Edmonton, AB - It began with such hope and promise, but 2011-12 quickly evolved into another season of gloom in which a near-the-basement ranking squashed pre-season optimism.
Well, sort of. While the Oilers' placing in the NHL's Western Conference was only bumped by single spot, improvement was made. Last season, the Oilers collected 25 wins and 62 points; but a year later, seven more W's were notched, as well as an additional 12 points, totaling 72 in 82 games.
The club's penalty kill continued to be good, the power-play spiked en route to a 20.6 percent success rate, placing behind the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks. The Oilers' young guns rose, most notably Jordan Eberle's 76-point campaign as he ended the year up by 23 points on second-place Taylor Hall (who's abbreviated season limited him to only 61 games).
Along with No. 14's Lady Byng consideration, another superstar made a case for the Calder Trophy. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 18, scored 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games as a rookie.
As such and with the success they've had, both are likely to play at the upcoming World Hockey Championship. Nugent-Hopkins has had a discussion with Steve Tambellini and will require a medical test to be approved.
"I'm pretty excited," said Eberle, who's already accepted his invitation from Oilers President of Hockey Operations (and Team Canada GM) Kevin Lowe. "Any time you get a chance to represent your country, it's an honour. I've done it a couple years now. It's a great tournament and it's nice to be playing hockey in May."
Eberle was a shoo-in, as he captured Oil Country's heart with a mind-blowing sophomore season, nearly doubling his goal-scoring total from 2010-11 and setting a near point-per-game pace.
"Going into the season, I didn't really set number-goals. I knew what to expect. I knew the rinks on the road, I knew what to expect as far as the grind of the season and it was more of a veteran team.
"You need that winning mindset," he added, noting that it wasn't easy to smile and embrace his success while the club struggled as a whole. "You've got to buy in. Whether it's in practice, working hard, or that consistency level that I'm always a big fan of. I don't want to say we took shortcuts, but we didn't have games where we played our best and others where we did."
Still, there's reason to be glad. The Oilers ended the season on an 8-3-2 run on the road, complementing their above .500 (18-17-6) home record and putting emphasis on getting wins in tough situations. That, too, is something to build and hang their hat on.
"It's tough to win on the road," Eberle said. "I think that goes to show that we're getting better as a team. We want to be a winning team. With the strides that we made this year, we're a better team this year than we were last year. It's tough to keep that positive attitude in the locker room when you're 29th, but I think we've got the core, the leadership, the young talent and the positive attitude to do it."
Former No. 1 overall picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall both agreed, adding that there's no bar or set limit to their development. It's an ongoing process, fuelled by the desire to become one of the NHL's elite teams.
"It was a good experience for me," RNH said, looking back at his rookie season. "I learned a lot this year, got lucky coming to a team like this with a good group of young guys and older guys really helping to lead.
"I'm going to keep working on everything. I want to get stronger, make sure that I get quicker and get my shot better."
Hall had successful surgery on his shoulder last week in Cleveland, Ohio and should be ready to go when training camp hits next September.
"It went well, as well as any surgery can go," he said. "It's too bad I had to go through with that, but it was kind of our last option. I hope it went well, I hope that I repair well, heal well and feel good to start next year.
"As players, we're all maturing. In the room I want to be more vocal and try to take that next step, because I want to be here for a long time. I want to be here when we're the team that's contending and everything like that. I'm looking forward to taking that next step next year along with Ryan (Nugent-Hopkins) and Jordan (Eberle)."
NO. 1 SPOT SECURED
Devan Dubnyk began the season as the team's starting goalie. On Oct. 9, 2011, he held the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins to a single goal in a 2-1 shootout win to open the season.
Not to be outdone, Nikolai Khabibulin had an incredible 7-0-2 run that put him in the crease on a full-time basis; he didn't lose in regulation until Nov. 11 in Detroit, which also happened to be when the team's tailspin began.
But as the season wound down, Dubnyk was back where he belonged. In March, he set career highs with a monthly record of 6-2-1, a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. With Khabibulin's struggles continuing (recording but a single win since Christmas), No. 40's spot as the starter was secured as he got the call in 12 of the Oilers' last 13 games.
"Getting a chance to play the games is an important part of it," he said. "It's not as easy when you're only playing every couple weeks. That's not an excuse to be giving up bad goals."
Those bad goals soon became a thing of the past.
