Are the Oilers going to be one of the elite teams this season? Looking at the roster as currently constructed, probably not. But wins, losses, and playoff berths aren’t necessarily what the 2011-12 season is all about in Edmonton. Ask most hockey people and this season is all about growth. It’s about the young players growing into their NHL roles as they realize their unlimited potential; it’s about the collection of young players growing together as they try to form an identity as a team. Neither of those come over night—and no team in the NHL can be considered a contender without both: players playing together and maximizing their potential. That’s what this season is all about.
Take a quick look at the Edmonton Oilers forwards. Names like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have fanatics in Oil Country daring to dream about the future for the first time in decades. Some people have been as presumptuous as to mentions names like Messier, Kurri, Anderson, and even Gretzky. They have a lot of potential—but let’s take this rebuild one step at a time.
With all of that youth and inexperience comes growing pains.
For this season, there’s a forward on the roster who may be more important than all the blue-chip prospects Central Scouting can drool over: captain Shawn Horcoff. Just like the team as a whole, the numbers Horcoff puts on the scoreboard will be secondary to the work that he does in practice and in the locker room. The Oilers captains knows it would be nice stay healthy and play in some meaningful games at the end of this coming season:
“In my case, I’ve endured two of the hardest years of my career. I’d like to think that’s behind me now. A realistic goal for us is making the playoffs. At the very least, we have to be playing meaningful games in the second half of the season, especially down the stretch.
“Look at Pittsburgh. They had three high, high drafts (Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeny Malkin and Sidney Crosby; the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 selections in 2003, 2004 and 2005, respectively) and it wasn’t until the fourth year where they made the playoffs and lost in the first round. We’re just two drafts in and it’s still early.
“The first step is making the playoffs and taking it to the next level.”
A subtle correction: the first step is becoming competitive on a nightly basis. They’ll need to learn to push back when things go south; they’ll need to learn how to limit a potential losing streak to two or three games and not seven or eight. Horcoff is a guy who has been around for a while and knows what it takes to be an NHLer on and off the ice. He’ll be instrumental if the Oilers are to start fulfilling their promise this season.
People forget that it was only five years ago when the Oilers were within a single game of their sixth Stanley Cup. For the first time, the franchise has committed itself to a complete rebuild—a rebuild that is starting to bear fruit. The next step is for all of the assembled prospects to learn to take the next step together as a team. If Horcoff has it his way, he’ll take care of that part this upcoming season.