The captain of the Edmonton Oilers says after three miserable seasons, his team has a stockpile of explosive young scoring talent and maybe — finally — the chance to have some fun.
“It’s nice to be in the (hunt for the) playoffs in January. We’re right there. We’re tied for first!” Shawn Horcoff joked with reporters Sunday as the team opened training camp at Rexall Place with medical testing.
“Listen, the biggest thing is it’s been three hard years for the people in the rink and the fans,” he said. “We feel now like because of those years we’ve been able to build a little bit of a foundation here with some skill.”
Players are scheduled to hit the ice on Monday
Krueger has 15 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies coming to camp.
There are high expectations for Edmonton this season, fuelled by young forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall along with 2013 No. 1 draft pick Nail Yakupov and defenceman Justin Schultz.
After three seasons of finishing last or next-to-last in the NHL, the Oilers are being picked by many to return to the post-season this year, under new head coach Ralph Krueger.
Krueger told reporters his big task will be to manage expectations for players like Schultz and Yakupov, who have not been exposed to the speed of play or the day-to-day grind at hockey’s highest level.
“We have to know that all this hype is only going to prepare teams even better for the Edmonton Oilers,” said Krueger.
“(Despite) all this euphoria, and all this excitement and all this energy there’s going to be hardships in these next weeks, and we’re going to have to fight through those.”
He said the schedule itself will place more emphasis on conditioning, roster depth — and staying power.
“We all know that the pace will be unprecedented. It’s a pace that the NHL has never seen before,” said Krueger, noting Edmonton will play 48 games in 98 days just to try to qualify for the post-season.
The Oilers open the season on the road next Sunday in Vancouver. The home opener is Jan. 22 versus San Jose.
Included in the schedule is a nine-game, 17-day road trip from late February to mid-March while curlers at the Tim Horton’s Brier take over Rexall Place.
“It’s very important to have depth,” said Krueger. “When you’re looking at 12 games in 20 days, it’s very important to use your bench, (and) as important as ever to clarify the roles and try to avoid especially forwards playing multi-roles — power play, penalty kill and five on five.”
Devan Dubnyk enters the season as the undisputed No. 1 netminder. The six-foot-five goalie from Regina kept in shape by playing at the recent Spengler Cup and said he’s ready for the pressure.
“That’s just part of the job — how you play is going to directly affect how successful the team is. It’s a spot where you just have to be good and you have to be good every night,” said Dubnyk.
The preliminary camp depth chart has Nugent-Hopkins centring the Oilers’ top line with Hall on the left wing and Eberle on the right. The No. 2 line is centred by Sam Gagner with Yakupov on his left and veteran Ales Hemsky on the right.
The third line has Horcoff at centre, Ryan Smyth on left wing and Teemu Hartikainen on the right.
The top defence pairing is Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry. Justin Schultz will play with veteran stay-at-home defenceman Nick Schultz.
Dubnyk will share the goaltending with 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin is coming off hip surgery, and Krueger said he is not yet cleared medically to play.
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