Optimism in the air as Edmonton Oilers prepare to start NHL season
The Edmonton Oilers have a new arena, a new captain, an overhauled defence, and even a new mascot.
But a lot of things still have to break right for the orange and blue in 2016-17 if this once-proud franchise is to avoid setting an historic NHL benchmark for futility.
“We’re going to improve,” Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli told reporters in training camp.
“We improved last year believe it or not and we’re going to improve again,” he continued, adding a playoff berth is “attainable.”
For 10 consecutive years it has been unattainable, leaving the Oilers ridiculed as hockey’s bum nephew, getting rich handouts in top level junior talent every year, squandering it then coming back for more.
They finished 29th in the NHL last year and if they miss the playoffs again it breaks the dubious record set by the Florida Panthers.
Chiarelli, hired in 2015, is determined to avoid that, and has been scheming and experimenting, wheeling and dealing like a mad scientist.
The fulcrum — and the focal point — is Connor McDavid, the 19-year-old scoring sensation set to make the much anticipated leap into the league’s elite this year.
McDavid averaged better than a point a game (16 goals, 48 points in 45 games) in a rookie season shortened by a broken collarbone, and has been lighting it up in this pre-season.
“The hope that we have for this season, I’m just really excited for that,” said McDavid last week when he was named captain, the youngest player in NHL history to wear the C.
“I didn’t really know anyone last year coming in,” he said.
“This year coming in you already know all the guys and feel very comfortable in the room.”
McDavid will centre a line between headliner free agent Milan Lucic on his left and veteran Jordan Eberle on his right.
Eberle is famous for his sweet moves and soft hands but needs to deliver more at both ends of the ice. He worked on his shot and offensive positioning in the off-season.
Lucic, a 28-year-old mountain man freight train, will bang and crash and dig out the puck and make everyone better.
He replaces Taylor Hall, the fan favourite team scoring leader in 2015-16 traded in the off-season to the New Jersey Devils for up-and-coming stay-at-home stud defenceman Adam Larsson.
Larsson, a 23-year old with star potential, will bookend with fellow rising star Swede Oscar Klefbom as the Oilers top pairing to finally help fix the Oilers Achilles heel — defence.
They join emerging youngsters Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson, veteran puck mover Andrej Sekera, and shot-blocking specialist Kris Russell.
Still, it’s a plan that still rests on a fragile foundation.
Forward Leon Draisaitl, coming off a strong World Cup, has pinballed between centre and wing in pre-season.
Centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was lauded for strong two-way play in the World Cup but needs to show more of the offensive upside that made him the first overall pick in 2011.
This year’s first-round draft pick Jesse Puljujarvi, slotted in as a top-six winger when camp began, has taken awhile to find his feet and may need time in the minors.
Among the other forwards, Patrick Maroon looked good in the pre-season, Benoit Pouliot is dependable but over 30, and grinder penalty-killer Matt Hendricks is out for weeks with a knee injury.
Rookie centre Drake Caggulia had all but won a roster spot in camp but went down late last week with a hip injury.
The Oilers finally tired of underperforming winger Nail Yakupov, dealing the former first-overall draft pick to St. Louis for a prospect and a conditional draft selection.
Cam Talbot returns for his second full season as the starting goalie. He started slowly last year and finished strong (2.55 GAA, .917 save percentage) but must prove he can put all together for 60 to 65 games.
The Oilers launch the regular season Wednesday, hosting Calgary in their shiny, opulent Rogers Centre.
A lot is new: they dumped the cheerleaders, axed the oil derrick players skated through to start the game, and introduced Hunter the Lynx, a mascot with an oversized fur head, mesmeric eyes, and fangs whom kids seem to love but parents worry will induce nightmares.
It all contributes to that wonderful new arena smell.
Now it just needs a team to match it.