Oilers open season against visiting Jets

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets will try to get their 2013-14 playoff quests off to a good start on Tuesday, as the clubs battle in a season-opening clash at Rexall Place.

The Oilers open this season at home after missing out on the playoffs for a seventh straight season in 2013.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg's postseason drought is only slightly shorter, as the franchise last qualified for the playoffs in the spring of 2007 when the club was still known as the Atlanta Thrashers. Winnipeg missed out on the postseason by eight points in 2011-12 and by a mere four points last season.

As part of the NHL's realignment plan for this season, the Jets are moving from the East to the West, conference wise, to join the Central Division, which expects to be much tougher than the club's previous home in the now- defunct Southeast. Not only will the Central be the home of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, but the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild also expect to challenge for the division title, while the Jets, Colorado, Dallas and Nashville simply try to stay afloat.

Claude Noel is back for a third season behind the bench for Winnipeg, but he could be in the hot seat if the Jets struggle to find their footing in their new surroundings.

The good news for Noel is there is no shortage of talent in Winnipeg, where Evander Kane leads the offense and blueliners Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom create havoc from the back end. Byfuglien did suffer a lower-body injury in Winnipeg's final game of the preseason, but is expected to play in Tuesday's opener.

The Jets also added forwards Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik via trades this summer, but time will only tell if those moves are enough to help Winnipeg keep pace in a new division and conference.

Winnipeg netminder Ondrej Pavelec has proven himself to be a workhorse over the years, but there are some folks who question his ability to be a dependable No. 1 goaltender. The Czech will get plenty of chances to prove himself worthy this season, beginning with a start in Tuesday's opener.

Pavelec played in 44 of Winnipeg's 48 games in 2013 and was the club's starting goaltender 43 times while recording a 21-20-3 record. However, his 2.80 goals against average and .905 save percentage were hardly impressive numbers. Still, with Al Montoya returning as the backup, Pavelec is the undisputed No. 1 netminder once again.

The Oilers have stockpiled draft picks during its recent rebuilding phase, but there is reason to believe the club is ready to make the transition to playoff contender in 2013-14.

Since losing to the Carolina Hurricanes as an upstart eighth seed in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, the Oilers have yet to make it back to the postseason, giving this once-proud franchise the longest current playoff drought in the NHL. Even worse, the Oilers have rarely been competitive during the downturn, as the seven-season playoff drought includes four last-place finishes and only two seasons of 80 points or more.

The Oilers finished 10 points out of a playoff spot during last year's lockout-shortened campaign and it wasn't long before the heads began to roll. General manager Steve Tambellini was fired in mid-April and replaced by Craig MacTavish, who had previously coached the club from 2000-09. MacTavish then fired head coach Ralph Krueger after his first season at the job and replaced him with Dallas Eakins, Edmonton's fifth different head coach in the last six seasons. Eakins, who was the head coach of the AHL's Toronto Marlies over the last four seasons, will make his debut as an NHL head coach in Tuesday's opener.

The turnover didn't stop with management or coaches, however, as MacTavish also chose to part ways with players like former captain Shawn Horcoff, fellow forward Magnus Paajarvi and defenseman Ryan Whitney.

Taking over as captain for Horcoff is defenseman Andrew Ference, who signed a four-year deal with the Oilers this offseason after spending the last seven seasons in Boston. The 34-year-old is an Edmonton native and is excited just to be playing with his hometown club, let alone serving as the Oilers captain.

"To know that I'm able to come back to my hometown and be so extremely proud to pull on the jersey, letter or not, I know how fortunate I am to have that kind of path in a career like this," said Ference. "It really is an ultimate privilege and honor to just have that jersey on in the first place."

Under Eakins, the Oilers, who are loaded with talented and highly-touted players stockpiled through the draft, are expected to play with more grit and determination, or the roster upheaval could claim more victims.

Although Edmonton is stacked with offensive potential, the club finished 21st in the league in even-strength goals in 2013. Eakins would like to see an improvement in that area this season, but it could be hard in the early going with forwards Sam Gagner (broken jaw) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (offseason shoulder surgery) both on the shelf to start the season.

Last season, Devan Dubnyk supplanted veteran Nikolai Khabibulin as Edmonton's starting goaltender and enters this season opener with the No. 1 job all to himself. Khabibulin departed to sign a free-agent deal with Chicago and the Oilers replaced him with Jason LaBarbera, who at 33 years of age seems to be a better fit as a backup option than his 40-year-old predecessor.

Dubnyk performed well under difficult circumstances for the Oilers last season, facing a ton of rubber on a nightly basis thanks in part to a defense that had a rough time getting the puck out of its own end. Still, the 27-year- old managed to record a strong .920 save percentage to go with a 2.57 goals against average and 14-6-6 record in 2013.

Because they were in different conferences last season, the Jets and Oilers never faced each other during the lockout-shortened campaign when teams only played clubs from within their respective conferences.

Edmonton has taken the last two meetings against the Jets, who are 2-6-0 with a tie in the past nine encounters between these franchises.