Talk about a bull’s eye on your back.
In the space of one year, the Edmonton Oilers have gone from the NHL’s punch line franchise to Canada’s best hope to bring the Stanley Cup north of the border.
With elite centres Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid locked up to long-term deals, the Oilers are widely predicted to be in hockey’s final four next spring.
But head coach Todd McLellan says a lot of things broke just right for the Oilers last year, when they ended 10 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs to finish eighth overall and come within one win of the Western Conference final.
A number of players had career years and the team avoided injuries to the core group.
And now there’s no sneaking up.
The team, led by scoring champ McDavid (30 goals, 100 points and the Hart Trophy), will get every opponent’s best game this season.
“Our goals are fairly lofty but the work that goes into it is going to be immense and the players have to understand that,” said McLellan.
“The key will be to remember how hard it is to win.”
Pre-season play suggests the Oilers are ready to pick up where they left off. McDavid has been dangling and dominating, as has Draisaitl, who finished eighth in scoring (29 goals, 77 points) last season.
But where everyone will play up front has been a moving target. McLellan has been shaking and stirring his forward lines in September, looking primarily for the best right-winger to skate alongside McDavid and left-winger Patrick Maroon.
Newcomer Ryan Strome, acquired from the Islanders for Jordan Eberle, had his moments with McDavid but has been pushed down the depth chart.
Draisaitl was initially slotted in as second-line centre but also played on McDavid’s right side, which would then elevate third-line centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the top six.
Veteran forward Milan Lucic is entrenched as the second-line left wing, having reduced his body fat ratio after a punishing off-season lifting weights with former NFLer Terrell Owens.
The story of training camp has been the outstanding play of this year’s top Oilers draft pick Kailer Yamamoto. The 19-year-old has displayed a combination of speed, soft hands, and competitiveness worthy of a top-six forward.
Sophomore Drake Caggiula, he of the motor that never quits, has had a so-so camp after being moved to top-six right wing, his off side. Last year’s top team draft choice, Jesse Puljujarvi, has also not stood out, but the Oilers say the 19-year-old’s development is fine.
Winger Anton Slepyshev injured his ankle in the off-season and is now just rounding into shape.
The defence is solid but not deep, led by shutdown Swedes Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson.
The team’s most consistent and versatile defenceman, Andrej Sekera, remains out for months after ripping up his knee late in the spring playoff run.
That has forced a domino effect on the rest of the D-corps. Kris Russell is paired with Matt Benning as the No. 2 duo and Darnell Nurse and Eric Gryba have been the third, although Nurse has excelled in camp and could be moving up the depth chart.
In net, Cam Talbot was the workhorse in the regular season and the backbone of the playoff run last year. He played in 73 games, won 42 of them, thrives on work, and is expected to get a ton of ice time again this season.
Laurent Brossoit is the backup.
The Oilers were eighth in goals scored (2.96 goals per game), eighth in goals against (2.52), fifth on the power play and 17th on the penalty kill.
The glaring problem is faceoffs where Edmonton finished a league-worst 47 per cent.
But if that’s the biggest problem, then the Oilers are looking good.
Lucic said there’s a renewed confidence in the dressing room.
“The guys’ body language and stuff like that, you can just tell the difference,” he said.
“Guys are definitely more upbeat.”