2014-15 Edmonton Oilers Preview: Time For Young Forwards To Take Next Step

by NESN Staff

September 11, 2014

Devan Dubnyk, Dustin BrownThe Edmonton Oilers finished with the worst record in the Western Conference last season despite having an abundance of elite offensive talent in their top-six forward group and four top-three first-round picks in the last five drafts.

Edmonton ranked 25th in goals scored, 30th in goals against, 21st in faceoff percentage and gave up the fifth-most shots per game. Dallas Eakins is entering his second season behind the bench, and his toughest challenge is to develop his supremely talented forwards into responsible two-way players.

Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle are four of the best young offensive players in the game and capable of scoring near a point-per-game rate, but their defense needs considerable improvement.

If the Oilers are going to take the next step and become playoff contenders from a Pacific Division that includes Cup challengers such as the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, they must play better defensively and kill penalties more consistently.

The blue line was upgraded in the offseason with the free-agent signings of Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne, and the goaltending depth is much improved with a Ben Scrivens-Viktor Fasth tandem. If the forwards play a smarter game in their own end, the Oilers should defend much better as a team.

Let’s preview the 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers.

Key Additions/Subtractions
Arrivals: Mark Fayne, Nikita Nikitin, Benoit Pouliot, Leon Draisaitl
Departures: Sam Gagner, Mark Fraser, Ryan Smyth

Player to Watch
Nail Yakupov had a horrendous sophomore campaign with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 63 games and a minus-33 rating. It was a disappointing performance after he impressed as a rookie with 17 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. The Oilers are expecting a bounce-back season from Yakupov, a former first overall pick with the shot power/accuracy, playmaking skill and speed to be an elite first-line winger.

This is a prove-it-to-me year for Yakupov. We will soon find out if he’s going to become a 35-goal scorer or a player who would be lucky to find the back of the net 15 times per season. In addition to showing he can be a consistent scoring threat, the Russian forward must also play a better two-way game and not put his team in vulnerable positions with his lack of effort defensively.

Edmonton cannot afford to have a No. 1 overall pick turn out to be a bust because the team currently is stuck in a rebuild that’s lasted eight years with minimal results.

Biggest Strength
The Oilers have great scoring depth on the wings. Hall scored a career-high 80 points last season en route to becoming a legitimate superstar. Eberle had a somewhat disappointing season by his standards and still tallied 65 points and 28 goals. Veteran left winger David Perron, who the Oilers acquired before the 2013-14 campaign, scored 28 goals and finished third on the team in points.

Six wingers scored nine or more goals for Edmonton last season, and the team will need a similar level of offensive production from these players because its center depth was weakened over the summer as a result of the Sam Gagner trade with Tampa Bay.

Most Glaring Weakness
Depth down the middle is among the common denominators of playoff-caliber teams, and it’s something the Oilers sorely lack heading into this season. Three-year veteran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the top-line center, even though he’s not ready for this role when you consider his subpar defensive skills and lack of size. Unfortunately for Edmonton, they don’t have a choice with RNH.

The second-line center role has yet to be determined, and it’s possible that 2014 first-round pick Leon Draisaitl could win the job in training camp. The German forward is a strong player with a polished defensive game for an 18-year-old, but asking a rookie to play a top-six role in a division full of elite centers is far from ideal.

Edmonton was a poor puck-possession team last season, and a good portion of that failure can be attributed to their lack of talent and depth at center. The Oilers won’t contend for a playoff spot without adding a veteran capable of upgrading the team’s faceoff skill and size down the middle.

Expectations for 2014-15
The goal for Edmonton isn’t necessarily to make the playoffs, but to at least be in contention for a postseason berth late in the season. The young core of players — Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle among others — has never played meaningful games late in the regular season at the NHL level. Gaining that experience would be a tremendous benefit to their development as top-tier players.

Aside from pushing for a playoff spot, young blue line prospects such as Darnell Nurse (No. 7 overall pick in 2013) and Oscar Klefbom (No. 19 pick in 2011) will be expected to make the Oilers roster and contribute. Nurse, in particular, is an exciting prospect and could develop into the shut-down, No. 1 defenseman that Edmonton has lacked since Chris Pronger left the team after its 2006 playoff run.

NESN.com’s 2014-15 NHL team previews >>

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