EDMONTON, AB - It’s the final 10 games of the season for the Edmonton Oilers. It’s been a long grind in the second half, made longer by a parade of injuries and the team’s position in the standings.
While some franchises around the NHL are either competing for or gearing up for the post-season, the Oilers find themselves seeking other forms of motivation down this final stretch. In every NHL locker room, players have something to play for. Unfortunately for the Oilers, the playoffs are not one of those things. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but to avoid a slide down a very slippery slope, each player can find his own motivation to finish 2015-16 strong.
A player like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, just a few games returned from a broken hand, is hoping to get his timing back during the final stretch and feel better about his game heading into the off-season.
Zack Kassian is a pending RFA and, after getting a fresh start with the Oilers, is searching for consistency in his game. He says he wants to make his line, whatever line he plays on, and the players around him better. In his mind, individual success will surely follow the team’s success.
A veteran like Adam Pardy, claimed off waivers at the NHL Trade Deadline, is a pending UFA. He’s politicking “badly” with the coaching staff to return from a hand injury before season’s end. The organization itself would love to see more of the defenceman for evaluation purposes, and Pardy certainly wants to put more hockey on film for them.
There’s different internal motivation for each individual, but sit down with them in the locker room and it’s clear they’re more concerned with the team’s finish over the final 10 games than their own.
“I don’t want to see quit,” said Kassian. “I don’t want to see anybody fold it in. It’s been a frustrating season. We’re not in the playoffs, we’re in the bottom or one of the bottom teams in the league and it’s frustrating. We have to play for each other in here. I’d like to see some consistency in our game, and my game and myself included, where we bring that hard effort every night. If the outcome happens, it happens, but at least we can hang our hats on us playing the right way every night.”
In line with not wanting to see quit, the Oilers veteran leaders want all individuals to do some soul searching in terms of what it takes to make the whole group successful.
Photo by Andy Devlin
“We’ve got a lot of different individuals in here, a lot of different styles of play, a lot of different niches and roles within the lineup,” said Matt Hendricks. “Players need to do what their job is. If your job is to produce then you need to go out there and produce. If your job is to kill penalties then you’ve got to kill penalties. If your job is to go out and be physical then play physical. With all these attributes, each player has to look in the mirror and ask ‘what do I bring to the table?’ Then, when the game is all done, you need be able to look yourself in the mirror and say ‘I gave everything I had and I did my job tonight.’”
These final 10 games can tell the Oilers a lot about themselves. Head Coach Todd McLellan says the character assessment of the club continues to remain a huge part of the coming weeks and will help determine off-season decisions.
Strong character, a never-quit attitude, a gritty determination to play the game how it’s supposed to be played. These are the goals ahead for the Oilers as a unit. Edmonton fell 3-2 to Nashville on Monday night, but appeared to show more of the effort they want consistently than they did Saturday against Arizona, a 4-0 defeat.
“I want to see that be consistent,” said Hendricks. “I want to see the drive be consistent. The bench was a little more lively last night, the room was more lively last night. Everyone threw all their chips in the middle and were going for a win. I want to see that every night.”
10 games left, 10 wins. In a perfect world, those are the results the Oilers would gladly take. The club, and their coach, would simply like to see the effort there and wins coming as a byproduct.
“I want to see 10 wins, but we have to be somewhat realistic,” said McLellan. “I want to see 10 winning efforts. Now, does that lead to success and points in the bank? I don’t know, but 10 winning efforts would be great from individuals and collectively from lines and pairs and then the team as a whole. I thought (against Nashville) we had a winning effort, we just didn’t win the game.”
Wins lead to momentum, yes. However, it is almost unanimously agreed upon that wins alone at the end of a season do not carry over to October. A new season is just that — a new season. However, one thing that can carry over is structure. If the Oilers commit, over the next 10 games, to the structure the staff has put in place then those results have a chance to help the club when it comes time to start anew in 2016-17.
Photo by Andy Devlin
“When you play the right way and everybody is on the same page, it definitely does carry into the different season,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “You look at the best teams in the league and they always play the same way. At some point, somehow they started that way. One day they decided to play the right way and play together as a team then it carried on. We’ve got to find that now, and hopefully we lay out groundwork for next season.”
The Oilers hit the internal reset button right around the NHL Trade Deadline. That process continues for the season’s final 10 games, and these next few weeks of practice are also imperative for laying the foundation McLellan wants for his club moving forward.
“We’d like to review everything prior to the summer coming,” said McLellan. “There’s nothing worse than having to stand in here and talk about the end of the year and summer when you’re still in the regular season. It’s not right, but it’s a reality. If we collectively keep our reset and our goals in mind, we’re still evaluating new players, we’re still looking at different lines, we’re looking at the three-centre model, we may go to two centres with moving somebody over to the win. There’s a lot of things we can do from now until the end of the year.”
The Oilers take the ice for their final 10 games of 2015-16 on Wednesday night when they host the St. Louis Blues. With so much emphasis in the locker room on how they want these next few weeks to play out, the motivation shouldn’t be hard to find.
“We want to end the season on a good note and obviously, it’s a long summer,” said Kassian “You want to end knowing you gave it your all. Obviously, it’s tough sometimes when you’re not in the playoffs. If people say it isn’t tough, they’d be lying to you. But that’s when you have to really stick up for your team and play for each other.”