Bar raised

Oil­ers know they start the sea­son with a tar­get on their backs

Edmonton Sun - - NEWS -

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.”

Ian KuceRaK

mI­laN lU­CIC

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