Northwest: Oilers looking to brighter days beyond this season

By Blake Benzel

Photo: The return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the Edmonton Oilers lineup has boosted the offense for that team in the near term as well as giving fans hope for the future (courtesy of

Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

The Edmonton Oilers might not be in the playoff hunt this season, but that’s not to say that there’s gloom and doom on the horizon.

In recent seasons, teams that have been down in the cellar of the standings have drafted their way back to the top. The Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished the feat after having four top-two picks in four years, using them to draft Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. The Chicago Blackhawks did similarly, drafting Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, as well as drafting Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith earlier.

This is the situation that the Oilers find themselves in.

Since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2005-06, the Oilers haven’t finished higher than fourth in the Northwest Division, a trend that looks to continue this season.

Over that time, however, they’ve drafted Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with their first round picks – players who are now poised to make a major impact on the franchise in the future.

Gagner is enjoying a breakout season, one that has him on pace to play more than 70 games for the first time since the 2008-09 season, score more than 42 points for the first time since his rookie season and finish with a plus rating for the first time in his career. He hasn’t kept pace since scoring 15 points in five games, but he has been an important part of the Oilers’ offense this season and, more importantly, is becoming an important cog in the Oilers’ defense.

Hall, meanwhile, has continued to battle injuries this season but has shown signs of improvement over his rookie year. On pace for 62 points this season, it would mark a 20-point jump over last year’s output, all while playing the same amount of ice time. He’s playing more confidently on the ice, he’s taking more shots and, as with any good sniper, he’s being rewarded for it.

The two most surprising players this season, though, have been Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

We just play very similar games as far as the way we see the ice,” Eberle told reporters after the duo put up five points combined against the Calgary Flames on Friday. “I think our best characteristic is our smarts. [Hall] is run-and-gun. He plays with a lot of speed and quickness, whereas we play a thinking man’s game and I think that’s why we play so well together.”

There’s no denying the two players’ talent levels, and their production this season speaks for itself. Over the last two games, the tandem has combined for eight points and has looked like they’ve been playing together for years.

We don’t really talk about doing too many things. It seems like we know how to read off of each other.” Nugent-Hopkins told reporters. “We just know each other’s tendencies. It’s a lot of fun playing with him. Hopefully, we can stick together.”

With the young core that the Oilers have, there’s little doubt that Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle will get the chance to stick together for a long time to come. And, if Edmonton’s luck holds like it did in Pittsburgh and Chicago, there’s quite a bit of hope that they’ll get to see what they can do at center stage in the playoffs in coming seasons.

Northwest Division Notebook

Edmonton Oilers forward Taylor Hall suffered a concussion in Friday’s 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames after Corey Sarich destroyed the young forward with a borderline hit. Hall is reportedly feeling “fine” but is out indefinitely. … Lee Stempniak returned to the lineup for the Flames on Sunday after missing 21 games with an ankle injury. Stempniak played 17:51 and registered two shots on goal in Calgary’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. … The Minnesota Wild have re-assigned forward Nick Palmieri to the Houston Aeros. Palmieri had registered zero points in nine games since being acquired from the New Jersey Devils.

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