EDMONTON, Alberta — Defenseman Andrew Ference broke in to the NHL with the Penguins in the early part of the previous decade, but was gone by the time they found their footing with a lot of good, young players and grew into a marquee franchise.
Now Ference is with the Edmonton Oilers, a club that is struggling but would like to find a path to greatness similar to the Penguins. The two teams played late Friday night at Rexall Place.
“You try to follow that,” Ference said of the Penguins’ model.
Then he smiled.
“It’s tough to emulate winning a [draft] lottery and getting [Sidney] Crosby,” he said. “It’s a little tough to copycat that one.”
The Oilers don’t have a once-in-a-generation player such as Crosby, who was the first overall selection in the 2005 NHL draft, but they do have a core of young talent surrounded by veterans such as Ference.
At forward, Edmonton has five players — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner — who were all first-round draft picks and range in age from 20 to 24. Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and Yakupov were first overall picks.
None of those forwards have played in an NHL playoff game.
“Most teams in the league go through a rebuilding stage,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We want to take the next step here. We’re ready to do that.
“[The Penguins] are a good example of that. They start young and as they grow up together they become a winning team, making the playoffs. That’s exactly the direction you want to go.”
Crosby, who has led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup and entered the game Friday night leading the NHL with 65 points in 45 games, noted that he doesn’t get to see Edmonton games all that much because of the time difference.
But he could see the Oilers taking off.
“I don’t think they’re too far away at all,” Crosby said. “They’re fast and skilled and pretty fun to watch. They have pretty creative players.”
Crosby noted that the Penguins finished next-to-last in the NHL in his rookie season of 2005-06. Three years later, they won the Cup.
Edmonton’s arc certainly hasn’t been that sharp.
“I think they expected to go through that process with the younger guys and maybe they would have liked to have seen better results earlier,” Crosby said. “But there’s no real set scenario. They’re still a young team and the fact that all these young guys are playing in important situations at their age, it’s only going to help everybody.”
Ference said it’s not that the Penguins have the only formula for building a winning club.
“They’re one of the top teams; people obviously try to emulate them,” he said. “Not only them, but anybody that’s has success over the last little while.”
Rexall Place has long had the reputation for having one of the best ice surfaces in the NHL. That can aid a skilled, strong-skating team such as the Penguins.
“That’s been the case in different buildings when the ice has been good,” Crosby said. “It seems like you spend a little bit less energy, and you’re able to execute a little better.”
Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins wasn’t thrilled when reporters mentioned Friday morning that the Oilers players seemed to be particularly pumped up about a chance to play against one of the NHL’s best teams, the Penguins, and against Crosby.
“I want us to be excited for every game,” Eakins said. “It’s such a privilege to be in this league. I don’t care who you’re playing. We should be excited. Sidney Crosby, or Joe Thornton, [Ryan] Getzlaf — whoever. They’re all good players.
“I want us to be excited for every game, not just, ‘Hey, let’s raise our level suddenly because we’re playing Pittsburgh.’ ”
If facing Crosby can get the most out of his club, Eakins figured, perhaps he can tap into that.
“If it makes a difference, maybe I’ll go get a cardboard cutout of Crosby and use it every day, put different jerseys on it,” he said.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Penguins, named former defenseman Alain Nasreddine and former enforcer Dennis Bonvie in the players category of their inaugural Hall of Fame.
Nasreddine, 38, played in 56 games with the NHL Penguins in addition to his career with Wilkes-Barre. He is now a Wilkes-Barre assistant coach.
Bonvie, 40, played in 31 games with the NHL Penguins in addition to his Wilkes-Barre career.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.