Commentary

Are Oilers ready for the next step? We'll have fun watching them try

Updated: October 17, 2008, 5:36 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

They may be young, but they're not naive.

"We know that we haven't proven anything yet," said 21-year-old Andrew Cogliano. "A big 20-game push late when we appeared to be dead and out of it doesn't automatically turn us into a Stanley Cup favorite.

"There's a huge difference in playing pressure-free, without much outside expectation, then one day waking up to find yourself involved in a playoff hunt and being in the mix every day, every game, with so much at stake every night you play."

[+] EnlargeAndrew Cogliano
Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesAndrew Cogliano and the Oilers missed the playoff cut by three points last season.

It was an out-of-nowhere 14-5-1 Secretariat-like gallop down the stretch last season that very nearly propelled Edmonton into a wildly unlikely playoff spot, thanks to a combination of fresh faces and the experience gleaned by their kiddie corps in both good times and bad.

But are the Oilers really ready for prime time?

The dynamics have certainly changed in the town that crafty cartographer Wayne Gretzky and his pals put on the sporting map. Courageous losses won't cut it at The Big Drugstore anymore. Merely waging the spirited fight isn't going to be enough these days.

Edmonton, you see, has gone slightly gaga over its Oilers. So, too, have a good many hockey pundits, anointing them the bright young things of this NHL season; championing the apple-cheeked Oil to actually scale the summit of a suddenly susceptible Northwest Division.

"We hear the nice things people are saying, see what they're writing, and believe me, we appreciate them," Cogliano said. "But until we go out on the ice this year and justify any of it …"

Andrew … lighten up, son. You're sounding old beyond your years. What, pray tell, is there not to like about the Edmonton Oilers?

Oh, the critics may throw their prime asset -- youth -- back in their faces, and maybe this isn't the toughest or largest team to be found in the Western Conference.

But there's so, so much to recommend them.

For starters, they can boast the league's most quotable coach, Craig MacTavish, to keep the parasites of the press amused. In Steve Tambellini, the Oilers have hired a bright young GM who has learned his trade and has been waiting for this chance for a while now.

They're a franchise transformed from sellers to buyers. Gritty winger Erik Cole and puck-moving defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky add quality experience (rather than just stockpiling a few old familiar faces to show you're awake) to the cause this season. The return to health of both Shawn Horcoff and Sheldon Souray is like injecting two new, significant players into the lineup.

This is a franchise of legendary players and exploits fallen on difficult times (the blip of 2005 notwithstanding) that is threatening to rise like Lazarus. This sort of resurrectionist tale is always box-office magic; it never fails to hook us and draw us in.

And hey, there haven't been this many precocious kids in one spot since Robert Reed and Florence Henderson got together for a '70s TV sitcom. The 21-year-old Cogliano. The poised-beyond-his-19-years Sam Gagner. Robert Nilsson. Tom Gilbert on the back line. Kyle Brodziak.

Beyond the car-seat brigade is Denis Grebeshkov (only 25), big body Dustin Penner (26), Ales Hemsky (25) and Marc-Andre Pouliot (23).

The Edmonton backers out there see Cogliano making a substantive leap from his 45 points from last season, Gagner from his 49 and fellow Kid Liner Nilsson from his 41. They see a budding superstar in Hemsky and a solid grounding in a veteran supporting cast that includes Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani.

"We let other people do the forecasting, and at times, I've almost felt the need to just calm everyone down, but we really believe we can be competitive," MacTavish said. "That said, there's a tenuous line between being a really good team and a really bad one. We should know. We were both last year."

Much of the focus on the revitalized Oil is being directed at The Kid Line.

"We kind of took over at the end," Cogliano said. "It was great experience for us, all being so young. It'll help us a ton this year. We're all good players."

But MacTavish certainly isn't about to let his glittering young talent become complacent.

"If you're looping around and building speed at the wrong time," he warned, "you'll be picking the puck out of your net a lot. You'll absolutely get crushed at this level. They've still got some learning to do in that area.

"But it's not just that line. It's everybody, all of us. It's how they come together, how we come together, that's going to determine what happens."

The key to the entire enterprise just might the continuing evolution of Mathieu Garon as a genuine No. 1 stopper in net. After being cast aside by the L.A. Kings, he went on to win 26 games and post a .913 save percentage and all four of Edmonton's shutouts last season after signing as a free agent.

At 30, Garon's no kid, and has hopped around from the NHL to the minors a lot during his career, but in a division that includes Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo, and a conference that boasts Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov, your goaltending better be up to snuff.

Perhaps the Oilers' greatest asset in ending a two-year absence from the playoffs is Edmonton itself. This is a working-class town, a proud town, a town that's been lifted to the heights by this franchise and longs to rekindle that feeling again.

"It's great to see the city so turned on by the team," Cogliano said. "I know some of the older players kind of roll their eyes at all the attention and just want to concentrate on the job at hand. But for us young guys, it's kinda cool. It can pull you along on tough days.

"There's an energy, an enthusiasm, not only around the city, but around the organization. You feel there's such, I don't know … possibilities here this year. It's hard to not to get caught up in the excitement.

"The feeling is infectious."

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.