By the time the end of November rolled around last season, the Edmonton Oilers had dashed any hopes fans had that they’d kinda-sorta contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Meaningful games in March and April? The Oilers were done by December.
With a rookie coach in Dallas Eakins and a difficult schedule that saw them play 16 of their first 27 games on the road, the Oilers did a face plant with a 3-9-2 record in October and followed up with a 5-8-0 record in November to finish the month 8-17-2. Thanks for coming.
The simple fact goaltenders Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera couldn’t stop a beach ball played a significant part in that. Sam Gagner’s busted jaw didn’t help. Add in holes on the roster that included lack of a top-end on the blue line and you get what we got – a team playing catch-up without the horses to do it for the final 55 games of the season.
It’s reasonable to believe Ben Scrivens and Victor Fasth will provide better goaltending than Dubnyk and LaBarbera did at the start of last season based on what we’ve seen. It also looks like GM Craig MacTavish has filled some of the holes – not all of them – with the additions of Benoit Pouliot, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Teddy Purcell and Keith Aulie.
While we’ll have to wait to see how those additions play out, what we do know is Eakins is no longer a raw rookie as an NHL head coach and that the Oilers have a favorable schedule to start 2014-15. That’s not insignificant.
The shortcomings of Eakins, real and perceived, during and since his debut as an NHL head coach have been duly dissected here and elsewhere. So have his off-season attempts to expand his coaching horizons after feeling his way into the job with 10 thumbs in 2013-14.
While we don’t know exactly how much one season of hard knocks and learning on the job will improve Eakins as a coach, what we do know is after a carousel behind the bench that’s included Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger and Eakins, the message and the person delivering it won’t be changing for the first time in four seasons.
“I think more than anything this year it’s going to be nice to have some familiarity with the head coach,” Jordan Eberle told Chris Westcott of Inside The Oilers. “I think for me, and this is my fifth year coming up, I’ve had three new head coaches now. I think it can be a good thing and a bad thing sometimes too. We finally have a guy where we can pick up where we left off and I definitely look forward to that for sure.
“It’s huge. It’s one thing that really hurt us at the start of the year. No knock against Dallas, obviously. He was coming in and things change and that’s how it is. I’ve had that a few times. It will be nice to have the same guy come in and we’ll have a lot of familiarity when it comes to practicing, the way he speaks and what he expects so I think that for sure will help.”
SCHEDULE SAYS . . .
After playing just 11 of their first 27 games at Rexall Place last season, the Oilers will play 13 of their first 24 at home this time around, including seven of their first 10 in October.
That, in itself, hardly guarantees a points windfall considering the Oilers were a decidedly lame 16-22-3 at home last season (13-22-6 on the road), but Eakins and his revamped roster won’t have to face a Murderer’s Row or live out of a suitcase right out of the blocks.
They open against the Calgary Flames Oct. 9. They’ll play the Vancouver Canucks twice, the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators the rest of the month.
THE WAY I SEE IT
To be clear, a year of experience for Eakins and a better schedule doesn’t mean we’re going to see a 180-degree turnaround by the Oilers in the first couple months of the season, even with the bar set to low a year ago – the Oilers didn’t win their fifth game until November 16, when they beat the Flames to get to 5-15-2.
I do believe, however, that having continuity with Eakins, not to mention Craig Ramsay and Rocky Thompson on staff instead of Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, will eliminate some of the growing pains we saw a year ago and give the Oilers a fighting chance to get out of November without being absolutely buried in a chase position.
Of course, there’s much more to do to get to March and April with something to play for – I still don’t see the Oilers as a playoff team, even if everything falls their way – but surviving the face-palm that was October and November a year ago this time around is a start.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.