good bet here, but a good bet still comes with inherent risk; and if Talbot struggles in his first few weeks as an Oiler, the team could be forced to rely on Ben Scrivens or Anders Nilsson. Any Oilers fan who didn’t drink away their memories of last season knows what relying on Scrivens looks like, and none of us know what relying on Nilsson might entail.
The Oilers made a lot of positive, necessary changes to their organization this summer, but the core of the team is still relatively young. A stable performance from their goaltenders is crucial if this team is going to play meaningful hockey games after Christmas, and given the three options in net there are still very real questions about whether or not they’re up to it.
1. How good will Connor McDavid be?
2. Is Cam Talbot the answer to the Oilers problems in net?
3. With a new General Manager and a new coach, will the results finally match expectations?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Curtis LeBlanc
The amount of reordering that took place within the Edmonton Oilers organization demands a similar reordering of expectations. True enough, the team wasn’t totally ransacked from Andrew Ference to Kevin Lowe, but enough has changed so that the Oilers are entering the 2015-16 season with a considerably new look, and with it a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the on-ice product.
Should fans expect a Stanley Cup? Not even close; not yet. What about a President’s Trophy, or first in the Western Conference? Again, highly unlikely. How about a Calder Trophy for Connor McDavid? Now we’re cooking with propane. Out of all the promising additions made by new GM Peter Chiarelli -- Andrej Sekera, Cam Talbot, Griffin Reinhart, Todd McLellan -- none have more potential to affect the Oilers’ season than the one addition Chiarelli had nothing to do with: Connor McDavid.
So what’s the best case scenario for the Edmonton Oilers in 2015-16? Easy: playing hockey past Game 82. After nine years on the outside of the playoffs looking in, this would be a welcome change. Of course hockey is a team game and one player can’t on his own turn an also-ran into a playoff caliber team, so Connor McDavid alone won’t be enough to get the Oilers back into the playoffs.
But if it turns out that Chiarelli made more good moves than bad this summer, then the cumulative effect should at least get the Oilers into the conversation as the NHL heads down the stretch. If a couple things break right this could be a playoff team.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Zsolt Munoz
Writing about the worst case scenario for the Oilers almost feels redundant. Fans in Edmonton have come to expect the worst case scenario over the past five years (nine years if you include all the current playoff drought). So a worst case scenario like the 62 points that were seen in the 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons isn't going to ruffle any feathers in this city. We’ve seen how bad it can be, we’re used to how bad it can be.
For a team that isn’t expected by many to make the playoffs, the worst case scenario is probably to do just that with a "Cinderella" season and results that are unlikely to be repeated. Results that fool the front office into making moves to get a couple more wins now at the expense of the future. Winning is definitely a priority this season, but for the Oilers winning doesn't necessarily mean making the playoffs.
Nobody in Edmonton is going to complain if the team is just 20 points better this season. That’s a massive jump in the standings that still wouldn’t get them into the playoffs. Slow and steady has been the plan for the Oilers rebuild, anything that sees them chart a new course now would be the worst case scenario.