EDMONTON - ""Wait until next year" is a familiar loser's lament, but the Edmonton Oilers have been saying it with actions rather than words for over a month.
Eliminated from playoffs for a second straight season after a 3-2 loss to Calgary on Tuesday, the Oilers put the finishing touches on an inspired 20-game glimpse ahead with a 2-1 win Thursday over Vancouver.
As the Oilers gathered Friday for a team photo that included youngsters like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson for the first time, they made a compelling argument it was a snapshot of good things to come, rather than the disappointment of the day frozen in time.
"I've never been afraid of expectations," coach Craig MacTavish said. "If you don't have expectations, you very seldom have success.
"Knowing expectations are warranted, and in this case they're very warranted, the expectation is we're going to pick up where we left off at the end of this year."
Despite losing captain Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff, Sheldon Souray and Raffi Torres to season-ending injuries, the Oilers fashioned a record of 14-5-1 in their final 20 games.
"There's a ton of optimism," Horcoff said. "At the same time, nothing is guaranteed. There's a lot of good teams.
"We just want to get to the point that we're one of them year-in and year-out. We want to build some consistency. If you're going to be a team that's going to win the division, especially our division, you need the depth. There is lots to look forward to."
Thirteen points out of a playoff spot and in 14th place Feb. 23, the push came with rookies like Gagner, Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, Curtis Glencross and Zack Stortini leading the way.
"We feel we deserved better," Gagner said. "You've got to be proud of everybody in here. At the same time, there's games throughout the year we let slip away. We left it too much up to luck.
"I'm proud of how we competed the last 20 games or so and how we didn't make any excuses. We always believed. That's going to be a huge stepping stone going forward.
"When you have a group of guys that isn't going to quit, you're going to be successful in the long run. We feel we have a special thing going here."
Gagner, 18, is the youngest player in the NHL. Cogliano is 20. Brodziak is 23. Stortini is 22. Nilsson, playing his first full NHL season, is 23. Denis Grebeshkov, obtained from the New York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline for Marc-Andre Bergeron, is 24.
"We all stepped up in a big way," Cogliano said. "We all battled hard. Next year, we're going to have so many veteran guys coming back. If the young guys keep playing well and if you mix those guys in, we could do some damage."
The Oilers went 17-20-4 in the first half and 24-15-2 in the second. Last season, when they didn't have enough young talent to fill holes created by injuries, the Oilers won just two of their final 20 games.
"I saw the same thing every one else did," Souray said. "The young guys really did play unbelievably, but there was a lot of leadership shown by guys like Steve Staios, Roli (Dwayne Roloson) and Marty Reasoner.
"Guys weren't about to let what happened last year happen again. I saw a lot of character behind closed doors. I've been around 10 years, but that was unbelievable they went on a run like that."
Horcoff played just 53 games before shoulder surgery ended his season. Torres (knee surgery) played 32 games, Souray 26 (shoulder surgery) and Moreau (broken leg) 25. Fernando Pisani missed the first 26 games with ulcerative colitis. The Oilers established a franchise record with 346 man-games lost to injury this season.
"We've definitely been through a lot with key guys from our lineup being hurt for a long time," said Jarret Stoll. "Guys just came together.
"It was fun coming to the rink. Everybody enjoyed each others company. We were loose and relaxed. We didn't feel any pressure. We just kind of played the game. We never once worried about anybody else."
Geoff Sanderson, Reasoner and Glencross are the only unrestricted free agents. Stoll, Joni Pitkanen, Nilsson, Stortini, Grebeshkov and Gilbert need new contracts.