The Edmonton Oilers may have finished last in the NHL the past two seasons, but they have also reaped the benefits of having the first overall pick in the draft in those seasons by selecting Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hall's rookie season was cut short after 65 games due to an ankle injury but displayed the talent that made the Oilers select him with 22 goals and 42 points in 65 games. Can Nugent-Hopkins also make that kind of impact in his rookie season? Probably not, as there is a good chance he won't begin the season with Edmonton.
The bigger questions for the Oilers are on defense and in between the pipes. Nikolai Khabibulin, who still has $7.5 million left on his contract, has been a bust in net for Edmonton. He missed most of his first season with a back injury and last year and only had 10 wins in 47 games last season to go along with a 3.40 GAA and SV% of 89. Throw in a conviction and jail sentence for DUI and you start to get the idea of what has gone wrong in Edmonton over the past couple of years. The defense is getting better but is still far from elite. Ryan Whitney's health is a big concern along with a possible career resurgence of Cam Barker, but any way you look at it, there are more questions than answers on the blue line.
THE BIG GUNS
--Ales Hemsky (W): How the mighty have fallen. Hemsky was once a player that other teams coveted but after two injury plagued seasons (69 games played since the end of 2008-09) and only 21 goals over that span, one has to wonder if Hemsky's best days are behind him. The Oilers are an improving team but not one that will be ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup in the next couple of campaigns and if Hemsky can prove himself to be healthy, he could find himself to be trade bait once again, the only difference is that where in the past the Oilers would not deal him, they may not be so reluctant this time around.
--Taylor Hall (W): Hall was everything they Oilers had hoped for when they selected him 1st in the 2010 NHL entry draft. Unfortunately a high-ankle sprain ended his season early, but he is expected to be 100% ready to go when training camp opens in September. One would think Hall would excel with a year's experience under his belt, not to mention a healthy Ales Hemsky could open up some room on the ice for the young sniper. The Oilers as a team could benefit from a good dose of health as with any struggling organization, depth is a problem. Hall is one of the better young guns in the NHL and there is little reason to believe he won't score between 25-30 goals in his sophomore season.
--Ryan Smyth (W): Smyth requested a trade back to Edmonton for family reasons and was granted his request by the Kings. The trade did not go down without some drama as the player the Kings acquired, Colin Fraser, was damaged goods, but either way Smyth is back with the Oilers. At 35 years of age, Smyth is not the player he once was, but is still dangerous around the net, and possibly of more importance to Edmonton, someone who can mentor their young stable of scorers. Smyth will no longer play on the top line and his power play time may also be limited, but still he does have value and should not be forgotten about come draft day.
ON THE RISE
--Magnus Paajarvi (W): Paajarvi had 15 goals and 19 assists during his first season in the NHL. Not bad for a player who had been accustomed to playing in Europe. We have to believe that most players on the Oilers deserve a bit of a bump in their statistics as the team was decimated with injuries last season, taking away a good portion of the squad’s best players. Of course that also could mean that Paajarvi saw more ice time on the top two lines and on the power play than he might have otherwise.
--Jordan Eberle (W): Yet another freshman player who had a solid season, 18 goals and 43 points. Eberle has the talent to be a 30+ goal scorer but the Oilers would be happy with an incremental improvement in his second season. He is slotted to play on a line with Ryan Smyth, which could give him someone to get him the puck. Eberle has a high upside and is a player the Oilers are counting on to do big things both now and in the future.
--Devan Dubnyk (G): Both the injuries and the play of Nikolai Khabibulin have opened the doors for Dubnyk to play a much more prominent role in the Oilers future than first thought. Dubnyk outplayed Khabibulin last season and seems to have earned a bigger share of the games this season than a traditional backup. The Oilers don't know what they are going to get from Khabibulin, and it seems that Dubnyk could play anywhere from 25 games to 60 games.
TWO TO AVOID
--Nikolai Khabibulin (G): Khabibulin's stats are mentioned above and they are nothing to brag about. His best days seem to be behind him and after spending time in jail for his DUI conviction, it's pretty much anyone's guess as to where his mind will be at or what kind of condition he will be in when training camp opens in September. Khabibulin will more than likely get first crack at the starting job as he is owed the big money, but if his play doesn't improve the Oilers may elect to go with Devan Dubnyk or at the very least split the role.
--Ryan Whitney (D): I'm actually a fan of Whitney's, as the d-man can put up impressive numbers from the blue line when he is on the ice. The problem is he isn't on the ice often enough. He has constantly had to battle injuries throughout his career and that is the main explanation as to why he is on his third organization. He has talent, just can't stay healthy for any amount of time to display that talent.
--Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C): Nugent-Hopkins was the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft and the Oilers prize after finishing with the worst record in the NHL last season. They also had that same "honor" the season before and took Taylor Hall. Whereas Hall started immediately for Edmonton, there is a considerable amount of doubt as to whether Nugent-Hopkins is ready for the grind of an NHL season or would benefit more with another season in the WHL. Either way he will be a rising star in the Oilers organization and could have a bright future playing with Hall.
--Martin Marincin (D): Marincin is exactly the type of player the Oilers need - a physically gifted d-man who has the talent to play anywhere the Oilers desire. He is 6'4" close to 190 pounds. Marincin still needs to hit the weight room to fill out his frame but he could easily be the Oilers top defender in another year or two, he might be able to challenge for a spot on the roster now, but the Oilers do not want to rush him.