As bright as the future looks for the Edmonton Oilers after picking first in each of the last two drafts, the club would much rather see results now than be in that position again next year.
Big years from top overall picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of the Oilers' former first-rounders could help the team make a move up the standings in 2011-12.
Edmonton will be the last team in the league to open its season Sunday night when it hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will try to sweep a western Canada swing for their best start since 1994-95.
The Oilers haven't been to the postseason since losing to Carolina in the deciding game of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, and they've finished at the bottom of the NHL standings the last two years. However, the result of back-to-back 62-point seasons was Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.
Fellow first-round picks Jordan Eberle (team-high 43 points in 2010-11), Ales Hemsky (42), Sam Gagner (42) - who is out Sunday with a left ankle injury - and Magnus Paajarvi (34) give the Oilers a host of scoring options, but coach Tom Renney knows his young squad is still a work in progress.
"We're still a lump of coal in lots of ways, but it certainly has great potential,'' he said. "The players of real influence are young, you know, and they still have a lot to learn.''
That includes Hall, who had a solid rookie season with 22 goals and 42 points before an ankle injury suffered in his first NHL fight sidelined him the final 17 games. The 19-year-old forward is hoping a year of experience plus some key offseason acquisitions will bolster an offensive unit that tied for the third-fewest goals last season with 191.
"I think this year we have a little bit more of a grasp on it," Hall said. "The guys we added, like (Ryan) Smyth, (Ben) Eager and (Darcy) Hordichuk, they can play."
Nugent-Hopkins has already proven that, leading the Oilers in preseason scoring with one goal and five assists. However, the club has just nine NHL games to evaluate the 18-year-old rookie center before it risks using one year of his entry-level contract.
"We all understand the parameters there that he can operate in before we have to make a real concrete decision (on whether to keep him or send him back to juniors),'' Renney said.
The Oilers could have a number of decisions to make on defense after Taylor Chorney (knee), Ladislav Smid (strained shoulder) and Taylor Fedun (broken leg) were injured in last Friday's preseason contest versus Minnesota.
Chorney and Smid are questionable Sunday, and top defenseman Ryan Whitney is still out following December ankle surgery, meaning newcomers Cam Barker and Andy Sutton would log heavy minutes along with Theo Peckham and Tom Gilbert.
"You can have young guys, but you're playing against the best players in the world and it's tough to match up every single night without that experience," Gilbert said. "Injuries do happen, but I see more depth.''
The Penguins' depth has been tested with Sidney Crosby sidelined since Jan. 5 with post-concussion symptoms, but so far in 2011-12, the results have been positive with seven players finding the back of the net in regulation as Pittsburgh (2-0-0) has opened with road wins over Vancouver and Calgary.
''We have a lot of guys who can play the game at a high level,'' defenseman Matt Niskanen said after scoring one of the Penguins' four unanswered second-period goals in Saturday's 5-3 victory over the Flames.
The Penguins, who last opened with three wins during a 7-0-0 start to the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, are undefeated in their last four against Edmonton following a 5-1 home win March 13.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury has a 2.26 GAA while starting each of these games.
It's uncertain whether Devan Dubnyk or Nikolai Khabibulin will be in net for Edmonton on Sunday, but Renney said the club will lean less on the 38-year-old Khabibulin after he went 10-32-4 with a 3.40 GAA in 2010-11.
Dubnyk is 0-2-0 with a 4.03 GAA in two starts versus Pittsburgh. He made 28 saves the last time the Penguins were in Edmonton - a 3-2 loss Jan. 14, 2010.
Pittsburgh has won four of five on the road in this matchup.