And so we are back!
After spending the last four-plus months focused on the day-to-day minutia of the CBA discussions between the NHL and the NHLPA, we get to go from the boardroom to focusing on what we all love: the game!
Suffice to say optimism reigns supreme around the NHL with a 48-to-50 game schedule turning the regular season from a marathon to what should be a heck of a sprint.
It should be, to steal a line from Mark Messier after winning the 1984 Conn Smythe Award, a “kicker”.
For Edmonton Oilers fans who have watched their beloved team finish 30th, 30th and 29th over the last three seasons my guess is that many of you are stoked, especially given the additions of 2012 number one pick Nail Yakupov and free agent defenceman Justin Schultz.
While there can be little debate that Eberle, Hall, RNH, Yakupov and Schultz are going to be the offensive catalysts for the Oilers -- hopefully for the next decade-plus -- in my opinion their respective contributions to team are to a certain degree a given.
Eberle-RNH-Hall will likely make up the Oilers first line and try to build on the success of a top-five Oilers power play from last season. Schultz has already illustrated that he will be a great fit with that group as well, as exhibited by the Oklahoma City Barons having the number one power play in the AHL at 26.1%.
The electrifying Yakupov performed well in the KHL this season and in theory should be a fine fit with playmaker Ales Hemsky due to Yak’s elite level finishing skills.
But, the performance of three other players will play a huge role in defining the type of season the Oilers are to have.
We start in goal where Devan Dubnyk needs to seize the day.
After spending the last couple of seasons watching Nikolai Khabibulin start the year as the Oilers number one netminder, the job is now Dubnyk’s.
No question Dubnyk gave the Oilers fairly consistent goaltending in the second half of each of the last two seasons, posting a .916 save percentage in 2010-11 and .914 SPct last season.
However, Dubnyk produced those numbers when the pressure was off as the Oilers were out of the play-offs when he saw the majority of his starts.
The pressure will be on right from the get go for Dubnyk, who possesses both the size and economy of movement in goal to start say 35+ games this year even in a compressed schedule but he has to make stops and take his game to the next level.
It must be said that Dubnyk at 26, is at an age when many goaltenders seem to “get it”. If it happens this season the Oilers could be a play-off team.
In Whitney’s first 54 games with the Oilers he racked up 38 points and went +20. Then Whitney missed 10+ months with an ankle/arch issue. The numbers in the 51 games he got into last season weren’t good (20 points/-16), but he did start to look better by the end of the year.
If we assume that Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry will be one pairing for Ralph Krueger this season and that Justin Schultz will see top-four minutes as well, it is safe to guess that one of Whitney or Nick Schultz will be in the top four as well.
When Whitney has confidence in his ankle and is on his game he can easily play 22+ minutes and play both PP and PK.
The Boston University grad understands the puck does the work and is an excellent transition defenceman. His return to form is another key to Oilers success this season.
Another unknown is if this will be the season that Sam Gagner takes his game to the next level.
Gagner, albeit under-sized, is a competitive player but he is prone to real inconsistent stretches where he produces little offence. However, he can also catch fire as exhibited by an eight-point night last season, and a stretch of 15 points in five games.
Take away that five-game hot streak last year and Gagner registered an underwhelming 32 points in 70 games.
You would have to think the 23 year-old Gagner who has put up between 41 to 49 points in each of his first five seasons with the Oilers would like to become a more reliable offensive threat.
If he starts the season centring Yakupov and Hemsky and playing on the Oilers second power play unit, he should be able to make a progression in his game.
Bottom line, Dubnyk, Whitney and Gagner are going to be interesting players to watch this season, and they will play a key factor in the Oilers success.
Bob Stauffer is Radio Analyst of the Oilers Broadcasts on the Oilers Radio Network and Host of “Oilers Now” Monday thru Friday Noon to 2:00PM on 630 CHED. You can follow him on twitter at @Bob_Stauffer
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