EDMONTON - After six years out of the playoffs and a 29th-place finish on the heels of consecutive 30th-place seasons, the promise of a bright future is starting to wear thin for fans of the Edmonton Oilers.
It's not going over a lot better with Taylor Hall, one of the players those hopes hinge on.
While Hall, at the heart of Edmonton's rebuild along with fellow second-year player Jordan Eberle and rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, has high hopes for the future just as fans do, he isn't willing to use short-term pain in the name of long-term gain as a crutch indefinitely.
Hall, his second season ended by shoulder surgery, made his expectations for next season abundantly clear as the Oilers cleaned out the dressing room and did exit interviews at Rexall Place Monday.
"I definitely think we have a good, young core here and we're definitely exciting and we definitely have a lot of potential, but I think we were sitting here last year saying the exact same thing," Hall said.
"At some point, it's got to turn into something. It can't all be hope and promise because eventually the fans are going to stop hoping, they're going to stop wanting and they're going to stop coming.
"I think next year has to be a playoff year. We have to be a contending team, at least, a team that teams are afraid to play because of our skill level, the way we compete and the way we play defence. It is fun to be in that young nucleus of really good players, but we have to do something with it eventually."
With a 3-0 loss to Vancouver Saturday, the Oilers finished the regular season with a record of 32-40-10 for 74 points, leaving them 14th in the Western Conference and 29th overall.
While that represents modest progress, a total of seven more wins than 2010-11 and 14 more points than the 62 of the previous two seasons, there remains work to do. Even with the gains, the Oilers finished 21 points back of the eight-place Chicago Blackhawks.
"I think you just need that winning mentality, to be honest," said Eberle, who led the Oilers with 76 points. "We've obviously lost a lot of games the last couple of years. You can't be satisfied with what we did."
When fans talk about a climb back to respectability, most of the talk revolves around Eberle, 21, Hall, 20, and Nugent-Hopkins, 18. They had terrific seasons and finished one-two-three in team scoring.
"As players, we're all maturing," said Hall, asked if he feels ready to take on more of a leadership role. "I know myself, I'm doing the same thing. In the room I want to be more vocal and try to take that next step.
"I want to be here for a long time. I want to be here when we're the team that's contending and we're in the playoffs and everything like that, so I'm looking forward to kind of taking that next step next year along with Ryan and Jordan and having a bigger voice in the room."
Eberle led the Oilers with 34 goals and his 76 points was an increase of 33 points over his rookie season. Hall tallied 27-26-53 in 61 games, 11 points better than he had as a rookie. Nugent-Hopkins was limited to 62 games by a shoulder injury but had 18 goals and 52 points. That left him tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead with Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog.
"We play a significant role as far as the offensive side of the game," Eberle said. "Whether I'm penalty killing next year or doing whatever, I know I'm going to play a lot more. That, in itself, you've got to take leadership there.
"Definitely, we have to take a lot bigger role as far as leadership and try to guide this team."
Aside from Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, defenceman Jeff Petry and goaltender Devan Dubnyk made great strides and took on bigger roles as the season went on. At the same time, veterans like captain Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth took lesser roles.
"They're dominant players now," Horcoff said. "I think you're in that transition now. The one thing we do need is you need a good balance. You need experience. Every winning team has that.
"You know, you've got to have veteran guys that have been around a long time and that youthful exuberance. We sort of in that situation now . . . the future is very bright with those three guys right now going forward."
Smyth, 35, who is looking for a new contract after returning for a second stint in Edmonton by way of a trade from Los Angeles, finished with 19 goals and 47 points, but 12 of his goals came in the first 25 games.
"We're not far off," Smyth said, when asked about contending for a playoff spot next season.
"Our record doesn't speak that right now, but next year you've got to think these young guys are a year older. They're going to be an impact. I think you're going to see a great deal of transition that's going to happen quick."
Notes: Eberle will join Team Canada for the World Championship. .... Ales Hemsky will represent the Czech Republic.
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