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Oilers primed to take a long-overdue step forward

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Edmonton Oilers, buoyed by a core of talented young stars, will finally be good again this season.

Yes, you heard this same refrain back in 2010. And 2012. And then again in 2014. But the Oilers are legitimately off to a hot start this season, and there are a few reasons to expect that it could actually continue to some degree.

Not only is Edmonton off to an impressive 5-1 record out of the gate, first in the Western Conference and their best start to a season since 1985-86, but they’ve also gotten to this point by excelling in some big situations. They drubbed their longtime provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames, by a combined score of 12-7 in two victories, they toppled an experienced St. Louis Blues club 3-1, and then most recently they shut out the Winnipeg Jets 3-0 on their home turf, in front of 33,000 fans at the 2016 Heritage Classic.

What’s been going right for the Oilers? And, further to the point, what’s been different for them from years past, when they constantly languished in the cellar of the league’s standings?

It starts, like everything does with the Edmonton Oilers these days, with wunderkind Connor McDavid.

He’s currently tied for 2nd in NHL scoring with nine points through six games, and has continued to look like he’s playing the game of hockey on an entirely different difficulty level than other players.

For as good as McDavid has looked so far, the truly scary part is that he’s still just 51 games into his career. In other words, the 19-year-old phenom is just barely scratching the surface of what he can do in the NHL. It’s already been said numerous times since before he was even in this league, but McDavid truly has all the makings of a franchise cornerstone player, someone that can single-handedly carry an entire team great distances.

Maybe more importantly, however, the Oilers have, for the first time in a long time, the necessary depth to properly support their elite young talent.

26-year-old Jordan Eberle has transitioned from years of being one of the team’s fresh-faced youth to now being one of their more experienced skaters and is enjoying something of a career resurgence so far this season. He has six points through six games, which has him on an early pace for the best statistical season that he’s had individually since he finished with 76 points in 78 games in 2011-12.

12 Oct 2016: Calgary Flames Goalie Brian Elliott #1 makes a great save on Milan Lucic #27 of the Edmonton Oilers in the Calgary Flames versus the Edmonton Oilers hockey game in the 2016/17 Oilers season opener hockey game in Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire)

12 Oct 2016: Calgary Flames Goalie Brian Elliott #1 makes a great save on Milan Lucic #27 of the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire)

While Milan Lucic isn’t on the same level as Taylor Hall, the former Oiler that he’s replacing as the team’s top line left wing, he nevertheless still deserves recognition of his own merit. He’s picked up four points in six games and, as one of the league’s top power forwards, has given the Oilers a different kind of look that they haven’t had since Dustin Penner was with the team from 2007-2011.

And while the benefits of experience are difficult to reasonably measure, it’s not a far stretch to rationalize how Lucic’s impressive playoff résumé (64 points in 101 games, including two trips to the Stanley Cup Final) could be a benefit for an inexperienced squad where half of the players have never even tasted the postseason.

Speaking of things that the Oilers haven’t had in a long time, one cannot understate the importance of Cam Talbot on this roster. Edmonton hasn’t had a steady, consistent goaltender since Dwayne Roloson, which was way back in 2009, for those struggling to remember how long it’s been.

While Talbot isn’t exactly Henrik Lundqvist, he’s still miles ahead of goalies like Jeff Deslauriers and a long-past-his-prime Nikolai Khabibulin. The 29 year-old Talbot has a 0.919 save percentage on the season, following up on a 0.917 in 56 games last year, and was recently named the NHL’s first star of the week.

Edmonton’s biggest weakness is easily its blue line, but the team might have enough workable singular pieces here to form a passable whole. Veteran Andrej Sekera can log a lot of minutes and hold his own.

Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are two big, young Swedes that already have a lot of NHL games between them, yet are still just entering the prime years of their careers. 21-year-old Darnell Nurse is a former 1st rounder. Brandon Davidson and Mark Fayne are currently injured, but both have shown the ability to drive possession when they’re playing.

Kris Russell still remains the primary battleground for the fiercest ideological war that’s currently waging within the hockey community, but was a fixture second-pair defender when the Calgary Flames made it to the second round of the playoffs in 2015, so who knows.

Now, the 2016-17 season is still in its infancy, and there are certainly existing areas that Edmonton needs to work on (they’re still struggling as a team with puck possession, at a 47.2 Corsi For percentage). That said, this Oilers team is more well-equipped to improve themselves and succeed than previous versions, and have already shown some glimpses of their potential so far.

While the first playoff berth for the franchise in over a decade might ultimately still elude them, this year truly could be the year where the organization finally takes a long-overdue step forward.

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