Oilers a team to contend with in shortened season

If the reaction on social media has been any indication, it appears Canadian hockey fans are ready to replace bitterness over the NHL lockout with excitement for the shortened season that is expected to start by Jan. 19.

Nowhere is that probably truer than in Edmonton.

Unlike any other NHL club, the Oilers have had the advantage of seeing their core players - namely their trio of star forwards in Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins along with newcomer stud rookie defenseman Justin Schultz - remain together for more or less the entire duration of the lockout and dominate statistically in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons.

The play of the big four - especially Eberle and Shultz, who depart the AHL as the two runaway leaders in points - ought to be more than enough to whet the appetite of the Edmonton faithful who will expect them to have a leg up against the rest of the competition once they finally get to don the Oilers' crest again.

Considering how critical getting off to a quick start in a shortened season when each team's margin of error has been decreased by at least 30 games compared to a typical campaign, Edmonton finds itself positioned ideally with its top players in midseason form ready to burst out of the gate in a very tough Northwest Division which includes the revamped Minnesota Wild and the perennial contending Vancouver Canucks.

Edmonton is no stranger to fast starts with their current bunch.

Last season, the Oilers jumped out to a 9-3-2 record and had the early division lead before coming back down to earth shortly thereafter. But they are a more poised and experienced bunch this season and a similar start in a 48-game campaign might just give them enough of a boost to punch their ticket to the playoffs.

And then there is the wild card factor in the addition of 19-year-old forward Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft who will be expected to add even more to Edmonton's already dynamic offensive group up front.

Yakupov came under fire recently for his poor dealings with the media not to mention his less-than-stellar performance at the recent World Junior Hockey championships, although he did get end the tournament on a high by outduelling future teammate Nugent-Hopkins and scoring twice in the bronze medal game to help Russia stun Canada, 6-5, in overtime.

He might get a bit of a rough initiation when he first arrives in Edmonton, but nothing shuts critics up faster than on-ice success. If he can instantly bring the dynamic offensive firepower that the Oilers figured he would when they selected him out of Sarnia, then any potential ill feelings there are between the media and fans toward the Russian sniper will certainly dissipate in a hurry.

Any way you slice, it the Oilers, like they have been for the past couple of years, will be a team to watch out for at the start of the season.

The only difference is that this year, you can bet on them being a team to be reckoned with by the time the regular season draws to an end.

And if you happen to be a fan of the Oilers, you have even more reason to be thrilled that the NHL will be dropping the puck in January.