When the Edmonton Oilers miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season, fans will be able to look at losses like the inexcusable 4-2 defeat they suffered against the Phoenix Coyotes Thursday as a reason why.
And when fans look at the reasons for losses like this one, assuming they’re able to stop guzzling from that big jug of Kool-Aid they were drinking so deeply from in October, they’ll realize this team, despite a remarkable first 14 games to this season, isn’t yet ready to make a serious push for a playoff spot and that there’s still a lot of work to do in the rebuild.
The Oilers, a 9-3-2 start now a distant speck in the rear-view mirror of a bandwagon upside down and on fire in the ditch after two wins in the last nine games, do not yet possess the personnel, experience, cohesiveness or gamesmanship required to be playoff contenders in the Western Conference.
That’s not necessarily unexpected, or at least it shouldn’t be, given the circumstances. This is a team, after all, just 31 games removed from its second consecutive 30th-place finish. It is, putting aside the big tease of October that had some people scrambling to get ahead of themselves, the truth.
You can handle the truth, right?
NOT READY YET
Yes, there are some wonderful pieces to the rebuild puzzle in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. And there’s plenty of reason for fans to be excited about the brimming potential, which they gave everybody a sneak peak of when they were hanging around first place in the Western Conference. The future looks bright. The future has not yet arrived.
Teams with the personnel, experience and gamesmanship to contend walk into Jobing.Com Arena Thursday and seize the moment. After four days to rest and heal, they jump on a weary opponent that lost 4-1 in Anaheim the night before and push the pace and dictate the tempo until that team, the Coyotes, collectively says "Not tonight" and folds up. They pack two points in their bags and jump a jet for San Jose. No excuses. There was absolutely no reason not to.
Did you see anything resembling that kind of collective will and sense of timing against the Coyotes? Who, outside Hall and some sporadic bursts from the third line early, played with jump? Who played with smarts? Who played with savvy? With resolve?
Contenders who do that don’t have to lament the terrible goal allowed by Devan Dubnyk that made it 4-2. They don’t need a laughable goaltender interference call on Ray Whitney that disallowed a Phoenix goal to stay close. They come out and put their opponent away early.
BACK TO EARTH
For all the high-fiving among the long suffering faithful to start the season, and nobody is denying people who buy the tickets and the jerseys that, did anybody really – really – think the Oilers were as good as their record in the first 14 games? Even those with their lips stained blue and the goggles on had to know better, didn’t they? Didn’t you?
Likewise, the Oilers aren’t as bad as they’ve looked in the 17 games they have played since then. This is a better team than the one that finished dead-last the previous two seasons. This team won’t finish last. It likely won’t be a lottery team.
This team has more jam than it showed against Phoenix. It has more going on upstairs than it showed. It has some pieces to build around. But it does not have the wherewithal – call it gamesmanship or whatever you want — to seize the moment that presented itself Thursday, and that’s why those pieces do not comprise a contending team, yet.
If you look at the standings today, the Oilers are sitting in 12th place with a record of 14-14-3. That’s where a lot of people, including fans with a grasp of reality, picked them to finish this season.
Strip away the ridiculously good start and put the misery of these last 17 games in context, and the Oilers are what most people thought they were – a team unquestionably on the rise, but a work in progress.
Get your heads around that.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.