"There was a point in time where I had to trust that I was capable of doing it," Dubnyk said. "I base my game off being big, relaxed and being in the right spot. It's amazing the way things go when you're tense. When you relax your body, pucks seem to stick to you instead of squeaking through those holes."
With it looking like Khabibulin will return as the backup next season, Dubnyk's role will likely expand to an expectation of 60-plus starts as the team's go-to guy.
"That's what I need to be prepared for," he said, smiling.
HIGHS TO THE LOWS
While Dubnyk, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and others had good seasons, others simply didn't. Ales Hemsky re-signed on a two-year, $10 million deal prior to the trade deadline, but his 2011-12 point-scoring totals weren't mirrored in that lucrative salary.
In total, he collected 10 goals and 36 points in 69 games, his lowest output since the 2003-04 campaign (excluding extremely-shorted seasons).
"It's been a disappointment. 29th place. There are no excuses," he said, owning up to his own play and the club's one-off-the-worst placing. We're a better team than that. We've got a lot of skilled guys, a lot of good young players and we should be better than that, so there's no excuse.
"I don't want to blame the season on my shoulder or anything like that. It's not an excuse. But it wasn't great and it was a struggle early on. In the last two months of the season, the shoulder was feeling way better.
"It's been a struggle the last couple years and going into this year," Hemsky added, citing that he'll get a full summer of training in over the offseason; something he hasn't been able to do in three years. "I'm happy that I ended (the season) better and the shoulder is getting better. This season didn't go how I wanted, but it is what it is now. I can't change that."
Hemsky is only 28 years old, in his prime and believes he "isn't done yet." As such, he's going to go over and represent the Czech Republic at the upcoming 2012 World Hockey Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki later this spring.
Considering scoring prowess, Hemsky's season wasn't nearly as disappointing as Eric Belanger's. The 34-year-old was signed on Jul. 1 to a three-year deal, hoping to provide some secondary production and help in the dot.
He did that part, securing a 55.2 percent success rate in the circle. But with only four goals, 16 points and a -13 rating in 78 games, it developed into a season of learning and new experiences.
"It's not the season I was expecting," he said. "I've done it for so many years, points-wise (16 is a career-low). It was a learning process for me.
"It's hard to point at one thing. You get off to a tough start, it's in your head and then it's hard to get out of it. I've been a 30-35 point guy my whole career and when you don't get the points, you feel like you don't contribute enough. Everything was going wrong -- (hitting) posts, missing the net."
While rumours have run rampant about Belanger's desire to stay in Edmonton, he put it bluntly about whether or not he's happy to be an Oiler:
At the moment, Head Coach Tom Renney, along with his associate Ralph Krueger and assistants Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, don't have contracts for next season. Neither does General Manager Steve Tambellini, meaning changes could be on the way. Or not.
"I haven't had those conversations yet (about an extension)," Renney said. "We will. We needed to get a day like today out of the way, obviously. I'll work completely off Steve's timetable. I'm ready to chat anytime they want to.
"I love coaching. I love the game of hockey, I see myself continuing to coach and I want to do it here. It's a bigger version of the town I grew up in (Cranbrook, BC). I like the fact that people here care a lot. I love that we're scrutinized and I think that's completely fair. I think that's what makes Canadians and hockey special. If you're not prepared to deal with that on a daily basis as a coach, then you should try to do something else. And I'm okay with all of that.
"I believe that I can help be the solution here without a doubt. I believe strongly and I've said it a hundred times, I hope we can quit talking about a rebuild. But that certainly has been the process that we've been in for a couple years."
Renney didn't hide or dodge questions about certain moments over the past year that he'd like to have back. In particular, he referenced a game vs. Calgary in which he had his fourth line caught out on a long sequence against Jarome Iginla and the Flames' top unit.
"That was a poor coaching move," he said. "That's an example. Singular, but plural if you know what I mean.
"I don't think coaching got in the way of the team's performance this year, if you want to talk about the good stuff. If you want to talk about the bad stuff, (it's) completely my responsibility in every aspect."
While the team had a disappointing season and with uncertainty in tow heading into next, the team's goal -- on the ice and behind the bench -- is, at least, making progress. The 'rebuild' discussion so regularly brought up is valid, but the head coach is tired of it. Admittedly it may be true, but the Oilers' recent struggles could be nothing but a blip on the process' brighter blueprint.
"If you want a product in front of you that will stand the test of time, then you better suffer through the front end of that and really appreciate the good parts, because they're coming."