Few NHL fans would believe you prior to the start of the season if you told them that the Edmonton Oilers would be third in the league after 14 games.
After finishing dead last in the league with 62 points in each of the past two seasons, the Oilers are off to a 9-3-2 start with 20 points, sitting at first place in a division that includes the defending Western Conference champs. Edmonton seems determined for a better season, already a third of the way to their win total from the entire last season.
So why the big turnaround? A mixture of youth and experience seems to be the key. Both young talents and old veterans are supplying solid production to the until-recently struggling Oilers.
The three biggest assets to the future of this team are generally considered to be forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle. Nugent-Hopkins and Hall are the league’s two most recent first overall draft picks and are certainly playing like it.
After only 14 games, the 18-year-old Nugent-Hopkins has impressed with 6 goals and 6 assists for 12 points with a +3 after making the jump from junior to pro, second on the team in goals and points. He wasted no time checking the hat trick off his list of milestones, scoring 3 goals in just his third NHL game against the reigning Conference champion Vancouver Canucks.
19-year-old Hall is also off to a strong start in his sophomore season with 3 goals, 9 points, and a +3 through 13 games. Not to be forgotten is 21-year-old Jordan Eberle, whose highlight reel goal in his first NHL game last year against Calgary opened the eyes of many to his talents. The 22 nd overall pick in 2008 has an impressive 8 assists and 11 points with a +3 in 14 games this season, as well as 2 game-winning goals.
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On the other side of the coin are the Oilers’ impressive older players. 35-year-old local hero Ryan Smyth returned to his long-time team in Edmonton from Los Angeles this summer and has so far responded by leading the team in goals, points, and +/-. He has 7 goals (including 2 game winners), 7 assists, 14 points and a +4 through 14 games this season. Smyth, Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, and Eberle have accounted for 6 game-winning goals out of the team’s 9 wins.
Captain Shawn Horcoff is also looking to improve this season. The 33-year-old already has 8 points in 14 games after playing only 47 games last season.
An even greater veteran presence than Smyth and Horcoff has been 38-year-old goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. After two terrible seasons in his first two campaigns with Edmonton, Khabibulin is off to a 7-0-2 start with 2 shutouts through 9 games. He is currently first in the league with an unheard-of goals against average of 0.98 and is second in the league with an equally outstanding save percentage of .964. He is also third in the league in wins despite being 23 rd among goaltenders in games played.
Another pleasant surprise for the Oilers has been 27-year-old defenseman Corey Potter. He has 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points through 12 games, first among Oilers defenseman in each category. Potter had played only nine games over the previous three seasons split between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Oilers are 6-1-1 at home this season, and 3-2-1 on the road. The next stretch will certainly be a challenge, as 17 of their next 27 games are on the road, including 7 of the next 9 against tough opponents like the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and league-leading Dallas Stars, none of whom the Oilers have played this season.
The Oilers make their next stop in Boston against the defending champions on Thursday night for another tough test. The key storyline will certainly be the 2010 Draft matchup: #1 Taylor Hall vs. #2 Tyler Seguin, who has also been extremely impressive this season.
Only time will tell if the Oilers can keep up the magic. The biggest question will be whether the 38-year-old Khabibulin can continue to perform the way he has thus far.
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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