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Edmonton Oilers' draft pick Taylor Hall attends a news conference in Edmonton on Monday, July 5, 2010 at Rexall Place. The Oilers have signed the No. 1 draft pick to a three-year, entry-level contract. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Edmonton Oilers' draft pick Taylor Hall attends a news conference in Edmonton on Monday, July 5, 2010 at Rexall Place. The Oilers have signed the No. 1 draft pick to a three-year, entry-level contract. (John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Signing Hall important step for Oilers Add to ...

On the day Taylor Hall officially signed his first professional contract with the Oilers, Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini went out of his way to stress a single, salient point.

This was an important first step. This was a beginning. But Hall is not about to don his Superman cape and swoop to the rescue right away. And that's a smart way to approach things - tamp down expectations in the beginning, because the process that they've undertaken - a slow, but thoughtful makeover - isn't going to yield immediate results.

They will be like all the good young teams, building from the ground up, better in two years time, fun to watch in three and if the pieces come together the way Tambellini imagines, the new Chicago or Pittsburgh or Washington soon after that.

That's part of the process, when you go scorched earth. It doesn't happen overnight. "It allows us a chance to be a great team - one day," said Tambellini, and that day isn't going to come in early October when the Oilers open the season at home against their provincial rivals the Calgary Flames. All the feel-good moments of the past fortnight cannot fast-track the process, if the plan is to do it right, in orderly fashion, with no short cuts.

The fact is, in the short term, the Flames will be the better team - for a year anyway - good enough to challenge for a playoff spot. Calgary GM Darryl Sutter has a lineup that resembles a patchwork quilt, stitched together with remnants from all around the league. Even so, the combination of Miikka Kiprusoff's stellar goaltending and Jarome Iginla's skill and desire will be enough to keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot next season.

The Oilers, by contrast, have a lot of work to do, as Tambellini reiterated Monday.

Personality-wise, Tambellini is a quiet and low-key manager, the opposite of the brash Brian Burke, but over these past two months he has demonstrated the capacity to make hard and unpopular decisions, as the team cleaned house. It started with changes to the off-ice staff - trainers, the assistant GM, scouts, minor-league coaches - many of them popular figures in the community, a difficult task on many levels.

Handing out all those pink slips couldn't have been easy, but it prepped him for the next task: ditching captain Ethan Moreau, who was waived; trading one unwanted contract (Patrick O'Sullivan's) for another (Jim Vandermeer); buying out Robert Nilsson and bidding adieu, through attrition, to a former playoff hero (Fernando Pisani) and a failed first-rounder (Marc Pouliot).

It was all done with the intention of moving the younger building blocks up the depth chart with a chance to form their own nucleus, much the way they did three decades ago, in the early, early stages of the Wayne Gretzky years. The Oilers took a little time to come together then, too; years in fact before they could harness the considerable skill of Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and the rest in a cohesive championship unit.

Gretzky and his crew were at the forefront of changing the game, scoring goals in record numbers. Eventually the style of play ebbed a little and now, the pendulum is thankfully swinging back. The "new" NHL makes it easier for a younger player to succeed sooner, but it doesn't happen overnight. Team success generally doesn't follow for a year or two after the bright young lights - including Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle - establish themselves as legit NHLers.

So the gospel from the north preaches patience, and depending upon how the goaltending sorts itself out, and how Ales Hemsky returns from injury, it may require another year in the lower echelon of the Western Conference before it gets better.

Calgary? Because the focus is on all of last week's odd roster additions - notably the returns of Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay - it is easy to lose sight of what the Flames do have. They are a largely a veteran team, full of experienced NHLers, who are hard to play against, and feature one of the best goalies in the league. The closest thing to a blue-chip prospect is Swedish youngster Mikael Backlund, but Backlund is just like the Oilers' young kids - someone who will be learning on the job this season, perhaps getting some top-six duty when things are going well, but likely anchored to the bench at other times, when coach Brent Sutter feels that it's not his night.

There is little about the Flames that excites you in a big-picture, long-term way, but as they are currently configured, they will muddle along, winning at least as often as they lose, and maybe even landing back in the playoffs again.

Long-term, the model that Edmonton adopted has worked time and again, provided the team makes enough smart choices at the draft table. By contrast, the blueprint that Calgary follows generally results in year after year of frustration and has the ability to delude you into thinking you're better than you actually are.

Choose for yourself which way you'd rather go - trading short-term pain for long-term gain the way Edmonton has, or following Calgary's approach? That involves endlessly spinning your wheels, better than some, but never quite good enough to challenge the high-end clubs, with the big-time talent, for the hardware that really matters to players and fans alike, the Stanley Cup.

 

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