A team as flawed as the Edmonton Oilers is going to have games in which they absolutely stink, as fans here have come to understand all too well in recent seasons. They’re the kind of putrid performances that have you booing the team off the ice at Rexall Place or shouting at your televisions.
Lots of factors can and do play into paint-peelers like that – lack of jump, terrible execution, lousy goaltending, mind-boggling mistakes and even bad luck, to name just five. Sometimes, it’s a combination of all of them. One way or another, you’re tempted to check the bottom of your shoes just to make sure you haven’t stepped in something.
By my count, we’ve seen three of those games since interim head coach Todd Nelson shed GM Craig MacTavish as training wheels and took over the Oiler bench on his own. There was a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a 7-2 spanking from the Ottawa Senators and, most recently, Friday’s 4-0 blanking administered by the Minnesota Wild.
One of the ways I measure where a team is at and how it’s progressing is by how it responds to games like that. Does the team re-set, re-load and show some push-back? Or, as we’ve seen too often, does it, for whatever reason, buckle and skid into a stretch of futility? One loss becomes two. Two losses becomes three and on it goes.
So far under Nelson, it’s been the former.
RIGHTING THE SHIP
We saw striking displays of the latter before Dallas Eakins was fired and Nelson took over Dec. 30 against the Los Angeles Kings after a transition period in tandem with MacTavish. The Oilers endured losing streaks of three, four, 11 and nine games – a stretch that included just one win in 21 games — in the first 36 games of the schedule.
The Oilers responded to their loss to Toronto with a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. After stinking out the joint against the Senators, the Oilers lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets. They had nothing, essentially giving Devan Dubnyk a free pass to a shutout, against Minnesota Friday.
It looked like more of the same in the first five or six minutes against the Anaheim Ducks at Rexall Place Saturday before the Oilers found their legs and their heads and pushed the Ducks before losing 2-1. It was a pretty good effort after looking completely out of gas against Minnesota.
“After the first five or six minutes I thought it was going to be a long night because we weren’t managing the puck well,” Nelson said. “Once we settled in I thought we played a strong game. Good bounce-back game.”
Still a loss, as was the case against Winnipeg, so I get it if fans sick of close-but-no-cigar results don’t want to hear about silver linings and consolation prizes. Fair enough. That said, there’s no question the Oilers have avoided the ruts of defeat they fell into under Eakins with Nelson at the helm.
IN THE LONG RUN
The vast majority of the credit for that, of course, goes to the players. Same thing with criticism when results aren’t there. All any coach can do is work with the roster he’s provided. Right now, to play Captain Obvious, the Oilers aren’t good enough. No coach, be it Eakins, Nelson or anybody else, can turn this roster into a playoff team, let alone a Cup contender.
What I want to see in a situation like this is how the coach adjusts with what he has to work with. Does he tweak his line-up and his lines and defensive pairings? Is he willing to change what isn’t working or does he get stubborn? Is he forgiving to a reasonable point when mistakes happen, as they will, and show confidence in a player or does he staple him to the pine?
What’s the coach’s message to his players behind closed doors when things are going bad and how does he deliver it? We don’t know for sure about this because we’re not in the room. We only know what the players tell us. The bottom line, as always, is results. They have been better, if only modestly so.
Avoiding the “death spiral” as I called it off the top, is just one indicator that there’s at least some sign of growth. It’s far from the be-all and end-all – a team that avoids long losing streaks but still only wins 30-35 games a season isn’t getting a sniff of the playoffs. This, we know.
After the no-show against Minnesota, we heard the kind of loser’s lament mouthed countless times before – be it under Eakins or Tom Renney or Pat Quinn. Players offering up stuff about being embarrassed by their lack of effort and how it’s unacceptable, blah, blah, blah.
So far under Nelson, one way or another the bottom line is we’ve seen some action to back up those words more often than not. I find myself wondering how that might translate if we get to a point when this roster is actually good enough and deep enough to contend.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.