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Cullen: Oilers' young guns big on potential

Scott Cullen
9/20/2011 11:22:12 AM
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The Edmonton Oilers may be a year away from really contending for a playoff spot, but they are overflowing with potential and that makes them attractive to fantasy owners.

The jewel among all the Oilers' bright and shiny prospects is Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in 2010 who impressed with 42 points in 65 games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in a fight with the Blue Jackets' Derek Dorsett. Hall had 19 points in the last 25 games he played before getting hurt, so there is understandably excitement about what his potential might be. It's not a reach to project Hall as a 40-goal scorer, it just may not be as soon as this season.

An ankle injury limited defenceman Ryan Whitney to just 35 games last season, but he put up 27 points which was still good enough to lead Oilers defencemen. Health has been an issue for Whitney in two of the last three seasons, but he's productive when he's in the lineup, making him a risk-reward selection.

To say injuries have affected Alex Hemsky is an understatement since he's played just 69 games over the last two seasons. Health aside, Hemsky is a prolific scorer -- one of ten right wingers to score more than .90 points per game in at least 200 games since 2005-2006. Nevertheless, it's tough to take him early based on his injury woes.

Maybe Jordan Eberle doesn't have the same ceiling as Hall, but the 21-year-old had 43 points in 69 games as a rookie and should continue to get better. He might not have the same kind of ice time with Hemsky in the lineup, but that might also allow Eberle to get more favourable defensive matchups.

Returning to Edmonton, Ryan Smyth has scored more than 20 goals in seven of the last eight seasons, but the 35-year-old managed just .57 points per game in L.A. last season, his lowest rate since 1998-1999. He'll still have value in Edmonton, but an older player playing for a worse team brings the risk that his numbers will continue to decline.

Since scoring 49 points as a rookie in 2007-2008, Sam Gagner hasn't advanced much, scoring 41-42 points in each of the next three seasons. That lack of progress likely leaves Gagner as a sleeper candidate for this season, but it's fair to remember that he's only 22-years-old, so he may be ready to put together a better offensive season.

If Gagner doesn't pick it up offensively, the Oilers have another playmaking centre in the fold, with number one pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins offering slick playmaking skills. There is the possibility that Nugent-Hopkins could be returned to junior, but that would be unusual for a number one overall pick and he just may be able to put up points right out of the gate. If nothing else, it could be tantalizing to see him play with Edmonton's young wingers.

After scoring 34 points as a rookie, Magnus Paajarvi is an intriguing prospect in the long term, but right now he may still be in a third line role, which limits his offensive upside.

Linus Omark had just five goals and a minus-16 rating in 51 games as a rookie, but did a lot of good things in the puck possession game so he's yet another interesting young player, but might fall under a "wait-and-see" approach until Omark gets a significant enough offensive role.

If the young centres don't pan out, Shawn Horcoff is still around. The 33-year-old had 27 points in 47 games, but he's only two years away from a streak of four straight seasons with at least 50 points so his veteran leadership might be a good mix with young wingers.

Goaltending is a difficult situation to assess for the Oilers. Devan Dubnyk should be able to take over as the starter and if he has a .916 save percentage, like he did in 35 games last year, then he might deserve 50-plus starts.

The reason the door is open for Dubnyk is that Nikolai Khabibulin has struggled, but there is always the possibility that Khabibulin plays above average and secures the starter job. That might be more likely in a contract year, but Khabibulin does have a starter's pedigree so it's tough to write him off entirely.

If the Oilers get strong goaltending, one way or another, they could surprise this season. They are young and talented and probably a year or two away from being real playoff contenders, but a team with this kind of potential should be exciting to watch progress this season.

Depth Chart - Edmonton Oilers

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.  For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.



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