Young Oilers face early test on road trip

DEAN BENNETT The Canadian Press Published:

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) -- After three seasons of futility, the Edmonton Oilers are no longer bringing a knife to a gunfight.

The Oilers open the abbreviated NHL season Sunday at Vancouver with high hopes centered around a core of young sharpshooters, including the latest No. 1 overall draft pick, Nail Yakupov.

Rookie head coach Ralph Krueger said a fast start is critical since a 17-day, nine-game road trip looms in late February.

"It's going to be a good opportunity at the start with 10 home and seven road games to establish a good base," Krueger said. "We feel good about the schedule."

Yakupov, the Russian teenager with a sweet set of hands, has a reputation as a bit of a showboat. For his part, the 19-year-old has kept his head down and his nose clean at training camp.

"We have a lot of skilled players and we will work pretty well this year," he told reporters.

Yakupov knows the heat is on after a so-so performance for his country at the recent world junior championships and controversy over comments in his native tongue about "dirty" play in Canada.

In a testament to the Oilers' newfound skill level, Yakupov is not even slotted in on the first line.

That honor has gone to NHL sophomore and fellow teenager Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The first overall pick in 2011 will center the top line with 2010 overall No. 1 Taylor Hall on left wing and Jordan Eberle on the right.

The trio is expected to make up for its lack of size and experience with dynamite scoring potential. All three played together in Oklahoma City for the Oilers' farm team during the 113-day lockout.

Eberle led the way with 25 goals and 51 points in 34 games. This week he was named the Oilers' assistant captain.

Nugent-Hopkins is coming off a promising rookie season of 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games.

Hall was second in team scoring to Eberle with 27 goals in 61 games last season, and didn't start playing until November as he recuperated from shoulder surgery. Yakupov is penciled in on the left wing with Sam Gagner at center and veteran Ales Hemsky on the right.

Captain Shawn Horcoff is expected to center the third line flanked by Ryan Smyth to his left and big-bodied Finn Teemu Hartikainen on the right.

Arguably the biggest offseason addition to the Oilers was defenseman Justin Schultz. A 22-year-old free agent sought for his laser-beam breakout passes, Schultz snubbed other suitors last summer to sign with Edmonton, where the forwards are eager to take advantage on the rush.

Schultz was an American Hockey League star for Oklahoma City in the lockout, racking up 18 goals and 48 points and pushing Eberle for the scoring lead. Krueger, however, said Schultz will learn that life at hockey's top rung is a grind.

"He's going to have some adjustments to make here. We're going to be patient with him and everybody needs to be patient with him," Krueger said. "We're very confident he's going to become a top player, but he needs his time to deal with the game without the puck. It will be a lot more challenging here. The physical battles down low in our end will be a lot more difficult."

Joining Schultz on the top three defense pairings are veterans Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Ryan Whitney, Nick Schultz and newly acquired Mark Fistric.

In goal, 26-year old Devan Dubnyk takes over as the No. 1. He is expected to play two thirds of the 48 games with the rest going to veteran Nikolai Khabibulin.