They are a most intriguing mix. Three shots of talent in a tall glass. Potent. Intoxicating.
To hear local hockey fans tell it, the Edmonton Oilers are assuredly three times better, three times stronger than they were a year ago, and it's all because of the kids - 20-year-old Jordan Eberle, 19-year-old Magnus Paajarvi and 18-year-old phenom Taylor Hall.
It doesn't matter the three have yet to play in an NHL regular-season game, let alone score a single point. It doesn't matter that they've yet to be taken into the boards by Chicago's Duncan Keith or tried to steal the puck from Vancouver's Sedin brothers. They're skilled, they're eager and they've been labelled the hope and future of an Edmonton team with nowhere to go but up. The preseason was as good a taste of that as any.
In the Oilers' exhibition home-opener, Paajarvi, the most polished of the three having played internationally and in the Swedish elite league, scored three times. In the next game, Eberle, a Canadian world junior and world championship standout, scored twice. In both games, Hall, the No. 1 pick in this year's NHL entry draft, scored a goal. All that did was stir up the belief that within two, three years, the Oilers would be back in the playoffs and challenging for the Stanley Cup.
Edmonton head coach Tom Renney, who has been around the NHL block, understands why folks are so giddy, given the Oilers began hyping their turnaround the moment they secured the first selection in the draft. The key now is how best to nurture the three players when they have their ups and downs because they will have their down times. Every NHL rookie does, even some of the recent best (see Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Matt Duchene).
"We've force-fed this situation on them. We know that," Renney said. "But its part of the excitement. … Our job as coaches is to teach them and support them. We want them to know they're not alone."
One of the most interested observers of the new three has been forward Sam Gagner, a 21-year-old, three-year pro who was drafted sixth overall in 2007. Gagner scored 49 points in his rookie season. He teamed with fellow young bloods Andrew Cogliani and Robert Nilsson, who has since been bought out by the Oilers.
While he admits he is still feeling his way through the NHL, Gagner has made it known to his teammates he is there if they have any questions about what it takes to be a professional hockey player. "I don't want to overstep my boundary," Gagner explained. "Obviously, this is going to be a transition for them. I feel I've made it known I'm approachable if they need me. But they're so skilled. They know so much. They'll be able to do things fine."
There's no doubt watching Paajarvi, Eberle and Hall in the preseason created a buzz. Hall, alone, would be enough to raise spirits here. A raw-boned rookie wearing Oilers legend Kevin Lowe's old No. 4, Hall can skate, handle a puck and isn't afraid to go into the corners. He's also shown a veteran's sensibility and weighs his words carefully when doing interviews.
He even shut down his Twitter.com account so he wouldn't be accused of making embarrassing comments. What will help the most is what Renney stated: that Hall is not alone, he has two other rookies to help shoulder those expectations.
"We're going into this being ourselves. The three of us are pretty good friends already," said Hall, who was asked what he's learned over the past month. "The work ethic; the way you're expected to be a pro every day."
Hall spent his off-season readying himself for his pro debut. He knew that having won the Memorial Cup and tournament most valuable player honours in back-to-back years there was nothing left for him to accomplish at the junior level. He also knew he couldn't bulk up fast enough to compete against 30-year-old veterans. In the end, he and his dad, Steve Hall, a former national team bobsledder, concentrated on Taylor's strengths.
"I worked more on my legs to increase my power and speed," Hall said. "I'm hoping to develop my strength as I get older. That's the weakest part of my game right now. As I mature physically, it'll help me in the corners and fend off guys in front of the net."
Together, Eberle, Paajarvi and Hall will be able to inspire and lean on one another. Some nights will be discouraging. But on the nights when they connect, there will be much carrying on in Edmonton. The Oilers are the rebound, the fans say. And in three years, look out.