A superb finish to the 2007-2008 season raised the expectations for an Edmonton Oilers team chock full of youthful exuberance.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what's in store for this promising young squad.
"There are so many guys on the team playing better than they've ever played before," head coach Craig MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal, "And the objective for them is to come in at this level next year. I think it's realistic that they can."
With so many young players playing prominent roles in the rebuilding effort, the Oilers expect to improve simply through the maturation process, but that process can be a difficult one, with some bumps along the way, so there is nothing that says next season will be automatically better.
However, the emergence of young talent gives the Oilers the kind of skilled core around which they can build for years to come.
Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov all played big minutes as the season progressed and are poised for bigger and better things in the future.
Even though the Oilers are coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the second straight season following a spot in the 2006 Stanley Cup final, optimism abounds now and, more importantly, it appears that the high hopes are justified.
The Oilers should legitimately be among the teams battling for a playoff spot next season and that process would be made even easier with a couple of solid off-season acquisitions. Kevin Lowe, you're up.
Kevin Lowe/Craig MacTavish
Top Prospects: Rob Schremp, Riley Nash, Chris Vande Velde
After a rebuilding season in which they relied heavily on youth, the Oilers have a lot more promise up front.
Shoulder surgery cut short Shawn Horcoff's season, but he was headed for the best season of his career with 21 goals and 50 points in 53 games. With a full recovery, Horcoff can resume a role on the top line though, in an ideal world, his skills might be more suited to the number two pivot spot.
24-year-old Ales Hemsky is the franchise's marquee talent, a smooth playmaker and puckhandler who could be even more valuable if he'd shoot with more frequency. Even so, Hemsky is a quality first-line winger who just needs the right guy to finish off his passes.
Early in the season, Robert Nilsson was having a hard time getting into the lineup, but he finished strong enough to earn a new three-year contract. Improved strength and aggressiveness would elevate his game, though that may come as he matures and gains confidence at the NHL level.
Dustin Penner took a lot of heat for signing his big-ticket free agent deal, but his first season in Edmonton wasn't all that bad. He marginally increased his point total from 45 in 2006-2007 with Anaheim to 47 in 2007-2008 with Edmonton and, while his plus-minus was minus-12, it's a decent starting point.
The Oilers have to hope Penner can become a 30-goal scorer and that should be possible as the talent around him improves.
Perhaps the most surprising of the Oilers' emerging young stars is Andrew Cogliano. The speedy 20-year-old rookie from the University of Michigan grew into a more prominent role, particularly once Horcoff was injured, and finished strong with 21 points and a plus-7 rating after the All-Star break.
Sam Gagner made the team as an 18-year-old and, like Cogliano, grewt into more responsibility as the season went along. He'll need to improve in his own end, as his minus-21 rating might suggest, but Gagner's offensive creativity, puckhandling skills and strong finish to his rookie season (28 points in the last 30 games) suggest that he'll be a scoring force for years to come.
Hard-hitting Raffi Torres missed more than half the season with a torn ACL, but he wasn't particularly effective even when he was healthy. After scoring 20 and 27 goals in his first two NHL seasons, Torres' offensive impact has declined, making him an expensive designated hitter.
Team captain Ethan Moreau may be all heart and soul, but he's played just 32 games over the past two seasons, so the Oilers need him to be in better health if he's going to make a positive impact on the team.
Fernando Pisani parlayed a sensational playoff run in 2006 into a nice contract extension, but it's resulted in him being overpaid for his third-line checker contribution.
After a couple of cups of coffee with the Oilers in previous seasons, Kyle Brodziak skated in 80 games with the big club last season and the 23-year-old showed he belonged, scoring 31 points and finishing strong. Brodziak could mature into a third-line centre at some point, but is probably slated to open the season anchoring the fourth line.
Perennial prospect Marc-Antoine Pouliot only has 19 points in 78 career games over three seasons, but he looked like he was starting to come around late in the season. If he can build on that progress, maybe next season is finally the year he plays a full NHL season.
