NHL.COM 30 IN 30: Improving Oilers enter season still a work in progress
Craig MacTavish continued to remodel the Edmonton Oilers' roster this offseason in an attempt to get the team back into contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Since taking over from Steve Tambellini in April 2013, MacTavish has been among the most active general managers in the NHL.
His mandate is to expedite the Oilers' rebuilding process without sacrificing their young core.
30 IN 30: EDMONTON OILERS
In an effort to improve a team that finished at the bottom of the Western Conference standings last season, MacTavish brought in wings Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell, while adding to his blue line with defensemen Keith Aulie, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin.
"For us, size was an issue," MacTavish said. "We knew we needed to get bigger and both of these guys are bigger. Teddy Purcell has quite a bit of talent; I think there is still some untapped upside in him that we're hoping to discover.
"As far as Benoit goes, he's a guy that pursues the puck very aggressively, is a hard-working guy, gets to the forecheck, and I think we're hoping he's developing into a pretty solid offensive contributor."
The Oilers were expecting to take a step forward in their rebuilding process last season, but instead regressed under rookie coach Dallas Eakins. They stumbled out of the gate and were never able to recover, and were particularly susceptible in goal and on the blue line.
"Defense was really our No. 1 priority," MacTavish said. "We're hopeful that through development of our current players, and augmenting that group with Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne and Keith Aulie, we've improved in that department.
OILERS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 29-44-9, 67 points, 7th in Pacific, 14th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Additions: LW Benoit Pouliot, RW Teddy Purcell, D Keith Aulie, D Mark Fayne, D Nikita Nikitin.
Subtractions: C Sam Gagner, LW Ryan Smyth, D Anton Belov, LW Ryan Jones, D Mark Fraser.
Pending FAs: F Ryan Jones (UFA), D Justin Schultz (RFA), D Philip Larsen (RFA), F Mark Fraser (UFA).
Promotion candidates: D Oscar Klefbom, D Darnell Nurse, C Roman Horak.
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: F Leon Draisaitl (No. 3)
"When you look at our defense, we're now looking at what we're hoping is a real, solid NHL defense. But everybody is optimistic at this time of year, including us, we feel like we're going to be better. But the internal growth is what really drives us, and we're optimistic that's going to occur as well."
The Oilers feel they are heading in the right direction with their young group of rising stars. The issue for the club has been trying to find a suitable supporting cast for Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz, a restricted free agent who has yet to re-sign. The key for MacTavish was to assemble a winning team without sacrificing any of the pillars of the rebuild, now in its fourth year.
In time, the Oilers believe their youthful core will develop into a group that can contend for a Stanley Cup.
In June, they added another important piece by selecting center Leon Draisaitl with the third pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Draisaitl will be given every opportunity to make the team this season, particularly due to the Oilers' lack of depth up the middle.
Trading center Sam Gagner to acquire Purcell left a hole in the lineup which the Oilers have yet to fill. They are currently in the market for a second-line center, something that has proven difficult to acquire.
"I think there is room for somebody outside of the organization if we can find the right complement," MacTavish said. "In my mind it's a real significant piece that we're looking for, and it would have to be a big incremental difference between who we feel would fill that position currently and the player that we would bring in.
"If we were able to get a star player that could win faceoffs, play big minutes and be productive at the net front and on the power play, we'd really enhance our ability to compete and to have a great degree of success. But they are tough to find."
If MacTavish is unable to bring in a second-line center, the spot will have to be filled internally. The club believes Draisaitl will eventually develop into that player, but whether he's prepared to take on the responsibility straight out of junior remains to be seen.
"We're committed to development, and we need good players and we want to keep the guys that we view are a big part of this solution going forward," MacTavish said. "We're going to try to use some other pieces, draft choices and so forth if we can, to try and pry that centerman [via a trade]. But our sense is that we're going to get to camp with a very similar group to what we have right now and then assess it through camp, much like many other teams will do."