Young and dangerous in Edmonton

Ken Campbell
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The Edmonton Oilers’ young guns put on a brilliant show Monday night. Just imagine what they’ll be able to accomplish when they decide to show up for an entire game.

For a team with all this youthful talent and a coach who demands accountability and effort, there’s no excuse for the way the Oilers played through the first three quarters of their 5-4 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils. For two-plus periods, the Oilers looked flat and dead in the water, largely because of limp efforts from the young players who are supposed to usher in a new era in Edmonton. On the strength of those same young men, the Oilers scored four goals in the third period and were perfect in the NHL’s skills contest.

If the Oilers are going to reverse the culture of losing that has defined them, they’re going to need more efforts like they got in the third period of the game Monday night. And if they do it this season, perhaps we’ll all look back to their victory over the Devils as a major defining moment. Because if these young guys are as perceptive as we’re led to believe, last night’s game provided them with the ideal template of how and how not to play.

The Oilers were limp and lifeless until Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, in his first game back from shoulder surgery, scored five minutes into the third period. And it was as though that goal turned a switch in coach Dallas Eakins’ group and the Oilers responded by moving their feet at a dizzying pace and asserting themselves offensively. Prior to that, not only had the Oilers looked terrible in terms of giving up the puck, but they didn’t seem terribly intent on paying any kind of price to get it back.

Which should raise some red flags regardless of the result of the game against the Devils. A team with players as young and talented as the Oilers should be making errors of commission, not omission. They should be losing track meets, not chess matches. They should be pushing the pace for all 60 minutes of the game, not just when they get into desperation mode.

The experiment of using Taylor Hall at center did not last long, as Hall was back on the left side of the top line with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. And while the trio did redeem itself with some dogged forechecking and inspired play in the third period, those young men are still learning that consistency of effort is important in the NHL. Turning the switch three quarters of the way through the game when you’re down by three goals is not going to result in too many wins.

When the young Oilers were winning Stanley Cups, they were brash and full of energy. They scored four goals in a period a lot. But they had far more talent than this group and they also had veteran leadership to show the young players the way. Now that was a team that could turn it on when it felt like it. Most nights, this team won’t be able to do that.