NEW YORK -- Heading into their game Thursday against the New York Rangers with a 19-33-6 record that is the worst in the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers obviously are disappointed about what was supposed to be a bounce-back season. With some veteran acquisitions during the summer and a new coach in Dallas Eakins, the hope was Edmonton could make it back to the postseason for the first time since their run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
That hasn't happened, but with a crop of dynamic young talent and a 4-1-0 stretch heading into the Olympic break, the Oilers still believe the best is yet to come.
"I think we need more wins, just for everybody to get a monkey off their back," said Oilers captain Andrew Ference, who signed as a free agent in the summer. "In a short time frame, when you string together three wins, you just see how much different those young guys carry themselves and how they practice.
"Stringing together a good section of the season I think will go miles for the young guys. Finish strong so you're going into the summer saying, 'The year wasn't a waste. It was a frustrating year, we lost, we hate it, but it wasn't a waste because now we're going into next year with a foundation.' Even in the short winning streaks we've had we've seen flashes of that. That's what we need."
After being traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames in 2003, Ference struggled on a team that missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season. The following season Calgary came within one win of capturing the Stanley Cup. He saw a similar turnaround when he was traded to the Boston Bruins in 2007 and joined a team that finished last in its division. Four years later Ference and the Bruins were hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years.
"It's hard to remember the struggles that Chicago or Boston had before they were doing great," Ference said. "It was only six, seven years ago when some of those teams were moving a lot of guys and were struggling to find that identity. They went through the same kind of thing and stuck with it and it worked."
After owning the top pick in three straight drafts, the hope was that this would be the season the Oilers began that turnaround. But a 4-15-2 start compromised high hopes that weren't just held by Edmonton's fans but by some of its players.
"Before I came to this team I felt like next year they're going to do it. Just because they have to; it's time. But it just doesn't happen like that," said forward David Perron, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the St. Louis Blues. "There are 29 other teams trying to do the same thing. We have to work at it and get better."
Getting better has been a work in progress. In the past two months the team has stabilized its goaltending by signing Ilya Bryzgalov and trading for Ben Scrivens. Forward Matt Hendricks was acquired from the Nashville Predators on Jan. 15, providing a much-needed veteran presence up front.
The hope now is that the Oilers can finish strong before the Olympic break and continue to establish a foundation for the future. If they are able to reverse their fortunes the Oilers likely will point to their earlier struggles as an important part of that process.
They wouldn't be the first team in recent history to pull off such a transformation.
"It's good to face challenges in your life," said Perron, who already has established a career high with 22 goals through 54 games. "Those teams — Chicago, Boston, L.A. — that have had success the last few years, it took them a while to build it but they just kept doing it. They added one or two new guys the next year and those guys fit right in because there's a foundation. We're trying to build that here."