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Core Values: Oilers unable to turn corner despite gifted young nucleus

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Taylor Hall is at the center of the Oilers' gifted young core. (USATSI)
Taylor Hall is at the center of the Oilers' gifted young core. (USATSI)

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In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The way the NHL has set up its process for getting the first-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft somewhat rewards futility. If a team is bad enough, they'll be rewarded with high draft picks. With those picks, the team is supposed to get better. It won't be overnight, but high draft picks generally turn into high-quality NHL players. That's generally been the case for the Edmonton Oilers, but it hasn't shown up in the standings.

Three consecutive first-overall picks from 2010-12 have given the Oilers good players, but has seemingly brought the team no closer to the playoffs. Since the Oilers fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, they have not returned to the playoffs. Eight long seasons with nothing but high draft picks to show for their efforts is growing old in Edmonton.

The Oilers do appear to have building blocks and the team has made some changes at the top of the organization and often behind the bench to find the right mix. Expecting the young guys to carry this team to the promised land by this time would have been lofty, but perhaps the organization could have mixed in a playoff appearance at some point.

The Oilers still may not make the playoffs next season, but there is enough changing faces that could help the team improve gradually. Solid shutdown defenseman Mark Fayne and the improved Benoit Pouliot should help add some veteran experience to a young group that is led by Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The team parted ways with Sam Gagner, who never quite lived up to his draft status, and Ales Hemsky, who was a bright spot for the organization some years, but never fit well in the rebuilding scenario.

The Oilers still may be a year or two away from fielding a playoff team at this point, but there's movement and there's change. Whether it's going to be rapid enough to calm the nerves of a worn-out fan base is yet to be seen.

Core Values: Edmonton Oilers

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): LW Taylor Hall (22, 6 years), C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (21, 7 years), RW Jordan Eberle (24, 5 years), D Justin Schultz (24, RFA), LW David Perron (26, 2 years), RW Nail Yakupov (20, 1 year)

Total cap hit in 2014-15^: $26,237,500 (38% of salary cap consumed by six players)
^ - Includes conservatively estimated $3.5 million cap hit for Justin Schultz.

Average Age: 22.8

Total point production in 2013-14: 124 goals, 191 assists, 315 points (57.5% of team's total point production)

About the Core

Taylor Hall: After posting his second straight season of averaging over a point-per-game, Hall staked his claim as one of the top left wingers in the game right now. He put up 80 points in 74 games last season, following up his 50-point campaign in 45 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Hall, the first of the three straight No. 1 picks the Oilers made, has been everything his team has needed and more. Over four years, Hall has put up 225 points in 246 games. Among players under 25 over that same span, Hall has the sixth most points. The fact that he is able to produce at such a high clip at just 22 years old is a great sign for the future for the Oilers. As the team builds up around Hall, he'll likely remain the organization's driving force. How he was acquired: 2010 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: With just three seasons under his belt, Nugent-Hopkins is only just beginning to deliver on his potential. Before turning 21, the skilled center has averaged a respectable 0.73 points per game and should expect that number to trend up as he enters the first season of his seven-year extension. Nugent-Hopkins has 132 points in just 182 games. With last year being his first true full season at the NHL level, it's completely reasonable to expect him to be able to build off of last year and be a solid contributor as the team's No. 1 center. Playing second-fiddle to Hall is the likely scenario for RNH's career in Edmonton, but that's not a bad spot to be as he continues to build strength and experience over the next few years. How he was acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Jordan Eberle (14) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) bolster Edmonton's production. (USATSI)
Jordan Eberle (14) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) bolster Edmonton's production. (USATSI)

Jordan Eberle: One of the old men among the Oilers' core at 24 years old, Eberle has been a pretty reliable source of production over four seasons with the club. He is one of the better goal scorers under the age of 25 in the NHL and showed that again with 28 goals last season. With 221 points in 275 career NHL games, Eberle has averaged 0.80 points per game in four seasons. That's a pretty solid number that may only get better as those around him continue to grow into the NHL a bit more. To have two seasons above the 60-point mark is a solid base to build off of. Though Hall is likely to remain the focal point of the Oilers' offense, Eberle has to be able to produce at a similarly high clip to help make the Oilers scoring attack a potent one. Eberle is right behind Hall among players aged 25 or younger over the last four seasons with his 221 points. They are a rather dynamic duo already and with five years left on Eberle's contract, there's time for them to turn the ship around in Edmonton as has been the hope since the pair arrived together in 2010-11. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 22nd overall

Justin Schultz: After arriving in Edmonton with much fanfare and a load of potential, it has taken Schultz a bit longer to find his NHL legs. He's still without a contract currently as a restricted free agent, but could be looking at a bridge deal in his future. With 60 points in 122 NHL games over the last two seasons, Schultz hasn't quite produced the way he was expected to, particularly after he torched the AHL for 48 points in 34 games before the lockout ended in the 2012-13 season. That said, at just 24 years old, Schultz still has time to round out a bit more. He was an all-rookie selection in 2012-13 and certainly offered glimpses of what he can be. After 33 points in 74 games last season and some real struggles defensively, there may be a bit of doubt in Schultz, but there's no denying that his offensive capabilities are why the team went after him aggressively when he became a free agent after not signing with the Anaheim Ducks in 2012. It appears that he is viewed as a part of this young core and one of the players that will help turn the franchise around. What kind of contract he ends up getting before the season could tell a lot more about what the team really thinks of him, but there's still time for him to meet his potential and become a highly-productive top-pairing defenseman. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on June 30, 2012.

