VANCOUVER – Glancing at the roster of the Edmonton Oilers, you could be forgiven for thinking the club is staging a new-millennium IIHF World Junior Championship reunion.
Especially at forward, the Oilers are stacked with players who have had prominent roles at recent tournaments. But after missing the NHL playoffs for the last six seasons, fans in northern Alberta are anxious for success.
“Success” could mean a full-fledged return to the 1980s glory days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Or it might just mean the first post-season win since Jussi Markkanen’s 4-0 shutout versus the Carolina Hurricanes in Game Six of the Stanley Cup final on June 17, 2006.
Either way, hopes are high. Sports Illustrated magazine actually ranked Edmonton third in the NHL in its pre-season power rankings. Featuring eight roster players under age 23, the club started off well with a 3-2 season-opening shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.
“There’s just been a different swagger from the talks we’ve already had with the players in the summertime,” said Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger. “The goal-setting that we’ve had, the work in this first week... the group just feels completely different. We aren’t looking backwards. We know we still have a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of learning curves, but there’s a completely different energy in the room right now.”
This year, it’s not acceptable for the Oilers to contend for the first overall pick in the NHL draft – even under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which gives all 14 non-playoff teams a shot at winning the lottery for top slot.
No, Edmonton is quite adequately stocked with #1 picks – two of whom starred for Canada’s World Junior team in the last four years.
Centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, of course, is just coming off captaining his nation to a fourth-place finish in Ufa, Russia, where 2012’s top draft choice racked up a tournament-best 15 points in six games. (Which wasn’t too far off Gretzky’s 17 points in six games at the 1978 World Juniors.) Power forward Taylor Hall, who had 12 points in Canada’s 2010 silver-medal run, is often likened to a less-nasty version of Messier, and he’s in Edmonton for the long haul after signing a seven-year, $42-million U.S. deal in August.
Even though Jordan Eberle, Hall’s fellow assistant captain, wasn’t picked first overall (22nd in 2008), he ranks even higher in the pantheon of Canadian World Junior heroes. In TSN’s pre-Ufa poll of World Junior experts, the Regina native was named Team Canada’s top player of all time. Ranked second all-time in Canadian scoring with 26 points, he earned gold (2009) and silver (2010) with some spectacular last-minute heroics against Russia and the United States. At 22, he’s already played three times for Canada at the senior IIHF World Championship.
Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle could form one of the NHL’s most potent top lines this season.
Sometimes overlooked is centre Sam Gagner, who won World Junior gold in 2007 as Canada’s youngest player. He tied Gretzky and Paul Coffey’s single-game team record with an eight-point outburst against Chicago on February 2, 2012. Gagner is also a shootout whiz.
However, Edmonton’s noteworthy U20 graduates aren’t limited to Canada. Nail Yakupov, the top choice in the 2013 NHL draft, captained Russia to a bronze medal and earned eight points in Ufa.
Although Yakupov went -2 in his season debut against the Canucks, he also drew a couple of penalties, and Krueger praised him: “What was very good about Nail was his willingness to play the team game. He was really looking for his position defensively without the puck. He wanted to be responsible. You could see he was looking for his teammates with the puck, moving it. He’s been on board all week in practice and he just confirmed that today. It’s exciting when you have a player that age coming into a situation like this and showing quite a bit of maturity right off the bat.”
“You can see his skill,” Eberle said of Yakupov. “He shoots the puck well and he’s a great skater.”
There are some question marks. Can Magnus Pääjärvi regain the form he showed in his pre-North American years? The swift left winger debuted in 2008 as Sweden’s youngest-ever World Junior player (16 years, eight months) and would win two silvers and a bronze in his three tournament appearances. Even though he’s added senior World Championship bronze (2010) and silver (2011) to his collection, he has struggled to put the puck in the net after notching 15 goals in his Oilers rookie campaign of 2010-11.
“He needs to become a role player for us,” said Krueger. “You know, in the top six forwards, it’s tough for him. If he can do more penalty killing, with his speed and some aggressiveness, bringing that into the lineup, we’ll need Magnus through the season for sure.
Finland’s Teemu Hartikainen, who had 15 points in 12 career World Junior games, is hoping to improve on the five goals in 29 games that he’s put up over two partial NHL seasons.
Are they all ready to make the next step? This will be Hall and Eberle’s third season, and it was in the third season of the Gretzky-era Oilers that the club blossomed into a true Stanley Cup contender (111 points in 1981-82). Of course, valuable support must come from veterans like Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky and captain Shawn Horcoff.
Yet even with the addition of super-prospect Justin Schultz, some caution is merited regarding Edmonton’s defence. The blueline has muscle aplenty with the likes of newcomer Mark Fistric, Theo Peckham and Andy Sutton. Yet the calming influence of assistant captain Nick Schultz, a two-time World Champion (2004, 2007), will only go so far. It’s still questionable whether this defensive corps will be good enough to bail out the young guns up front.
Krueger, naturally, will seek a structured defensive approach from his entire team. As head coach of the Swiss national team from the 1998 IIHF World Championship to the 2010 Olympics, he guided his group into the world’s top eight with an emphasis on defensive play. His successes included a fourth-place finish at his first Worlds at home and a stunning 2-0 win over Canada at the 2006 Olympics. But the 53-year-old German-Canadian won’t simply make his Oilers play the same way as the Swiss.
“I’ve adapted the system for this group,” Krueger said. “We’re on our toes way more than I ever would have been with the Swiss team against Canada. It’s the lineup that allows you to make those adjustments. As a coach, you can’t bring your system to the team. You’ve got to bring the team to its own system that works. My experience with Switzerland, of course, helped me a lot because I never had the offensive skills [at my disposal]. So the defensive nuances for a successful team are quite clear to me, and if I can bring these into this offensive group here, we’ll be extremely competitive.”
It’s an exciting time for Oilers fans. And even if they don’t make it deep into the playoffs, this club has a history of solid support for the IIHF World Championship, so some of these ex-U20 stars may strut their stuff in Stockholm and Helsinki in May.