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Edmonton Oilers' Jordan Eberle (L) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrate a goal (DAN RIEDLHUBER/REUTERS)
Edmonton Oilers' Jordan Eberle (L) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrate a goal (DAN RIEDLHUBER/REUTERS)

Young nucleus gives Edmonton Oilers hope in short season Add to ...

The Oilers have an exciting nucleus of young forwards and the best news of all is that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall were all busy staying in game shape by playing in the American Hockey League, while the NHL lockout dragged on. Eberle, especially, had a sensational start; was leading the AHL in scoring; and won their November and December player-of-the-month awards.

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Ultimately, Edmonton’s chances of qualifying for the playoffs will hinge on whether they can make significant strides defensively under new head coach Ralph Kreuger, who replaces Tom Renney. Among Western Conference teams, only the Columbus Blue Jackets had a poorer defensive record last season.

At 26, the towering 6-foot-6 Devan Dubnyk will get a chance, once and for all, to nail down the starting goaltender’s job, but the biggest overall upgrade came on the blue line where Justin Schultz goes into the season as the Calder Trophy favorite, thanks to a strong first half of the season in Oklahoma City. The Oilers will also get a full year out of defensive stalwart Nick Schultz, who joined them at the trading deadline last year in the deal for Tom Gilbert. If Ryan Whitney can shake off the effects of the lingering ankle injury that plagued him for the first half last year, that will also be a big boost to their overall defensive presence.

A healthy Ales Hemsky will balance the Oilers second line, alongside Nail Yakupov, the No. 1 choice in the 2012 entry draft, but run and gun will only get them so far. Their playoff hopes will mostly hinge on how quickly their young players mature into a cohesive team able to play well at both ends of the ice.

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