Jarret Stoll's season was undeniably disappointing as he finished with just 36 points even though Hemsky and Horcoff were the only Oilers forwards to get more ice time per game. Worse, the supposed two-way centre had a team-worst minus-23 rating. Stoll could have value in trade, should the Oilers make him available, but his experience may be worth keeping around with such a young group of core forwards.
Zack Stortini is a willing fighter, but he loses more than he wins, so he doesn't necessarily strike fear into opponents that might take liberties with the Oilers' young skill players. On the plus side, Stortini at least managed to play a fourth-line role effectively.
If the Oilers want to dip into the free agent market, perhaps to add one more veteran scorer (Penner led the team with 23 goals), they might want to consider the likes of Jason Williams, Brian Rolston, Vaclav Prospal, Markus Naslund or Pavol Demitra.
Top Prospects: Jeff Petry, Taylor Chorney, Theo Peckham
Last summer's big free agent pickup, Sheldon Souray, was a washout in his first season, playing just 26 games before getting sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury. Now 31, Souray is what he is: his booming shot should help the power play, but his defensive lapses will cause problems.
Tom Gilbert had a terrific rookie season and earned a nice new contract extension as a result. His game should only get better, particularly if he would show a little more willingness to use his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame.
After a slow start to the season, Denis Grebeshkov played a more prominent role after the All-Star break (12 points, plus-8 in 29 games) and established himself as a bona fide NHL defenceman. Next season will be the time for him to take a further step in his development.
There's no denying Steve Staios is a warrior on the blueline and willing to do what's necessary to help his team, but with 16 points and a minus-14 rating last season, he's a little pricey at $2.9-million.
Matt Greene brings size and toughness to the back end. As part of the third pairing, he's a nice fit.
22-year-old Ladislav Smid took a step back in his second NHL season, even starting the year in the American Hockey League. He's still a decent prospect with good size and he has the ability to move the puck, but he needs a bounceback season.
Mathieu Roy has played minimal minutes in 30 NHL games over the past three seasons, so he's a useful guy to have in the organization to fill in, but it doesn't look like he's going to provide more than that.
Enigmatic Joni Pitkanen is coming off a career-low 26-point season but, in his defence, he did only play 63 games. Pitkanen has talent, though the 24-year-old has yet to consistently apply his skills for a full season to establish himself as a big-time NHL blueliner. The Oilers presumably would like to get Pitkanen re-signed, but could consider moving him if the price is right.
While the Oilers could go to work with the same defence corps and hope for young players to improve and Sheldon Souray to stay healthy, adding one more quality veteran might speed up the Oilers' plans to contend.
Brad Stuart, Adam Foote, Mike Commodore and, dare I suggest it, Jason Smith would be the type of big, physical defencemen who may be desirable to the Oilers.
Top Prospect: Jeff Deslauriers
Mathieu Garon emerged part way through the season as a quality puckstopper for the Oilers, posting an impressive 26-18-1 record and wresting the starting job away from Dwayne Roloson and giving Edmonton an inexpensive starter for next season.
Garon's superb record in shootouts (10-0, stopping 30 of 32 shots) may not get duplicated, but it's an asset if Garon can simply provide an advantage when the shootout rolls around.
Although Dwayne Roloson doesn't figure to be thrilled with the idea of being a backup, he'll have to play better than he did in 2007-2008 (his 3.05 goals against average was a career-high) if he wants a bigger role.
It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the Oilers to have two guys, entering contract years, competing for the job.
22nd - Colby Robak, Greg Nemisz, Joe Colborne
The Oilers have approximately $44-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, one top four defenceman
What I said the Oilers needed last year: Three top six forwards, two top four defencemen, backup goaltender
Who did they add? Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Geoff Sanderson, Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert, Joni Pitkanen, Mathieu Garon
Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll, Joni Pitkanen
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com