There hasn't been much to cheer about in Alberta's capital region since the Oilers made their Stanley Cup run in 2006. However, the future is finally starting to look bright in Oil Country again. This upcoming season will be a strong indicator of where this team stands in their rebuilding situation.
There has been much talk about the No. 1 overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, not playing this season because of his lack of size. However, Hopkins has made it very clear that he is focusing on gaining weight before training camp.
Over the last couple of months, the kid has gained six pounds and currently stands at 6'1", 172 lbs. If he can gain another few pounds by the fall, he will definitely be ready to play, seeing as size is the only concern regarding him not playing.
It also helps that the Oilers signed several big-bodied enforcers during the free-agent frenzy to provide support and protection for the smaller youth.
Again, size is the only thing that makes Hopkins less NHL-ready than other rookies, such as Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson or Brayden Schenn. Hopkins is an extremely smart and responsible player, who has already been compared to Pavel Datsyuk, and has proven to be mature beyond his years. He is also good at evading hits.
If he plays the majority of the upcoming campaign, expect RNH to be mentioned in Calder-candidate talks later in the season.
This young man has had a rough last couple of seasons, but let's not forget what he is capable of.
Cam Barker was drafted third overall in 2004 (after Ovechin and Malkin), and has proven that he can be a very skilled offensive defenseman. In the 2008-2009 season, Barker recorded 40 points in only 68 regular-season games, most of which were on even strength.
Minnesota did not seem to be the right fit for him; a change of scenery may be exactly the spark that the 25-year-old needs to get his game back. Injuries have also been a concern for this young man, so his health will definitely be a factor with his performance this season.
If Barker can stay healthy and motivated, look for him to be a deadly puck mover with many options on the power play.
Along the lines of players getting back on track, the veteran Oilers net minder will be much more motivated to play better on a team that might win a few games.
It is extremely hard to commit to playing on an optimal level when you know that the last 30 games of the season are essentially meaningless. There is no doubt that the Oilers should get stronger from here on out.
The goal of the Oilers, this year, should be to compete for a playoff spot rather than a lottery pick.
The defense will also be far less likely to leave their goaltender out to dry this time around. Whether it is the Bulin-wall or Devan Dubnyk, the Oilers' goaltending should get a lot more support this season.
Khabibulin had among his career worst in numbers last season, so he should be expected to turn that around.
He is still a good goalie, with a high amount of experience, and definitely knows what it takes to win important games.
If everything shapes up as it should with this new Oilers team, there will be no room for Andrew Cogliano.
Even though he is versatile on the wing or center position, the first three potential lines are filled with players that are all more talented and effective than Cogs—and the Oilers have pretty much established a new fourth line with the signings that they made in early July.
Also, for reasons that are unclear to Oilers fans, it seems that the young speedster is still catching the eyes of some Eastern conference teams.
Cogliano is a restricted free agent and has yet to receive an offer. Don't be surprised if you don't see him in an Oilers uniform this fall.
While it is not realistic to say that the Oilers are anywhere near the same level as the Vancouver Canucks are right now, it is not ridiculous to suggest that Edmonton stands a chance to compete in the division later this year.
Let's take a look at it. The Minnesota Wild offseason shake-up was significant, but not enough for dramatic improvement to occur.
The Calgary Flames, if anything, have gotten worse so far—not to mention that their players are only getting older.
The Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers are the two teams in the Northwest division that are looking to be significantly better this season than they were last season.
By no means am I suggesting that either one of these two teams will become immediate contenders, but they will be the two most improved teams in the division, and the improvement should be highly noticeable.
It may be a four-horse race for second place, who knows? But don't expect Edmonton to fall behind on this one.
Building off the last slide, the Oilers have all the talent they need to steal one of the lower playoff seeds.
It will take a couple of years for the young guys to understand how playoff hockey works. The experience of players such as Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ryan Whitney and Ben Eager will definitely give the Oilers a fighting chance, but the future of this team lies in the youth—and it will be a huge learning curve for them in their first playoff experience.
I have no analysis for this prediction whatsoever. However, this is the first time that the Oilers have had this promising of a team since their last win in Minnesota, back in the 2006-2007 season.
As much as every Oilers fan wishes that Horcoff was a first-line center, he simply does not possess the skills or talent of an elite playmaker or goalscorer. He may be a good mentor and father figure to Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, but it is evident that he is not on the same page as them on the ice.
With the addition of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers believe that they now have that first-line center that they have longed for since Doug Weight left about a decade ago. It shouldn't take long for Hopkins to find himself alongside Hall and Eberle.
Early in the season the Oilers will also probably find that the second line would have the best chemistry with either Sam Gagner or Teemu Hartikainen centering two of either Magnus Pajaarvi, Ales Hemsky and/or Linus Omark.
It is also a likely scenario that Horcoff will be playing with Ryan Smyth.
Being that the first two lines are filled with young talent, the most appropriate spot for the 33-year-old, who will make $6.5 million this year, will be down the middle on the third line.
Darcy Hordichuk, Andy Sutton and Ben Eager are fully aware of their roles on the team, and there is a high chance that they will be over-protective of the kids—therefore, over-aggressive.
The Oilers were already third in penalty minutes (1,270) last season without these enforcers. Only the Pittsbugh Penguins and the New York Islanders had more penalty minutes than Edmonton, and many of those came against each other.
With Zenon Konopka (who led the league in penalty minutes last season) no longer on the Isles, expect their fighting majors total to drop significantly.
The Edmonton Oilers lost Zack Stortini, but will likely have more than twice as many fighting majors this season.
The Oilers also re-signed Theo Peckham, and he will definitely contribute to the sin-bin parade.
Despite being a different player from Steven Stamkos, I can see Taylor Hall following in his footsteps in scoring trends. Both are explosive players with a lethal shot and both had slow starts in their rookie seasons, only to follow up with a second-half surge with a flurry of goals.
Taylor Hall should definitely breakout next season, based on the acceleration of his progress in the latter part of last season. He would have likely hit the 30 goal if he had not been injured.
If Hopkins, Eberle and Hall find some chemistry earlier rather than later, 40-plus goals is definitely in sight for this young phenom.
This is by far the boldest of my predictions.
Hopefully this new player does not get stigmatized by the people of Edmonton just because of his mullet.
However, deep down, there is a certain feeling that tells me that he might fit in just fine.