Loaded with young talent, it's time for the Oilers to take the next step and make the playoffs

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo SportsSeptember 20, 2013

Enough about the future. Enough with missing the playoffs, stockpiling high draft picks and signing kids to long-term contracts.

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Now that the Edmonton Oilers have given Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a seven-year, $42 million deal, they have the 20-year-old locked up through 2021. Taylor Hall, 21, is locked up through 2020, and Jordan Eberle, 23, is locked up though 2019.

Sam Gagner, 24, is signed for three more seasons. Justin Schultz, 23, and Nail Yakupov, 19, are still on their entry-level contracts.

Great. Seriously. The Oilers have a spectacular core of young players. They should be good someday.

But when?

“I’m sick and tired of hearing how good we’re going to be,” Eberle said. “You kind of want it now.”

Honestly, Edmonton kind of wanted it yesterday. The Oilers have missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons, finishing 25th, 19th, 21st, 30th, 30th, 29th and 24th in the 30-team NHL. After drafting first overall three years in a row, they entered last season talking much the same way. And, well …

They lost six straight and nine out of 10 from April 4-24, killing their playoff chances. Seven of those losses, it should be noted, came against teams that will be division rivals this season in the newly realigned NHL.

[Related: Oilers sign Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to 7-year, $42M deal]

It isn’t enough to be talented. It isn’t enough to want to win. And it ain’t going to happen simply because the Oilers have aged another year.

“They’ve got to learn what it takes to win – not necessarily what it takes to get points, but what it takes to win,” said Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a 40-year-old veteran who spent the last four seasons with the Oilers. “There’s a lot of things besides scoring goals and getting assists. There’s the defensive side of the game. There’s being a good teammate and stuff like that.

“There’s no denying the skill that they have. I just think that they just need to have more experience and learn how to put everything together.”

If you stink, you better take advantage of it. You better draft well. The Oilers appear to have done that. But they may not have been lucky enough to draft, say, a Sidney Crosby. And they plopped these guys into the NHL pool and let them flounder in the deep end with too much losing, too many coaching changes and too few mentors in the room. Tough to learn how to swim that way.

“If you’re a young guy coming into a veteran team, you get to learn while you’re maybe winning,” Khabibulin said. "But if you’re coming into the team and you are the top guys, then it might take a little more time, just because you are the main guys there and you basically don’t really have anybody to learn from.”

Another problem: By putting their youngsters in the NHL right away, the Oilers not only started the clock ticking on their entry-level contracts, they started the clock ticking on expectations. Edmonton fans are sophisticated fans. They know a rebuild when they see one. They’re willing to wait – to a point.

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This is that point. They look at the cores of some recent Stanley Cup champions – the Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings – and they know those teams started to turn the corner when their core players were about the age the Oilers’ core players are now.

“People are getting impatient,” Eberle said. “But the players are more than anybody. We want to win. You watch the playoffs. You watch teams winning around you. You envy that.”

The players have to take a hard look at why they haven’t won. They have to study the little things. Hall had a heck of a 2012-13 season, finishing ninth in the NHL in scoring. Yet here is the kind of replay he should study: In a game against Detroit, he charged up the wall the length of the ice with the puck in the offensive zone. Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk – 14 years his senior – dogged him the whole way, stole the puck and cleared it. Datsyuk has won the Selke Trophy three times. He schools a lot of people. So what? Learn the lesson.

Tom Renney once said the Oilers were attending the “University of the National Hockey League.” He got fired. Ralph Krueger was a teacher type who tried to add structure. He got fired.

The next new coach is Dallas Eakins, who comes from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL farm team with a sterling reputation. He helped first-round pick Nazem Kadri, a skilled center, play a more complete game partly by teaching him defense through offense. Eakins would show Kadri video of himself and ask: “If you were playing against yourself, what would you want you to do? What would you not want you to do?” Maybe he needs to try that here.

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“There’s games where your offensive ability kind of gets in the way,” Eberle said. “You feel like, ‘I want to change the game.’ Every one of us is competitive. When you’re down and you have that much talent, guys want to do it themselves. And that’s where it kills you. We have to commit to a system.”

It hurts that Nugent-Hopkins is recovering from shoulder surgery and isn’t scheduled to return until November, that Hall has to experiment at center, that Eakins is a rookie NHL head coach and might have to learn some lessons himself.

It helps that the Oilers have added Boyd Gordon, David Perron and Andrew Ference, all of whom came from structured teams – Gordon from the Phoenix Coyotes, Perron the St. Louis Blues, Ference the Boston Bruins. Gordon gives the Oilers a two-way, third-line centerman. Perron adds skill and responsibility to the top six. Ference adds leadership to the back end.

It also helps that the Oilers have a full training camp and exhibition schedule, when they didn’t last season because of the lockout. They need to learn to manage the puck better in the offensive zone, to keep a guy high to prevent odd-man rushes, to work as a five-man unit in the defensive zone. It’s Hockey 101. They know it. But they have to do it.

In short, they need to have the puck more and do more with it at even strength. They ranked 26th in shots per game and 29th in shots against last season. For all their talent, they were 21st in even-strength goals. They relied too much on the power play, when they had the space and time to flash their skill. They need to improve when the game is hard, especially against some division rivals that are bigger and more physical.

“The teams that we lose to are the ones that are good defensively,” Eberle said. “They play well in their own end. They’re tough teams to play against. I mean, we’re going to win [some high-scoring] games because we have that much firepower. But the games where we have trouble are the 2-1, 2-0 games.”

Time to fix that. Time to take that talent and make the most of it. Time to live up to the draft statuses and contract extensions. Maybe not time to win the Cup – not yet – but time to trend upward.

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Time to make the playoffs.

“You get into the league your first year, things are happening around you that you don’t really understand,” Eberle said, smiling. “You just love playing. Your second year is really where you start focusing on what you need to do to win. You’re a more important part of the team. At the same time …”

Eberle laughed, sounding almost wistful, like he was recalling the innocence of his youth while he was still young.

“You’re still happy to be there,” he said.

Eberle stopped smiling. He got serious.

“Last year was tough,” he said of his third NHL season. “We were ready to make a step. I thought we had a great team. We’d play games where we’d beat teams. And then we’d play games where we were just a completely different team.

“We’re ready to make the next step. All this talent, we should be winning.”


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