2011-12 Edmonton Oilers Preview

It's been five years since the Edmonton Oilers shocked the hockey world by making a surprise run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.

Since losing in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes that year, the Oilers haven't even been back to the playoffs. In fact, Edmonton has had the worst record in the league in each of the past two years and hasn't finished higher than 19th in the NHL standings since '06.

Of course, this awful stretch has resulted in loads of high draft picks for Edmonton and the Oilers can only hope the current rebuilding project bears fruit sometime in the near future.

The return of Ryan Smyth to the Oilers will give nostalgic fans something to cheer about and maybe the 35-year-old winger can impart some valuable wisdom on Edmonton's younger players.

The 2011-12 campaign projects as yet another brutal year for hockey in Edmonton, but with the bar set so low after consecutive 62-point seasons, perhaps the Oilers can exceed expectations.

FORWARDS - Leading the charge in Edmonton's youth movement are the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NHL draft -- Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Hall played in 62 games as a rookie last year, but it's unclear what Edmonton's plans are for Nugent-Hopkins in 2011-12. He could make the club in training camp, but the Oilers also have the option of sending him back to juniors.

Hall hopes to improve on a strong rookie season that saw him notch 22 goals and 20 assists over 65 games. Hall, who will turn 20 in November, had his first season cut short in early-May after suffering a high ankle sprain in a fight.

It will be interesting to see where the left winger Hall plays this year. He could skate with veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky or perhaps he'll combine with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle to form a line of highly-touted youngsters.

Nugent-Hopkins, a centerman, is coming off a terrific season for Red Deer of the WHL, recording 31 goals and a league-high 75 assists in 69 games. After that dominant season it's hard to believe he could gain more from another year in juniors.

Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Eberle, who was the 22nd overall selection of the 2008 draft, had a solid first year as an NHLer, posting 18 goals and 25 assists in 69 games.

Smyth last played with the Oilers during the 2006-07 season before he was traded that year to the New York Islanders. Back then, Smyth, who is a native of Alberta, played left wing on a line with Horcoff and Hemsky and it's possible head coach Tom Renney will reform that unit.

Known for his ability to play in the tough areas around the crease, Smyth recorded 23 goals and 24 points last year while playing in all 82 games for the LA Kings. Originally drafted by Edmonton in the sixth round of the 1994 draft, Smyth has recorded 355 goals over 1,069 games during his stellar NHL career.

Horcoff was named the 13th captain in Oilers' history prior to the start of last season, but that may have been the high point of his campaign. Horcoff battled injuries all season and the 33-year-old centerman wound up with 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) in just 47 games.

Like Horcoff, Hemsky struggled to stay on the ice last season, but managed to post 14 goals and 42 points in 47 games. He was recently cleared for contact after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder this summer. The 28-year-old Czech winger is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012 and could be dealt this season if Edmonton fails to contend for a playoff spot.

Edmonton's third line will likely be centered by Sam Gagner, a player still trying to justify being selected with the sixth overall pick of the 2007 draft. Gagner, 22, had his best NHL year when he recorded 49 points as a rookie in 2007-08, but has posted years of 41, 41 and 42 points, respectively, since then. He netted 15 goals and 27 assists in 68 games last season.

The Oilers also have winger Magnus Paajarvi, the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft. Paajarvi, 20, played in 80 games as a rookie last year and tallied 34 points (15g, 19a).

Edmonton also has veteran centerman Eric Belanger in the fold, after signing him to a three-year, $5.25 million contract this summer. Belanger had 40 points (13g, 27a) in 82 games with Minnesota in 2010-11 and will at least help the Oilers on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle.

DEFENSE - The Oilers have not stockpiled the same type of young talent on defense as they have up front and it showed last year when the club finished 28th in the league in goals surrendered per game (3.17).

Ryan Whitney figures to be the club's de facto No. 1 defenseman this year. The former first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins was off to a great start with 27 points (2g, 25a) in the first 35 games of the year before an ankle injury ended his season in late December.

Before he was injured, Whitney was leading the team in minutes, points and plus-minus, so keeping him on the ice is certainly a key for Edmonton's 2011-12 campaign.

The Oilers added a couple of veteran blueliners in free agency this summer, signing Cam Barker and Andy Sutton to one-year deals.

Barker, 25, was selected by Chicago with the third overall pick in 2003, but has never lived up to that distinction. Last year, he had one goal and four assists in 52 games with Minnesota. Sutton, meanwhile, is a 36-year-old undrafted journeyman who played in 39 games with Anaheim last year.

Tom Gilbert will likely form the top pairing with Whitney and is coming off a six-goal, 26-point season with Edmonton. Ladislav Smid, who had 10 assists with the Oilers last year, could make up the club's second duo with Sutton.

Theo Peckham, a third-round pick by Edmonton in 2006, is also expected to garner minutes on the Oilers' blue line this year. He had three goals and 10 assists in 71 games last season.

GOALTENDING - The Oilers thought they had taken care of the goaltending situation when they signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $15 million deal, but to say the move hasn't panned out would be an understatement.

Khabibulin played in just 18 games during an injury-plagued 2009-10 and went 10-32-3 with a dismal 3.39 goals-against average in 46 contests last year. There have also been off-the-ice issues for "The Bulin Wall", as the 38-year- old Russian was arrested for DUI in February 2010 and served his 30-day sentence for that offense this summer.

The Oilers are expected to let Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk fight over the starting job this year. Dubnyk, 25, fared better than Khabibulin in 2010-11, posting a 12-13-8 record to go with a 2.71 GAA and .916 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Judging by the last two years, it seems unlikely that the Oilers will break the rebuilding cycle and qualify for a postseason berth in 2011-12. The only way that could happen is if Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi all take enormous step forwards this season and Nugent-Hopkins enters the league as a ready-made superstar. Even then, Edmonton's lack of defensive depth would likely stop the club short of making the playoffs. They say patience is a virtue, and hockey fans in Edmonton better have it in spades.