Following two straight 62-point seasons which placed them at the bottom of the NHL standings, expectations in Alberta's capital prior last season were heightened. There was a feeling that the Oilers were ready to make a move out of the bottom of the Western Conference and potentially challenge for the franchise's first playoff berth in five seasons.
Unfortunately, neither of the above statements rang true. After a fast start, Edmonton had a disastrous run in December and January, winning only five games in regulation and effectively ending any hopes of competing for a playoff spot. The free fall cost head coach Tom Renney his job and increased the pressure on management to get the club back to respectability.
Making the Jump?
With the additions of Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz the Oilers hope that their youth can finally translate to more wins on the ice.
A productive off-season, which included the selection of Yakupov with the No. 1 overall pick and the signing of Schultz, was a solid start in that direction. Both are expected to contribute immediately and should fit in well with a roster that may have the best under-25 talent in the league.
A full season out of youngsters Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - who finished second and third respectively in team scoring despite missing a combined 41 games - is another reason for optimism.
The new man behind the bench is Ralph Krueger and he brings with him a reputation as a detail-oriented coach who will hold players accountable - particularly for defensive lapses. That should be a welcome sight, as the Oilers' downfall the last three seasons has been an inability to keep the puck out of their net.
Schultz should help in that regard, but so will the development of 26-year-old goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Heading into his fourth NHL season, he's shown flashes that he has the ability to be a solid NHL netminder, having improved his goals against average in each of his first three seasons.
If he is able to become more consistent and if Krueger gets his young squad to show a better overall commitment to team defence, Edmonton has the potential to challenge for a playoff spot in 2012-13.
It's hard to find another NHL team as loaded with young talent as the Oilers. Their recent struggles have allowed them to accumulate high draft picks, many of which have made immediate impacts. For the 2012-13 season, Edmonton expects Yakupov and Schultz to contribute from day one.
The consensus top-ranked player available in the 2012 draft, Yakupov possesses a dynamic, high-end skill set. If the Russian is able to improve his play in the defensive side of the game and overcome the limitations of his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame, he has a chance to challenge for the Calder Trophy.
Signed as a free agent after he failed to come to an agreement with the team that drafted him, Schultz is seen as a smooth-skating defenseman with plenty of offensive upside that should provide a needed boost to the Oilers' power play. Anaheim's first-round selection in 2008, the former Wisconsin Badger was considered to be the top defenceman available among the 2012 free agent class and signed a two-year, entry-level deal with Edmonton. He has proceeded to tear up the American Hockey League, topping the league in scoring from defenceman by a wide margin for much of the season.
Besides Schultz, the Oilers have a pair of defencemen that could make an impact in the near future.
Taken with the 19th selection in the 2011 Draft, Oscar Klefbom played his last two seasons in the Swedish Elite League. If the 6-foot-3, 204-pounder continues to develop, he could see himself in an Oilers' uniform at some point soon.
Martin Marincin has a similar profile to Klefbom in that he has good size (6-foot-5, 196-pounds) and features a solid offensive upside, having taken on the role of power play quarterback at both the junior and AHL levels. A full season or two with Oklahoma City will allow him to refine the defensive side of his game.
Other prospects in the system include defencemen David Musil and Martin Gernat along with forward Daniil Zharkov. All three are a few years away, having spent their previous seasons playing junior hockey.
Forward Teemu Hartikainen and defenceman Colten Teubert have less upside, but could again see time with the big club in depth roles should injuries hit.
Finishing at or near the bottom of the NHL standings the last three years does have a silver lining.
The Oilers have accumulated top end young talent - particularly up front - at a rate that is unmatched around the league.
The hope is the team will follow in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who followed up a run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2000-01 with four straight seasons of finishing at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Those four years of hardship - as well as the 2004-05 lockout season - allowed Pittsburgh to accumulate a number of high picks which they turned into Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins' model produced a team that made a 47-point jump in the standings, as Pittsburgh followed up a last place, 58 point season with the second-most successful season – points wise – in team history.
Oilers fans are not demanding a turnaround as significant as that, but with all the talent on the roster, will expect the team to be challenging for a playoff spot well into March and early April.