Nail Yakupov: Simply put, last year was forgettable for Nail Yakupov. Sophomore slump doesn't really explain the half of it. After leading all rookie scorers with 31 points the year before, Yakupov had just 24 points in 63 games of an injury-marred second NHL season. The young Russian endured benchings and public scrutiny for much of the season which certainly won't help matters. With a chance to reset and get things back on track, Yakupov could be the offensive force you'd expect a former first-overall pick to be. In 111 games in the NHL, Yakupv has 55 points. At his best, he can be an electric offensive talent that defies defenses with speed and a wicked release. At his worst, Yakupov disappears from the game and can appear disengaged. This isn't an issue of the overused enigmatic Russian trope, though. Yakupov won't turn 21 until a few days into the season. It is hard to remember he is that young, but there was bound to be growing pains. If he bounces back, the Oilers all of the sudden have a more potent top six. How he was acquired: 2012 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

David Perron: After posting the best season of his career, Perron is one of the few veteran players that seemed like a possible fit for inclusion in the core. The young guys can't do it all themselves, so to have a veteran like Perron clicking again next season is going to make this team better as a whole. Perron hit career highs with 28 goals and 57 points last season. After his career with the St. Louis Blues was derailed by concussion issues, what he did last year makes it appear as though he is back on track. Something similar to his production last season combined with some contributions from the newcomers and better years from Schultz and Yakupov could go a long way towards altering the standings a bit. How he was acquired: Traded from the St. Louis Blues for Magnus Paajarvi and a second-round pick on July 10, 2013

Who's next in line

Leon Draisaitl (center) could be next to make the transition to the NHL. (USATSI)
Leon Draisaitl (center) could be next to make the transition to the NHL. (USATSI)

The interesting thing about the Oilers is that their next in line almost always go straight to the NHL roster. That very well could be the case again as the Oilers will give third-overall pick Leon Draisaitl every opportunity to make the NHL team. The big German could help shore up center depth after the trading of Sam Gagner. If Draisaitl isn't ready, however, the Oilers could be in serious trouble down the middle next year.

The team also is looking forward to the arrival of Darnell Nurse, a punishing defensive prospect that put up 50 points for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL last year. Nurse could go back for one more year of junior hockey, but the Oilers should be giving him a long look in camp.

The Oilers also have some enthusiasm tied to young defensemen Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom. Both saw time with the Oilers last season and could make a bigger impact in the season ahead, depending on which of the two makes the opening-night roster.

The jury is still out a bit on which of the two goaltenders the Oilers will be turning to next. The odds on favorite to take the starter role full-time would seem to be Ben Scrivens at this point. He had flashes of brilliance last year, but has been mostly a backup over his career. At 27, Scrivens could take the reins and be the go-to goaltender for a few years, but he'll have competition in 32-year-old Viktor Fasth, who burst onto the scene two seasons ago with the Anaheim Ducks before managing just 12 games in an injury-marred 2013-14 season.

Because the Oilers so often have to bring their top picks into the NHL fold rather immediately, the prospect system doesn't stay stocked for long. There are plenty of players with promise in the system, but it is tougher to say which of and when those players will be ready, if ever, to make an impact on the NHL roster.

Overview

The Oilers have become one of the lowliest franchises in the NHL and it hasn't been a quick turnaround for the club despite its growing stable of talented young players. It's quite a fall from the glory years of this franchise, which seem much further in the past than they really are.

While it is true that the youth is filling the roles the team hoped they would as they were drafted, it's the supporting cast that has been a bit of a revolving door. Dallas Eakins is the fifth coach the Oilers have put behind the bench in this tailspin. If he doesn't get this group clicking by next year, there very well could be a sixth.

It is reasonable to expect the Oilers to be better than they were last year. They went out and got a decent shutdown defender in Nikita Nikitin from the Columbus Blue Jackets. They signed Benoit Pouliot, who has been a strong possession player, and added Mark Fayne, who has been a tad underrated as a defensive defenseman. The club also added some scoring depth in the form of Teddy Purcell who had 42 points last season.

That improves the supporting cast slightly, but it doesn't exactly make you think playoffs.

The Oilers have made good choices at the top of the draft, or so it would seem. Nail Yakupov definitely needs a bounceback year and his talent level suggests that's a distinct possibility. They also need Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to put the team on their shoulders a bit, with David Perron, Pouliot and Purcell to supplement the production. That's only the start, though.

The top of the lineup isn't really the problem though, it's a suspect defense and questionable depth up front that is preventing this team from taking a step forward.

The goaltending as a whole could be better next season if Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens play in a tandem scenario. It's possible one of them will become the primary starter, but neither has played a full season as a No. 1. Fasth actually only has 37 career games in the league total. So what the Oilers will get from them is a mystery.

Where the Oilers go next is going to take some time to figure out, but it will start next season. How much of an impact the young core will make is going to have a big effect on how much better the Oilers are going to be next year. The team still lacks the depth to compete with the stronger teams in the extremely tough Pacific Division, however.

The playoffs are a longshot for this season and possibly next. Until the rest of this lineup fills out with a better supporting cast, it might get closer to the time where one wonders if this youthful core is going to go to waste.

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