Since Smyth's departure, Oilers keep digging to unearth identity

EDMONTON, Alberta -- The evening began with a much-anticipated, heartfelt ovation and tears of gratitude from longtime Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth. It ended, almost as predictably, with another disappointing loss by the Oilers.

Smyth's most significant contribution of the evening was raising his stick in salute to the fans in sold-out Rexall Place but Smyth's Colorado Avalanche did manage to hang on for a 4-2 victory, their first road win of the season.

The Oilers?

They played well, forechecked like crazy, were physical and still managed to lose for the sixth time in their last seven games.

If Smyth's return to Edmonton for the first time since being traded last February was a symbolic cutting of the ties to his significant past here, his visit also reinforced the reality of the struggles this Oiler team faces moving forward.

"We're doing a lot of positive things," veteran defenseman
Steve Staios said.
"I think that makes it worse," he added.

When the emotion of the pregame ceremony, a brief, tactful video montage, was over and the game began, the Edmonton fans signaled they understood the past was the past and booed Smyth when he touched the puck from that point forward. One imagines it will be that way from this point on.

Fair enough.

The issue for the Oilers isn't necessarily replacing Smyth in their lineup -- although they have yet to do that, too -- but rather figuring out just what kind of team they're going to be as a whole.

During their run to the seventh game of the 2006 Stanley Cup they were defined by the imposing presence of Chris Pronger and the warrior-like play of captain Jason Smith on the blue line and a fast-skating, hard-checking, opportunistic forward unit of which Smyth was an important part.

With Smyth, Smith, Pronger et al long gone there is something ill-defined about this new Oilers team.

They are not particularly tough or gritty -- or rather before Tuesday had shown little of that quality. Before the game head coach Craig MacTavish acknowledged his team had not been competing well enough to win.

Tuesday he could hardly complain about the effort, just the outcome.

But MacTavish also pointed out it is unwise for a coach to get into the habit of rationalizing losses. To do so is to suggest to a team that even hard work isn't going to be enough -- a blueprint for season-long failure.

Certainly that's not the identity one wants to forge, being a hardworking team that can't win.

Of course, identity is a chicken-egg kind of thing.

Maybe you don't know what it is until you have it.

The Avs are in many ways searching for their identity, too.

They added Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan in the offseason to address two needs in the hopes of returning to Stanley Cup contention this season after missing the playoffs last spring. Tuesday's win gave them a 5-4 record overall.

Had the Oilers won this game they would have awakened Wednesday morning with the same 4-5 record as the Avs and the view of their lot in life would be markedly different. Instead they dropped another divisional game and remain where they finished last season, last place in the Northwest Division.

To be sure, part of the fuzziness that surrounds the Oilers and their erstwhile identity right now can be attributed to the absence of defensemen Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen, both out with injury. The two represent the team's best chance at establishing an offensive component to their attack from the back end (the Oilers have scored just one power-play goal on 35 opportunities).

They also represent significant offseason acquisitions that are expected to offset the other departures. Both, however, will be gone for the foreseeable future, Pitkanen with a knee injury which will require arthroscopic surgery on Friday and Souray with a shoulder injured in a fight with Vancouver's Byron Ritchie.

The Oilers do possess decent team speed -- a hallmark of Oilers teams for years -- but speed without finish is like having a beautiful frame but no picture. The Oilers outshot Colorado 27-22 and allowed only eight Avs shots over the final two periods. But they could not produce the tying goal and in the end, one of the team's speediest players, talented Ales Hemsky, took a hooking penalty in the offensive zone with 2:07 left in the game and the Oilers trailing by a goal.

The Avs took advantage to score an empty-net goal to seal the deal.

If there is one player who represents the team's struggles to establish this identity it's
Dustin Penner.

The former Anaheim Duck was, of course, acquired by the Oilers in the offseason when general manager Kevin Lowe tendered an offer sheet which the Ducks did not match.

The move set off an angry war of words between Lowe and Anaheim GM Brian Burke which has not subsided and which should be rekindled later this week when the Oilers visit Anaheim.

Penner, who had 29 goals last year for the Stanley Cup champion Ducks, is off to a slow start in Edmonton and MacTavish said before the game he needs to see more finish from the native of Winkler, Manitoba.

Still, with the Oilers trailing 1-0 midway through the first period, it was Penner finishing off a nice two-on-one rush with Andrew Cogliano to tie the game.

Unfortunately for the Oilers, before the goal could be announced by the public address announcer (24 seconds later to be exact) the Avs had scored to regain the lead and then added another before the first period was completed to establish a two-goal lead that could not be broached.

Penner would add an assist on the second Oilers goal midway through the third period and MacTavish praised his play as he did a handful of other young Oilers, including linemate
Sam Gagner and defenseman Tom Gilbert.

Before the game, though, MacTavish was cautious in discussing Penner's contributions or lack thereof. He said Penner was putting himself in the right position to contribute offensively but, like the rest of the team, wasn't able to execute.

"I don't want to get into a case where we're suffocating him with scrutiny," MacTavish said.

"We could lose sight of the fact this is a second-year player here," the coach added.

Penner, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, is just 25.

GM Kevin Lowe bargained $21.25 million over the next five years that at some point he will help this team forge a new identity.

Penner acknowledged before the game that he has played well and he's played poorly.

"I'm looking to close the gap between those games," Penner said.

It was pointed out that he started slowly a year ago in his first full NHL season.

"I'm not really looking for excuses," he said. "I'm looking for answers."

As it turns out Penner does indeed reflect the Oilers state of mind, identity.

Unfortunately for both the player and the team those answers may not be forthcoming any time soon.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.