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The Globe and Mail

Duhatschek: Oilers are done maturing – time to start winning games

Since arriving in the NHL full-time in 2010, Edmonton Oilers centre Jordan Eberle has heard about his team's potential – a lot.

And how the Oilers slow-but-steady rebuilding blueprint, which involved absorbing a lot of short-term pain, would pay off in real long-term gains.

And how the young core would eventually mature and carry the team onwards and upwards, to perhaps rekindle memories of the dynasty days, when Edmonton dominated the NHL with a team that included a young Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the rest.

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You know what?

Eberle is tired of hearing the talk. To paraphrase football coach George Allen, he believes the future is now.

"There comes a point where you kind of get sick and tired of hearing how good you're going to be," Eberle said in an interview. "You want to be that good. So we've put the rebuilding role – or whatever it's been the last few years – behind us. We're ready to be a good team.

"If you look at the depth of our team and the skill in this locker room, it's exciting to see where the team could be at."

Since the 2008-09 season, no NHL team has changed head coaches more frequently than the Oilers – from Craig MacTavish to Pat Quinn to Tom Renney to Ralph Kreuger and now to Dallas Eakins. Five coaches, all with different priorities and philosophies. It created for an interesting but forever changing dynamic.

The Oilers were rebuilding with youth – three No. 1-overall draft choices, all of whom played as teenagers in the NHL, which requires patience.

Centre Sam Gagner (sixth overall in 2007) was the first of the Oilers kiddie corps to arrive on the scene, in the 2007-08 season, when they kept him as an 18-year-old. He now has six NHL seasons under his belt and last season, on a points-per-game basis, had his best year, too. He finished second on the team in scoring to Taylor Hall (first overall in 2010) and played more per night – an average of 19 minutes and 24 seconds – than any other forward on the team.

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In a perfect world, the Oilers slot in Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall in 2011) as their two top centres. Nugent-Hopkins, however, will miss the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, which may mean winger Hall temporarily relocates to centre until they get all hands on deck.

Hall had a genuine breakthrough last year – 50 points in 45 games played, good for ninth place in the NHL scoring race. Their leading goal-scorer was rookie Nail Yakupov (first overall in 2012), who managed 17, despite playing just over 14 minutes per night.

In his first NHL season, highly touted defenceman Justin Schultz put up a thoroughly respectable 27 points in 48 games but was a minus-17.

If anything, Gagner is even more tired of the losing than Eberle (22nd overall in 2008). He has 414 NHL regular-season games on his resumé but, so far, no playoff action.

"I think it's a cop-out to say we're a young team," Gagner said. "It gives you an excuse to lose games – and you don't want that excuse any more. I think we're at a stage now where our core group has been in the league long enough that we can start to figure things out a little bit.

"We have a great group of experience around us. It's important for us to continually push the envelope and get better. We're excited about meeting those expectations this year and, hopefully, being a playoff team."

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This year, eight of 14 teams make the playoffs in the reworked Western Conference – and one of the spots occupied by the Detroit Red Wings for the past 22 years is now open, with Detroit moving to the East along with the Columbus Blue Jackets and only the Winnipeg Jets shifting to the West.

But Edmonton was still a full 10 points behind the Minnesota Wild, which landed the last playoff spot in the West in 2013 – so there is still work to be done.

"There are stages," Eberle said. "As bad as it sounds, we've got some pretty good players out of [all the losing]. We've been able to insert young guys into the lineup earlier and they've got a lot of confidence that way.

"But I think you want to get to the point – and I think we're here – where you want to start winning hockey games."


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