While every member of an NHL team is important in some way, and while every position is essential to a team’s success or lack thereof, it can be argued that the Edmonton Oilers will either sink or swim during the 2013 season depending on how their forwards perform. They have question marks in net despite the talent that is there, and their defense is too thin to be able to sustain any major injuries this season, so these two aspects of their game could be major liabilities. But it is the forwards’ ability to score–and frequently–that could offset some of these liabilities.
The youth movement will continue this season led by Jordan Eberle (76 points last year in 78 games), Taylor Hall (53 points in 61 games), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (52 points in 62 games), Sam Gagner (47 points in 75 games) and 2012 first-overall draft pick and potential sniper extraordinnaire, Nail Yakupov. Eberle, Hall and RNH were among those who lit up the AHL for Oklahoma City these past few months. Yakupov has been on a seemingly year-long, worldwide hockey binge and Gagner’s time with a hockey club in Austria during the lockout seems to have toughened him up some. These kids are going to be in fine shape and will have to fly right out of the gate to help the Oilers get a jump on their competition. It is important to note that Yakupov will have a lot of pressure removed from him since he will be stepping onto the second line and will have all these other players to help him out. This should cause him to relax and play his game to perfection on the ice, particularly on the power play.
Veterans like Ales Hemsky (36 points in 69 games) and Ryan Smyth (46 points in 82 games) will add depth to Edmonton’s attack with their respective abilities to be magic with the puck and to park themselves in front of the net and score bushels of ugly goals. Winger Ryan Jones (33 points in 79 games; out with an eye injury until at least mid-February) will hopefully be able to return at some point this season and provide the spark and energy boost he is known for bringing to the Oilers’ squad.
But here is where things get dicey for Edmonton. Captain Shawn Horcoff (34 points in 81 games) will have to try to forget that he has hands of cement when it comes to putting away clear goal-scoring opportunities this year (something he struggled mightily with last season as his 13 goals should have been double that), Eric Belanger will have to at least double his point production from last season (16 points in 78 games) and Magnus Paajarvi (eight points in 41 games after scoring 34 points in 80 games as a rookie the season before), if given a chance to make the squad this year, will have to improve dramatically if the Oilers hope to stay in games as the season progresses and everyone else catches up. Guys like Ben Eager (13 points in 63 games), Lennart Petrell (nine points in 60 games) and Darcy Hordichuk (three points, 64 PIMs in 43 games) will be little more than fill-ins who can occasionally hit something or someone if they can focus on their targets long enough, which sadly means the Oilers are a little thin at the bottom of their forwards group, despite how top-heavy in talent they are.
A guy to keep an eye on will be Teemu Hartikainen, who excelled with the Baby Oilers in OKC this season (27 points in 37 games). If he can get some significant minutes on the third line with Smyth and Horcoff this year, he could impress. Another guy who could squeak into the lineup if injuries befall the Oilers will be Anton Lander. He only netted six points in 56 games last season, but he is only 21 and had some hard luck on the ice at times, so he could be due for a rebound if he gets a chance to fill in for somebody.
These are your forwards for the start of the 2013 season, Edmonton Oilers fans. Will they be enough to get the team to the playoffs, so they can have a fighting chance at lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup this summer?