EDMONTON – While the playoffs may be a bridge too far in 2014-15, the woebegone Edmonton Oilers know it’s time to demonstrate there’s light – any light – at the end of the tunnel.
“There’s no question in my mind that we’re better, and we’re significantly better,” said general manager Craig MacTavish after the final training camp cuts were announced.
“But we’re closing a significant gap.
“We were a very poor team last year, a very flawed team.
“So my optimism is muted by the fact that we have a significant distance to close to get into that (playoff) race.”
The savvy fans, said MacTavish, understand.
But many aren’t happy after eight consecutive years of poor finishes, no playoffs, and empty promises.
Some of the more disgusted took to tossing their oil-drop jerseys onto the ice at Rexall Place last year as the squad stumbled to a 29-44-9 record (28th in the NHL).
MacTavish and second year head coach Dallas Eakins responded by refashioning the lineup with more size, youth, and sandpaper.
The wings remain the strength, led by Taylor Hall.
The 22-year-old scored 27 goals and added 53 assists last season, and is expected to join centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle on the top line.
Eberle looks to rebound from a disappointing, inconsistent season (65 points).
Nail Yakupov is coming off a forgettable year of benchings, sub par offence (24 points) and poor defence. The former No. 1 pick must prove he can do more than float above the fray while waiting for the puck.
Teddy Purcell (six foot two) and Benoit Pouliot (6-3) have been acquired to deliver strength on the puck.
David Perron, Matt Hendricks, and Jesse Joensuu round out the wings.
The Oilers remain dangerously thin at centre. Nugent-Hopkins had a strong training camp and wants to improve on his 19 goals and 56 points from last year.
Leon Draisaitl, the team’s 2014 top draft pick, took control in the pre-season and played his way on to at least a nine-game NHL tryout before the Oilers face a decision on whether to send him back to junior.
The 18-year-old says he won’t make it an easy call.
“It’s a kid’s dream. I’ve come so far, and now I don’t want to stop,” he said.
“My goal is to stay here and stick around.”
After that it’s Mark Arcobello, Boyd Gordon, and Will Acton.
Asked to assess his centres after the final cuts, Eakins showered them with faint praise.
“It’s the group that won the spots,” he said.
“We only have so many centres in our organization,” he said, although he later added, “I feel good about (the position).”
The Oilers were tied for 24th in scoring at 199 goals last season while special teams slipped to the middle of the pack.
The defence allowed a league-worst 267 goals.
It has been upgraded from horrible to serviceable, but enters Thursday’s season opener versus the Calgary Flames with question marks.
Defencemen Mark Fayne (six foot three) and Nikita Nikitin (6-4) were signed to assist returning veterans Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry and captain Andrew Ference. Eberle and Hall will serve as alternate captains this season.
Youngsters Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse also earned spots on the back end, though Nurse could still be returned to junior after nine games.
The pairings remain a jumble. Petry, Nikitin and Ference have been out of the lineup with various ailments during the pre-season.
The goaltending tandem of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth is promising, but untested over a full season.
Scrivens was downright brilliant at times last year, stopping 59 shots to shut out the San Jose Sharks in January.
MacTavish said both made a case in camp to be the No. 1.
“If they both play well, they can both expect to see the net,” he said.
While the Oilers look better on paper, a playoff spot still seems a long way off in the powerhouse Western Conference.
Meanwhile, the last of the excuses some a decade old are quickly evaporating.
The Oilers needed a salary cap to be competitive.
They needed one owner, not many, to improve decision-making.
They needed high draft picks to rebuild.
They needed a new arena to have a stronger revenue stream.
Done (by 2016).
All that’s left to be done is to get it done.