Over the last three seasons, as the Oilers have rebuilt their team through the draft, many fans and critics have wondered if they have been too focused on adding offence at the expense of the defensive side of the game.
The pressure to finally take a defenceman reached new levels prior to the 2012 draft, but GM Steve Tambellini stuck to his guns and chose the consensus best player available, and then sat back and witnessed eight blueliners go in the next nine picks.
The fact that there is an imbalance is not surprising, since the Oilers have not selected a blueliner with their first pick in the draft since taking Jeff Petry in the second round in 2006.
The organization's decision to lean towards drafting talented forwards at the expense of defencemen was aided when Schultz decided to sign effectively gave Edmonton two first-round picks, since the 22-year old was considered by many to possess the skills of a Top 10 NHL draft pick.
Still, it's difficult to expect any one of their core six defencemen to assume the role of a No. 1 or No. 2 shutdown defender in 2012-13. So if the Oilers are to have success - in addition to consistent, reliable goaltending from Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin - it will likely be due to a more defense-first approach - instituted by Krueger - from every player on the roster.
A look at where Oilers players went during the lockout:
Devan Dubnyk (Team Canada, Spengler Cup), Jordan Eberle (Oklahoma City, AHL), Sam Gagner (Klagenfurt, Austria), Taylor Hall (Oklahoma City, AHL), Teemu Hartikainen (Oklahoma City, AHL), Ales Hemsky (Pardubice, Czech League), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oklahoma City, AHL), Magnus Paajarvi (Oklahoma City, AHL), Lennart Petrell (Helsinki, Finnish Elite), Corey Potter (Vienna Capitals, Austria), Justin Schultz (Oklahoma City, AHL), Ladislav Smid (Bili Tygri Liberec, Czech League), Ryan Smyth (Team Canada, Spengler Cup), Colten Teubert (Oklahoma City, AHL), Nail Yakupov (Neftekhimik, KHL)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
Whatever the Edmonton Oilers do this season, they need to take a step forward - and a significant step at that.
An all-out rebuilding effort and the massive potential that goes with it is all well and good, but at some point that bushel full of talented kids taken first overall or high in the first round has to perform well enough to at least contend for a playoff spot. Which means the Oilers need to be in a battle for no worse than eighth instead of their normal routine of checking out their draft lottery odds.
If having players who are in peak condition from playing during the lockout counts for anything, new head coach Ralph Krueger's team could get the jump on everyone.
A possible first line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle has their Oklahoma City experience to draw on, not to mention a wealth of world-class skill and talent. A potential second line of Sam Gagner with Ales Hemsky on one wing and maybe newbie Nail Yakupov on the other side have been playing all season in Europe.
Veterans Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff will form two-thirds of the third line and could be joined by big Finn Teemu Hartikainen, who played a strong, hard game in OKC, or maybe there's eventually a spot there for Magnus Paajarvi.
Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Ryan Jones (who's currently out with an eye injury), Darcy Hordichuk, Chris VandeVelde and Lennart Petrell will compete for fourth-line time.
The big question is on the blue line and in goal.
Adding free agent Justin Schultz gives the Oilers an offensive threat from the blue line and he's been nothing short of phenomenal, at least offensively, in the AHL. But he's likely to have some rough patches learning to play defence in the NHL. Getting paired with reliable veteran defender Nick Schultz may help in that regard.
The Oilers really need Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry to not wilt under the pressure of having to log top four minutes and Ryan Whitney needs to be fit and healthy to contribute alongside unheralded but effective Corey Potter on a third pair. Andy Sutton's season, and perhaps his career, is over thanks to a knee injury so Edmonton may be in the market for a veteran depth defenceman who's an upgrade over Theo Peckham or Colton Tuebert.
In goal, Devan Dubnyk's time has arrived and he needs to show no. 1 capabilities. No one knows what to expect from vet Nikolai Khabibulin coming off hip surgery, but this position looks like it's all about Dubnyk now.
The Oilers will no doubt be exciting to watch and their power play, with Justin Schultz quarterbacking it, could be electrifying but this is a year when the Oilers need tangible points in the standings and not just high marks for fine style.