EDMONTON — Put simply, the Edmonton Oilers begin the 2018-19 NHL season in a foul mood.
Throughout training camp, they have shown grim determination to get things right while acknowledging — through gritted teeth — that until then they will be reminded of the last season’s face-plant, when they went from touted Stanley Cup contender to out of the playoffs altogether.
If the small and skewed sample size of the pre-season is any indication, they are on the right track.
The Oilers will open the season with Ty Rattie and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins flanking captain Connor McDavid on the top line.
The three meshed at the tail end of last season and have picked up where they left off, filling the net in the pre-season.
McDavid, now in his fourth season, is committed to shooting more and, barring injury, is a heavy favourite to lead the NHL for a third consecutive season in scoring.
At the other end of the ice, goaltender Cam Talbot shone in the exhibition games and appears ready to return to the stellar form he displayed two seasons ago, when the Oilers came within a game of the final four in the playoffs.
The question mark hangs over the supporting cast.
Veterans like winger Milan Lucic and centre Leon Draisaitl must step up their games and drive the second line.
On the plus side, young wingers Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto displayed an added level of poise, confidence, and grit in the pre-season and may be ready for breakout campaigns.
Defencemen Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom must rebound and sandpapery Darnell Nurse needs to take that next step and solidify himself as a top-four NHL defenceman.
The blue line also needs to find someone to move the puck and help ignite the offence. That job belonged to Andrej Sekera, but he is out indefinitely with an Achilles tear.
Top draft pick Evan Bouchard has shown the offensive chops. The only question with him is how much do the Oilers push the youngster, who understandably still has a lot to learn in his own end in the NHL.
Special teams must get better, a relatively simple task since they can't get much worse.
The Oilers finished dead last on the power play and 25th on the penalty kill last season. To fix that, Todd McLellan's assistant coaches were sacked and replaced by Trent Yawney, Glen Gulutzan and Manny Viveiros.
The good news is this is basically the same team that went deep in the playoffs two years ago, except now they have more experience and a chip on their shoulders.
The downside is they need to get off to a good start to build confidence and keep the critics at bay.
That won't be easy.
The Oilers open the regular season Saturday on Olympic-sized ice in Sweden, against the New Jersey Devils. Then it’s back to North America for a month of games against heavyweights like Nashville (twice), Boston (twice), Washington, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh.
The stakes are high and the Oilers need to again find lightning in a bottle — with players enjoying career years while avoiding injury — to get back to the playoffs.
If not, Edmonton will have missed the post-season three out of four years despite having the best offensive player on the planet in their lineup. Oilers haters can then likely pop the cork on another front-office house-cleaning and rebuild.
HEAD COACH: Todd McLellan, entering fourth season
LAST SEASON: 36-40-6, missed playoffs
Connor McDavid: The NHL's best player is shooting the puck more and appears on track to win a third consecutive scoring title
Leon Draisaitl: Needs to pick up his game more consistently, drive the second line to take the heat off McDavid's trio
Cam Talbot: The Oilers' last line of defence needs to return to the stellar goaltending of two seasons ago.
THE BIG QUESTION: McDavid, barring injury, will be McDavid and dominate, but for the Oilers to succeed the question is whether the surrounding crew of veterans can rebound while promising youngsters take the next step.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press