Wild, Oilers enjoying success with youth on their side

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 1:01 PM

Upstart Edmonton is loaded with young offensive firepower while the Wild counters with strong, young talent along the blue line.

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Taylor Hall is one of Edmonton’s young offensive stars. He was the top pick in the 2010 NHL draft and has collected 16 points in the Oilers’ 21 games.

Photo: John Ulan, Associated Press

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The Wild has played Northwest Division foe Edmonton only twice this season, but Kyle Brodziak can already feel the difference.

And he should know. Brodziak, the Wild's hard-working, versatile center, began his career in Edmonton. He got a cup of coffee in 2005-06, when the Oilers parlayed an eighth-place finish in the Western Conference to a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. But he was also in Edmonton when the Oilers began an inexorable decline.

"It was frustrating playing with a team that wasn't playing well," Brodziak said.

But he sees things changing. The Oilers, who play the Wild at Xcel Energy Center Friday, are a team that, like the Wild, is trending up.

"They play with a lot of energy," Brodziak said. "You can definitely sense something different this year than it has been in the past few years. They're playing with a lot of young-guy energy."

It is still early, with only a quarter of the season played. But the Wild is atop the Northwest Division with a 12-5-3 record. The Oilers have cooled after a hot start but are still miles ahead of the past two seasons, when Edmonton finished with the NHL's worst record.

Friday's game will feature an Edmonton team heavy with young offensive talent playing a Wild team with a number of good young defensemen. It will also feature two teams that have reversed fortunes in slightly different ways.

The Oilers have made the most of high draft position. Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top overall pick in the 2011 draft, is tied for the team lead with 20 points. Left winger Taylor Hall, the top overall pick in 2010, has 16 points. Look at the team's stats leaders and you see a lot of young talent, including Jordan Eberle (the 22nd pick in 2008), who skates on a line with Nugent-Hopkins and veteran Ryan Smyth.

The Wild? General Manager Chuck Fletcher has his team atop its division without having had the team hit rock bottom. He used a couple of key trades, the ability to identify available young free agents and the draft to build an organization in which talent runs far deeper than it did in recent years.

"But I think a lot of our young talent, much like theirs, is still on the way," Wild coach Mike Yeo said.

He's right. The Oilers haven't done it all with top picks. Center Tyler Pitlick -- a Minnesota native -- was a second-round pick in 2010 who is close to being NHL ready. Ditto for Slovakian defenseman Martin Marincin, also a second-round pick by the Oilers last year.

The Wild, meanwhile, has a number of prospects who should start finding their way onto the team's roster soon, such as draft picks Brett Bulmer, Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson and Jonas Brodin, to name a few.

But the Wild has succeeded so far this year because of trades and finds.

Fletcher traded defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose. In return the Wild got immediate scoring help in Devin Setoguchi, along with prospect Charlie Coyle and the 28th pick in the 2011 draft, which Fletcher used to take Zack Phillips. Fletcher also sent Martin Havlat to the Sharks for Dany Heatley. The team's talented defense is filled with young talent like Jared Spurgeon, a second-year player signed as a free agent. Nate Prosser is another contributor, signed as a free agent, who has contributed mightily.

"I think teams that struggle one year can climb back pretty quickly the next year by making a couple of additions or having a couple young players mature and improve," Fletcher said.

But to Fletcher, the key is drafting players and developing them.

"No matter how high you pick in the draft, you still have to develop those players, "Fletcher said. "When you pick high, you want to do your best to take an impact player. And they've done a great job of that."

The result is the makings of an even more intense rivalry between two division foes.

"We don't have the Halls and Eberles and Nugent-Hopkins yet," Yeo said. "But it's interesting. Their young talent is very offensive. Our young talent is primarily very defensive, but we have another set of prospects on the way.

"Neither team was expected to do as well as they have in the early part of the season. And on both teams, a reason why they're doing it is because of young players and the jobs they've done."

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