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Lack of growth from young players has Oilers stuck in neutral

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have combined for eight points and a minus-16 rating so far. (Getty Images)

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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have combined for eight points and a minus-16 rating so far. (Getty Images)

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux asked the following question: “How many goals for Sid tonight?” Given that the Penguins are hosting the Edmonton Oilers, the sky might be the limit the way both Sid the Kid and the Oilers kids are playing.

Strange that someone of Lemieux’s savvy and pedigree would give the Oilers that kind of bulletin-board material, but it’s a legitimate question. After all, Crosby is at the top of his game and the Oilers are at the bottom of theirs.

And therein lies the problem for the Oilers, a team that has been projected to make great leaps forward again, but continues to disappoint. After a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals Sunday, the Oilers find themselves in 26th place, saved only by the fact there have been an inordinate number of disastrous starts to the season. If this keeps up, the Oilers will put themselves in position to have a top-five pick in the draft for the fourth time in five years.

But the last thing the Oilers need right now is another promising young player. Because if I’m an Oilers fan, I’m getting just a little nervous about the prospect that losing might just be coming a little too easy to this group of players. Having to adjust to their third coach in as many seasons and to a defensive system that has them looking unorganized and ineffective certainly can’t help – not to mention the shoddy goaltending – but one of the biggest problems in Edmonton is there aren’t enough players who can pick these young men up by the boot straps to show them the way. Lord knows, Ryan Smyth continues to try and is doing yeomen’s work once again, but he can only do so much.

For a team that is supposed to be so young and energetic, I wonder sometimes where all this youthful energy is going. The Oilers are a group that should be pushing the pace in each and every game, wearing teams down and getting involved in track meets. With the way their goaltending has performed in the early going, that might be the only way for this team to win games.

Case in point was the Oilers only win of the season, 5-4 in overtime against the New Jersey Devils eight days ago. The Oilers were playing one of the league’s veteran teams and for two periods looked completely uninterested in testing the Devils speed or defense. Their young players looked either tired or bored and, as a result, the Oilers fell behind 3-0. Then, sparked by a power play goal from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers seemed to hit the switch and took a one-goal lead into the last minute of play. But then a blown assignment by Nugent-Hopkins in front of the net led to the tying goal, all of which was made worse by the fact that it was shorthanded. (The Devils had their goalie pulled, so each team had five skaters, but still.)

That’s what happens when you have a player such as Nugent-Hopkins on the ice for the last minute while protecting a one-goal lead. The same thing happened in Toronto on Saturday night with the Oilers protecting a one-goal lead late in the game. With his team decisively better in the faceoff circle than the Leafs were on the evening, goalie Devan Dubnyk dropped the puck in his zone to keep the play alive, which led to Taylor Hall losing a battle along the boards and Nugent-Hopkins (again) blowing a defensive assignment on the tying goal. Players on the ice for the Oilers: Jeff Petry, Hall, Anton Belov, Ales Hemsky and Nugent-Hopkins. Average NHL experience: 3.4 seasons. Players on the ice for the Leafs: Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf. Average NHL experience: 5.6 seasons.

These young Oilers cannot help the fact that a remarkably easy call was missed that led to the overtime goal against them. But they can do something about putting themselves in that situation in the first place. Perhaps it’s all part of the learning curve for everyone, but having a defensively struggling Nugent-Hopkins on the ice in the final 30 seconds of a one-goal game with Boyd Gordon on the bench doesn’t seem to make much sense.

But the fact is the Oilers are going to have to put their young guys out in crucial situations and it’s up to them to step up and get things done. The Oilers have tried in the past to get and keep veterans and have often had to overpay to do so. Shawn Horcoff, who was dealt to the Dallas Stars over the summer, was a classic example of that. But guys such as David Bolland, who scored the overtime winner against Edmonton, or Dave Clarkson, who watched from the press box, are not going to be the kinds of players the Oilers can ever seem to attract in the long term.

That leaves it up to the kids. And if they don’t start responding in a more assertive way, the Oilers are going to continue to struggle to even come close to making the playoffs.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News. You can read more of his material in the magazine. Click to subscribe.

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