The month of November is important in illustrating how far the Edmonton Oilers have come in just one year.
In the 2010-11 season, the Oilers picked up their seventh win in their final game of November and 23rd overall. This season, with the month of November just beginning, the Oilers already have seven wins under their belts in just 11 games.
A team that finished 30th in the NHL standings each of the previous two seasons entered Thursday night leading the Northwest Division and tied for first in a very competitive Western Conference. Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini appeared on Thursday night's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman" to attempt to explain how this transformation occurred.
"What we've been trying to do over the last couple years -- so many things in so many different areas, from redoing our minor-league system, our scouting, our player development, and maybe most importantly, a change of attitude," Tambellini said. "And Tom Renney and his coaching staff have been committed to holding the line of the expectations from within the organization, whether you're a young player or a veteran player, that it's going to be about what's best for the Edmonton Oilers.
"We've been fortunate enough to obviously acquire some young skill that their talent speaks for itself, but we've also been able to acquire some leadership, and that's something that was at the forefront of our request list, is that we felt that we needed to add more leadership within our organization; and therefore, players like Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth to complement some of the players that are already here with (Shawn) Horcoff and (Ales) Hemsky and those type of players.
"So I think what you're seeing overall is probably more depth and skill as one of the reasons why we're having success right now, some exceptional goaltending from Nik Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk, and a real commitment to what Tom has asked from his players, and that's a commitment to paying the price for good defense."
Khabibulin began Thursday unbeaten in regulation and leading all goaltenders in goals-against average (1.12) and save percentage (.960), while being named one of the League's Three Stars for the month of October. However, he's almost been overlooked due to the play of some of the Oilers' young talent -- most notably a No. 1 pick by the name of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The 18-year-old rookie pulled on his first Oilers sweater at the NHL Draft just over four months ago, and already he's scored a goal in his first game in the League, recorded a hat trick in his third and assumed the team's scoring lead with five goals and 11 points while winning Rookie of the Month honors for October.
"He looks so young, but you put him on the ice in a professional situation and he's so mature, so calm, so intelligent," Tambellini said. "And we told Ryan from the beginning, 'If you make our team this year, great. If you don't make it until next year, that's great, too.' There was going to be no pressure on this kid that he has to play this year, but he stepped on the ice in the preseason, looked pretty good, but then as he got more comfortable, obviously in the regular season, he just displayed a confidence and vision that is not normal for an 18-year-old young man that you normally see come into the National Hockey League."
In addition, the Oilers' previous selection with the No. 1 pick, Taylor Hall, is off to a solid start in his sophomore season with three goals and nine points -- and looks more comfortable and less wide-eyed in Tambellini's view. Another second-year standout, Jordan Eberle, leads the team with seven assists and is tied for second with 10 points.
Then there's the resident greybeard in Smyth, reacquired via a trade with the Los Angeles Kings during the summer. At 35, "Captain Canada" is showing he still has enough left in the tank to keep up with these kids, as he's tied with Nugent-Hopkins for the team lead with five goals and tied with Eberle for second in scoring with 10 points.
However, Smyth's value goes way beyond his production on the ice, Tambellini said.
"The example that he's brought within our locker room as one of a professional, how do you treat people, how you respond to media, how you respond when it's a good game or a bad game -- these are the things that we need in our organization to be great, not good, but great one day. He brings in so many of those intangibles that you can't buy it, you have to have people in there to teach, and he's one of our teachers, for sure," Tambellini said.
Thirty-three years before taking Nugent-Hopkins with the top pick and 32 years prior to selecting Hall, it was Tambellini hearing his name called in the first round by the New York Islanders, one of five teams he would play for in an NHL career that spanned nine seasons and 553 games.
These days, in addition to working at restoring the Oilers to their former glory days, Tambellini also follows the progress of his son, Jeff, a first-round pick in his own right by Los Angeles in 2003. Jeff Tambellini has 242 games of NHL experience with the Kings, Islanders and Canucks, in addition to six games during Vancouver's run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. He's currently playing in Switzerland for the ZSC Lions of the National League A.
"To see him have success in a good organization, that was very, very special as a father, for sure," Tambellini said.