Oilers head coach Tom Renney.
Back in April, I spent about half an hour sitting on a couch in one of the team lounges chatting with Tom Renney after he did his post-season media availability. I remember him joking when we walked into the room that maybe he should lie down on the couch while we talked. That was the day he told me about his strong belief that Nikolai Khabibulin
was going to bounce back, and that his starting job would be waiting for him when he did. That was the day he told me how he hoped management was going to step up and bring in some veteran players to plug some holes, and that he was pretty sure they were going to. And, that was the day that he told me that the team was done playing with house money, that it was time for the process to start to yield some results.
The losing had been productive for two seasons in the sense that it was the ticket to adding a couple of bonafide franchise players. But the players couldn't take it any more, and the fans certainly weren't going to accept it any more. A playoff spot? Maybe. But, at the very least, there had damn well better be a push for one in 2011-2012. In the days following the end to the season, it was made up in Tom Renney's mind that the standards for the Edmonton Oilers were going to get elevated a couple of notches.
Management, of course, came to the same conclusion. It's critical for the management and coaching staff of a team to be on the same page, and they were in Edmonton. Enter Ryan Smyth
, Eric Belanger
, Andy Sutton
, Cam Barker
, Darcy Hordichuk
and Ben Eager
. Or, to put it in different terms, 3,501 regular season NHL games of experience. Fast forward to December and the contributions of this group have been robust. So too have the contributions of the young players, including a couple who are producing points at an elite level relative to the rest of the NHL.
Whether it's because of those changes, or in addition to them, the team is operating with a very different mindset, says captain Shawn Horcoff
. The last 2 years, he admits, were almost unbearably difficult, but now the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to be seen.
"It's just a better feeling," says Horcoff. "We feel like we have a chance to win every night, that we have a chance to make the playoffs. It's just nice coming to the rink every day knowing that. It was hard the last 2 years, when we were out of it by now, and you're like, '4 more months of this? How do I find motivation?'"
Take Wednesday night's loss to Minnesota as an example of a game that they come out of feeling a lot differently than they might have a year ago. "You leave that game frustrated that we left a point out there," Horcoff says. "In the past, we would have been like, 'woo, that's a big point we got there'".
With a 12-10-3 record, the Oilers have enjoyed some ups and wallowed in some downs, as might be expected for a team that is fumbling for a direction after finally escaping from the basement. They've had a 6 game winning streak and, currently, have lost 8 of their last 11 games. Talking to the players on the team over the last couple of days, they're refreshed by the progress. Refreshed by their current standing in the heart of the pack in a tight Western Conference.
"We're happy where we're at right now in December," Shawn Horcoff
tells me. "This is probably exactly where we expected to be. You're going to see some great games from us and you're going to see some [crappy] games from us. And then you're going to see some games where we play great, but not for 60 minutes, and do some of the little things that immature teams do."
No longer willing to rest on the laurels of being young or entering a new "building phase", the little mistakes are immensely frustrating to the team. Some good individual efforts and a fairly good game? Screw it. Did we win? Lately, the answer to that question has been the wrong one, resulting in the phrase "pissed off" being uttered quite frequently in conversations about it. This team doesn't want to be 30th and, unlike the last couple of years, you can tell inside the dressing room that those players are absolutely sure they're better than that.
"We're not a team that can take breaks," remarks Horcoff. "Sure, there are going to be shifts, but we can't go through periods where a team outplays us and we let them come back and tie the game. When we play great games there's not a team we can't beat. Now we need to figure out how to win games when we're not playing great. That's what the top teams do. They find ways to win games 2-1. A 2-0 game with Pittsburgh or Detroit, that game is over. You gotta hope for a miracle to come back in that game."
Pittsburgh or Detroit, they're not. 30th? They're not that, either. This team is up with the pack, determined and convinced that they can stay there through the rest of the season. A playoff spot? Maybe. This team has shown plenty to make us believe that's possible.You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 6 to 9 on 630 CHED.