Originally Published: September 27, 2013

Edmonton Oilers: But do they really get it?

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

It's a new season, and time to ponder yet again whether this will be the year the talented young Oilers take that next step toward being a playoff team. Oh, sorry, "young" is now a verboten term around the Oilers, at least if rookie head coach Dallas Eakins has his way.

"It leaves a really dirty taste in my mouth," Eakins told ESPN.com.

The former NHLer and successful minor pro coach said he believes a team whose identity is simply as a "young" team can allow that to become an excuse for not being successful. And while there is no doubting the talent stockpiled in Edmonton - three straight No. 1 draft picks has a way of driving up your raw talent level - there is also no doubting the reality that Edmonton has failed to make the playoffs since its run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, and has in the past couple of years failed to translate talent into results.

For Eakins, that means instilling a whole new set of habits on the ice, with players needing to learn to play with and without the puck.

"If you don't have the puck, you have no skill," Eakins said. "We don't want to play a risky game because of our skill. We want to play an intelligent game because of our skill. I don't understand any skilled player that wouldn't want to play a 200-foot game."

If Eakins is successful in changing the habits of his players and gets them committed to a 200-foot game, then the hiring of the hottest coaching prospect of the offseason will be the most significant change in recent years for the aimless Oilers. Eakins spent the last eight years in the Maple Leafs organization and was hired by Craig MacTavish, who took over as GM last April. Eakins is the fourth coach to stand behind the Oilers bench since MacTavish guided the Oilers to the '06 finals as head coach. MacTavish promised things were going to change in the organization, and it will be interesting to see how things unfold under Eakins and if MacTavish shakes up the lineup significantly if the team gets off to a slow start.

On the ice, Andrew Ference arrives after a successful tenure in Boston that included a Cup win in 2011 and appearance in last June's finals. Denis Grebeshkov has been repatriated from the Kontinental Hockey League. Boyd Gordon brings grit and experience to the offensive unit. David Perron, who battled concussion issues in St. Louis, came over in a deal that saw Magnus Paajarvi go to the Blues.

Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, Sam Gagner are the talented cornerstones of what many expect will be future glory for the franchise. All have high skill levels, high hockey IQs, and with the right coaching and systems in place will presumably be the ones to make good on the team's promise.

"We want to do the right things with the puck when we play in the offensive zone more," Eberle told ESPN.com.

He estimated the Oilers were outshot "probably 90 percent of the games last year and that has to change." (Eberle was close: The Oilers were outshot in 35 of 48 games last season.) Hall, one of the team's No. 1 overall draft picks, enjoyed a breakthrough season after the lockout, finishing ninth in the league with 50 points. Schultz, a former Anaheim prospect who chose Edmonton as a free agent, had 27 points (tied for 12th among NHL defensemen in his first season), but was also minus-17. Gordon will provide veteran leadership along with Ference. And, of course, there's Ryan Smyth to help keep the team's talented young players pointed in the right direction. Eakins is looking to Ference to bring a healthy dose of a this-is-what-it-takes-to-win attitude to the proceedings. And Eberle said he was encouraged by how the team played last season against Chicago, a team that not so long ago languished like the Oilers have but learned to marry high skill with a strong team game. If the Oilers can learn how to play in close, low-scoring games, "we'll be tough to play against," Eberle said.

Despite all that talent, the Oilers were just middle-of-the-road in scoring, finishing 18th overall (although they were tied for seventh on the power play). That will have to improve, especially if a defense that finished 19th in goals allowed per game last season is still a work in progress. It raises the question of whether there's enough of a "middle class" on the team, capable second- and third-line players who can fill in around the high-end players. The issue is exacerbated by the fact Nugent-Hopkins, who signed a seven-year contract extension worth $42 million, will miss the start of the season recovering from a shoulder injury, which might necessitate moving Hall to center, at least temporarily. Second-line center Gagner will also miss the start of the regular season because of a broken jaw, testing the Oilers' depth down the middle.

Eakins acknowledged that implementing the plan he and his coaching staff have "doesn't happen overnight." The seeds will be planted in training camp and they'll go from there. Defensively, the team is looking at defending "by committee," Eakins said. Can that committee take a collective step forward? There are also questions about the team's goaltending plan. Yes, Devan Dubnyk had an impressive .920 save percentage while appearing in 38 games, but is he really the franchise goalie who's going to lead this team out of the hockey wilderness? And if he's not, is there anyone else on the roster capable of being that guy? If the answer turns out to be no (and it appears to be), the Oilers have no shot of making the playoffs.

It won't matter where the Oilers play if they don't play the way Eakins wants them to. If they get it, though, and develop the habits Eakins wants, "the wins will take care of themselves. And if the wins take care of themselves, the playoffs will take care of themselves," the coach said. In short, the Oilers control their own destiny in terms of the playoffs, regardless of playing in the revamped Pacific Division.

Burnside: This team is headed in a wonderful direction, but it's a tall order to ask it to simply get it right away and jump into the top eight in the West, even with two fewer teams in the conference. We see the Oilers settling into sixth place in what promises to be a very competitive Pacific Division.

Custance: Third in the Pacific Division.

LeBrun: Fifth in the Pacific Division.

Melrose: Sixth in the Pacific Division.

Strang: Sixth in the Pacific Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.