Oilers know they start the season with a target on their backs
If you are asking yourself who you think the Edmonton Oilers will play in the Western Conference final this season, you are not alone.
Voices all over Edmonton and around the National Hockey League are predicting big things for the rebuilt Oilers this year — maybe some of the biggest things we’ve seen here in almost 30 years.
People who make a living setting the line say the Oilers are 9-1, second only to Pittsburgh, to win the Stanley Cup, which is significantly lower than the million-to-one odds they were given in any one of the previous 10 years.
This year is going to be awesome, right? Maybe. Possibly. But as Milan Lucic knows from experience on teams that just broke through a glass ceiling, there is no guarantee that it carries over into the following season.
“I went through it in Boston my third year,” Lucic said after fitness testing and medicals at Rogers Place on Thursday. “I remember in 2008-09, we finished first in the east, and in 2009-10, we barely snuck in. It took us until Game 81 to sneak into the playoffs.
“Just because you got there doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to happen again. If anything, it doesn’t get easier because you got there, it actually gets harder because teams aren’t taking you lightly; they have you circled on their schedules.
“Like we saw last year, you’re getting every team’s starting goaltender, nobody’s taking you lightly. You’re not going to surprise anyone anymore.”
And it’s unlikely everything will fall into place again like it did during last year’s perfect storm, when a handful of players set personal bests and all of their top end players managed to stay healthy all year.
Throw in the higher expectations and a bulls-eye on their sweater, and it seems obvious that more will be asked of this team than last year’s team.
“Absolutely,” head coach Todd McLellan said on the eve of training camp. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. When you look at the number of players who set personal bests, that doesn’t happen very often. So that alone is going to be a hard thing to repeat.
“When you look at the fact we were fairly healthy in comparison to the year before, that doesn’t happen very often. We will go through those periods (of injury). We’re already starting with Andrej Sekera being out. And the expectations being put on us create a whole new challenge for us internally.
“We’re going to have some pretty darn good nights, but we’re also going to have some down times because the season ebbs and flows. How we behave, how we react, how we carry ourselves through those times will be a big challenge for us now.” The guys on the inside believe in themselves and what they can do as a team, but they’re not buying the hype. They will be the first to tell you that this season is going to be an uphill struggle. “I think it’s an honour to have high expectations put on a team, that means you’ve earned the right to be classified in that (elite) group, and we’ve worked hard to get where we are,” said McLellan. “The key will be to remember how hard it is to win. That’s up to the team. But I will caution everybody: Each year is its own monster, it takes on its own personality and has its own set of circumstances. It’s nice to look back and review but everybody starts at the starting line fresh. “You have to reestablish your game as an individual, you have to reestablish it as a team. Our goals are fairly lofty, but the work that goes into it is going to be immense and the players have to understand that.”
Confidence is definitely at a decade-long high, though. To come into camp not wondering if you’re going to be 27th or 28th, but whether you can get three or four rounds deep in the playoffs, is pretty nice.
“It feels different going into this season than it did last season,” said Lucic. “There is a level of expectation now because we did raise the bar. You can just tell the difference — guys are more upbeat and excited to be back in Edmonton, excited to be back together as a group. That excitement wasn’t really here last year.”
For a lot of longer-serving veterans, the excitement hadn’t been there forever.
“For me, it’s super-exciting,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “I’ve gone through some tough years and now some exciting times. Just seeing how crazy the city went last year, how passionate they were. We really got the sense they were behind us no matter what. It’s a lot of fun. We want to duplicate that feeling this season.”