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The Progress Report: No Need To Panic

by Travis Knee / Edmonton Oilers
Over the course of a long and grueling NHL season, every team is bound to have their ups and downs. After 18 games this season, the Oilers have definitely now seen both. By roaring out of the gates with a 9-3-2 start, they were leading the Northwest division and had everyone in Oil Country thinking playoffs and maybe more. How realistic were those expectations? Well, it is a young team full of excitement who for all their successes, were bound to find some valleys to go with the peaks.   

Fast forward to last night’s 5-2 setback at the hands of Ottawa, the Oilers have found that valley in the form of a four game losing skid. The end to a long two-week road trip saw the Oilers drop decisions to Detroit, Chicago and Boston, leaving the team to answer some questions.

The big question being, just how good is this year’s Edmonton Oilers?

The first thing to note is that there is lots of hockey left to be played, and more hot and cold streaks to come. The Oilers, as they have been for the past few seasons, are a work in progress.

Is the team that finished last in the league the past two seasons expected to easily coast through this season on route to a division title? Well, probably not.
Ryan Smyth is leading the Oilers with 18 points in 18 games in 2011-2012.

One thing that is for certain through 18 games is that this year’s Oilers are a much different team than the previous two years. They are, despite the current losing streak, improved!

The Oilers with a record of 9-7-2 and 20 points on the season are currently eight points better than they were this time last year. The Oilers actually had a record of 4-10-4 at this point in 2010-2011 meaning things are still a lot brighter for the club than they were a year ago.

One of the main areas where the Oilers have made progress is in the presence of veteran leadership. Off-season additions such as Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth have gone a long way in helping steer this young team in the right direction.

“I’m just happy to be here, to be around the speed at which these young guys play and practice. I’m happy to lend some of my experience,” said Smyth.  

This leadership has led to an overall commitment to better team defence and the stats support just that. The Oilers have allowed 45 goals against this season, 29 fewer than they had allowed at this point last season. They are also allowing 28.6 shots per game, down three shots from the 31.7 shots allowed per game last season.

The team’s improved penalty killing further supports the progress in the defensive game as the Oilers have killed off 87.8% of their penalties this year. This is a vast improvement from the 77% they killed off last season. Faceoffs play a huge role in this success and the additions of players like Belanger have helped the Oilers jump from 44.2% in the draws last year to 48.5% so far this season.

“Winning faceoffs, being responsible on the PK, I just try to help out wherever the coach asks me to,” said Belanger.

With high-octane skill up front in the form of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have also seen their powerplay jump from a 14.5% success rate at the end of last season to 18.8% through 18 games this season. The improvement in both areas is something head coach Tom Renney sees as a key to the team’s future success.
Eric Belanger has been great in the facoff circle winning 59% of his draws.

“Special teams are a huge factor in the league today, explained Renney. “I think if we can continue to improve there, it will go a long way in getting us to where we want to be.”

The biggest improvement of all might have nothing to do with statistics however. It might be ‘mindset’ that separates this year’s Oiler team. The club went about adding players in the offseason that would give them depth, address specific areas of concern and make them harder to play against. So far I think it’s safe to say that they have succeeded in doing that.

"The frustrating part for us now is now when we lose, we know we probably shouldn't have. We're beating ourselves," said Renney.

Although the Oilers find themselves in their first slump of the season, things are not as bad as they may seem. The team is still ahead of last year’s pace in most statistical categories including the one that matters most, wins. The reality is the team is better equipped now to handle losing streaks and adversity such as they face right now. Losing is never fun, but there is no need to panic….the team is making progress!


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