Can new head coach Dallas Eakins lead the Edmonton Oilers to a higher position in the NHL standings?
Photograph by: Ed Kaiser, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - After missing the playoffs for the seventh straight season, the Edmonton Oilers again made significant cvhanges, starting with the dismissal of general manager Steve Tambellini and continuing with all the off-season roster moves.
All that change, of course, begs a few questions:
1. Dallas Eakins is not only heading into his first season as a head coach in the NHL after four seasons behind the bench of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, he is the Oilers’ fifth coach in six seasons. Continuity has not been a strong suit of this club.
Will this be a solid hire? Is he the man for the job?
He does have more experience to draw on, with the team’s hiring of associate coach Keith Acton, and the early reports from the players are favourable. They liked the way he ran the bench and, perhaps more importantly, the succinct messages they were receiving. That’s essential.
“He’s very vocal,” Taylor Hall said. “He’s not a guy who leaves you confused as to where you’re at on the team or on the ice.
“He’s very up front and I like that. I don’t want to have to guess out there. I don’t want to have to play mind games.”
2. The Oilers were already thin down the middle, but now they’re starting the season without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is being held back to ensure his surgically repaired shoulder is ready, and Sam Gagner, who suffered a broken jaw when Vancouver Canucks forward Zack Kassian walloped him in the face with his stick during a pre-season game.
Can the team rely on American Hockey Leaguers such as Mark Arcobello until their starters are back?
Taylor Hall will start the season in the middle (he was being auditioned there before Gagner underwent surgery) while free agent acquisition Boyd Gordon will now play a more prominent role.
“You need your team to go through adversity — maybe not right away like this with our two guys (out) — but adversity offers opportunity,” head coach Dallas Eakins said.
There’s also the lingering question about Nugent-Hopkins. Will he, like Hall did before him, step back in and play his game immediately? It is one of the reasons why the Oilers did not send out Nugent-Hopkins for any pre-season games and could very well wait until Nov. 1 to unleash him. They do not want to hurry him back.
3. Unable to move Ales Hemsky in the off-season, the veteran winger and general manager Craig MacTavish stood side-by-side at a pre-training camp news conference and talked about moving forward. Hemsky said he’d do whatever he could to help the team; MacTavish said he obviously valued the winger more than his peers.
So what will Hemsky bring to the table?
He looked good in camp and sounded like a player who is committed to the cause — an attitude that suggests he’s more apt to maintain if the team is winning. He’s also in the last year of his contract, so unrestricted free agency beckons. There’s more incentive, at least during the early days of the season. Hemsky wants to get back to the Olympics with the Czech Republic team. The rosters have to be set by Dec. 31.
4. When the season opens on Oct. 1, half the starting defensive corps will be new. Only Ladislav Smid, Justin Schultz and Nick Schultz will be back in the mix.
It was certainly one of the areas where general manager Craig MacTavish focused his off-season attentions. He wanted depth and competition, particularly for the fifth, sixth and seventh spots.
Will the defence be any better?
There are certainly more puck-movers on the back end, along with some speed, but the Oilers didn’t add a hard-hitting defensive defenceman — someone like Andy Sutton (who retired last season) or Mark Fistric (who wasn’t re-signed).
5. Will the Oilers finally end their playoff drought?
The Oilers should contend this season. They pulled themselves into eighth spot last April, only to hit another losing skid, so if that brief taste of a playoff race did indeed leave the returnees hungry, it will show in the standings.
Eakins has also made a concerted effort to let the players have some ownership of the team. He refurbished the locker room, removing shades of the past in order to focus on today’s players, and he has removed the youth crutch.
“That’s the first thing I asked when I came in: do not refer to this as a young team anymore. We’re not a young team. We’re a team,” Eakins said.
“When you call a team a young team, you immediately alienate a bunch of guys and you make it about certain people and we’re not going to do that here.”
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