The Oilers finished second-last in the NHL last season, but won the lottery to select No. 1 overall again. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Six years since their last post-season appearance, the Edmonton Oilers remain a club very much in rebuild mode.
Finishing dead last in the NHL standings in 2010 and 2011 helped them land the No. 1 overall draft pick twice, where they selected Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
They finished second-last overall in 2012, but won the draft lottery again and picked Nail Yakupov.
Add in the emergence of 2008 first-rounder Jordan Eberle (22nd overall), plus this summer’s signing of unrestricted free agent defense prospect Justin Schultz, and the Oilers have promising talent, which has their fans dreaming of another Stanley Cup dynasty in Edmonton.
Still, there remain significant roster issues that must be addressed if they’re to move into playoff contention this season.
The biggest question is in goal. Nikolai Khabibulin, 39, is long past his prime and in the final season of his contract, while 26-year-old Devan Dubnyk has yet to establish himself as a full-time starter.
Skilled experience is lacking on the blueline. Nick Schultz joined the club in a late-season trade with the Minnesota Wild and, along with Ladislav Smid, is expected to improve the Oilers’ play inside their own blueline. Ryan Whitney is their best puck-moving defenseman, but he’s been hampered by injuries the past two seasons, while 37-year-old Andy Sutton’s best years are well behind him.
Justin Schultz has big potential, but has yet to make his NHL debut. Jeff Petry (24) and Corey Potter (28) showed flashes last season, but it remains to be seen if they can build on those performances.
The Oilers also lack size and toughness up front and on the blueline. That could prove critical, especially for their special teams, as the season goes on.
Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky were frequently rumored as trade candidates last season and if the Oilers’ anticipated improvement sputters this season, their names could resurface in this season’s rumor mill.
Moving Hemsky and his $5-million cap hit won’t be easy, especially with his injury history. Gagner, on the other hand, is only 23, has five consecutive 40-plus point seasons and a more affordable one-year, $3.2-million contract.
It’s believed Gagner has attracted attention from rival GMs who feel he will blossom into a proven second-line center on a deeper club. Given the Oilers’ lack of depth at center, however, management has so far resisted the temptation to move him.
That could change this season if they get an offer too good to refuse, such as a promising netminder or another quality defenseman.
Another possibility is moving one of their talented young forwards for depth elsewhere.
Eberle and Hall were both re-upped to lengthy, lucrative contracts this summer, so rule them out as trade candidates.
Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, is entering the second season of his three-year entry level deal, while Yakupov is supposed to make his NHL debut this season.
Given Nugent-Hopkins’ value as a first line center and the club’s aforementioned lack of depth at that position, he is highly unlikely to move. That would leave Yakupov, as the Oilers already have scoring depth on the right side with Eberle and Hemsky.
All things considered, if any Oilers hit the trade market this season, it’s more likely to be Gagner or Hemsky than their rising young stars.
That will depend, of course, on the team’s 2012-13 performance and where they are in the standings by mid-season.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla's Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.