Rebuilding an NHL team from the ground up isn't going to be a painless experience for the players of their fans. There will be losses. And there will be ugly losses. When a team sends out a lineup filled with raw rookies night after night there isn't much more that can reasonably be expected. But even if you know all of that going in it doesn't automatically make the losing any easier to take night, after night, after night, after night, especially for a fan base that's been losing for six years in a row.
With back-to-back last place finishes behind them, the team, and a lot of the fans, felt that this would be the season that the Oilers started to transition from perennial also-ran into a contender. In early January Steve Tambellini made it clear that he did not want to be a lottery team again. And yet, three and a half months later, that is exactly what his team turned out to be. It was a tough season for the fans but there were also glimpses of a better future ahead. There are, even for a dedicated pessimist like myself, reasons for optimism.
74 points: Yeah those 74 points might have only been good enough to get the Oilers one spot above where they've been the last two seasons, and the team is still 21 points away from a playoff spot but the Oilers are at least now within shouting distance of the rest of the league and not in a class all by themselves. The Oilers final point total is almost 20% higher than each of the previous two years, that should give you an idea of just how far removed from being a competitive team the Oilers really were.
Goaltending: Aside from a tremendous start to the season Nikolai Khabibulin was about what we expected him to be, which is not very good, and unfortunately it looks as if he'll be back again next season. But Devan Dubnyk made tremendous strides in the last few months of the season, posting a 0.920 save percentage and holding the opposition to three goals or less in 24 of his 28 starts since the new year. Those are the type of numbers that will give the Oilers a chance to win on a regular basis and should give fans hope that he might be ready to handle a much bigger role starting as early as October.
The Blue Line: As a whole the blue line is still an utter disaster and it would appear that Tambellini has no clue as to how to fix it but there were a couple of very pleasant surprises on the blue line this season in the form of Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry. Both had shown that they belonged in the NHL but their progression this season was quite impressive. Smid established himself as a true top pairing defenceman and Petry went from a part-time NHLer to permanent fixture on the Oilers blue line. With the departure of Tom Gilbert at the trade deadline, Perty and Smid finished first and third on the Oilers blue line in ice time per game, playing against the best the opponent had and more often than not coming out on the right side of the equation.
The Kids: A year after Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle arrived on the scene Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joined the party as well and the three started the season as a line, lighting the league on fire in the process. The group worked wonders on the Oilers power play as well with each finishing the season with at least 20 points on the Oilers suddenly rejuvenated power play. Eberle's 76 points were the most recorded by an Oiler since Hemsky finished the 05/06 season with 77. Nugent-Hopkins came pretty much as advertised and will almost certainly be one of the finalists for the Calder trophy. Hall, despite missing time with a shoulder injury and a concussion, has emerged as the player that drives the Oilers. When he is missing from the lineup the Oilers are just a completely different team. And all of this from players who are still in their first years as a professionals.
There is undoubtably a lot of work left to be done before the Oilers rebuild is anywhere near complete but we're starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. There could well be more setbacks but there are at least a few reasons to be optimistic about the Oilers moving forward and with another top prospect, or trading chip, having been added through the Oilers draft lottery win it looks as if things might just be getting even better.