Oilers' learning curve a painful path
NASHVILLE -- At first blush, it's hard not to be a little cynical about the Edmonton Oilers as they position themselves for yet another run at yet another first overall draft pick.
But after watching the Oilers get mauled 6-0 by the previously goal-starved Nashville Predators Friday night, maybe it's more pity than cynicism.
Friday marked Game 7 of a grueling nine-game road trip necessitated in part by the Canadian curling championships being held in Edmonton, and the talented young Oilers are reeling.
Twenty-four hours after being shut out 3-0 in Detroit and slogging through a four-game winless streak, the Oilers performed a giant belly flop.
"Well, it's difficult to say anything positive about what happened here tonight. When you get a score like this and you're at the tail end of it, there's really no excuses at all in any direction," head coach Ralph Krueger said after the carnage.
The loss was reflective of the challenges facing Krueger and his staff as they try and keep a talent-laden team pointed in some sort of direction.
With the game still scoreless in the first period, Ryan Jones was stopped by Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne on a short-handed breakaway. The Predators then took the puck down the ice and scored to take a 1-0 lead.
Then, after the Oilers forced Rinne into a series of good saves in the latter stages of the period, netminder Devan Dubnyk misplayed a David Legwand dump-in from the other side of center ice, and with 1:09 left in the period, it was 2-0.
Krueger replaced Dubnyk for the start of the second period, but Yann Danis gave up a goal to Rich Clune on the first shift of the period to make it 3-0.
And so it goes.
"The way this league is set up right now with the way the games are coming at you with the speed they come at you, there's no time to regroup, there's no time to feel sorry for yourself," Krueger said.
"There's only a necessity to test our mettle, to test our character and to look for ways to use this type of disaster here today to move on to the next points."
But if the Oilers' recent woes illustrate anything it's that you cannot cheat time when it comes to success. You cannot teleport yourself over the grueling process of learning to win. You cannot will yourself to be a good team, even if the perception is that it is time for that success to be at hand.
"The whole thing is to keep the expectations outside of how people would like this to happen overnight outside of the room, outside of our coaches' room, outside of the discussions with the players," Krueger told ESPN.com prior to Friday's loss.
You can hardly blame folks for expecting more from this team.
For three straight years, the Oilers captured the first overall draft pick. Now, that takes some luck -- as was the case when they jumped over Columbus in the draft lottery last spring to nab the first pick -- but it also takes a considerable amount of losing.
That losing yielded top-end talent in the form of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov -- all three of whom are everyday players for the Oilers. The addition of free agent gem Justin Schultz on defense created a mighty buzz around Edmonton this season, and optimism in Oiler Nation that the team was ready to take flight.
And there have been moments that suggested such faith was well-founded. Well, there were such moments. Past tense.
After opening the season 4-2, the Oilers have not won back-to-back games since the end of January and are 4-9-5. While the players still talk about the playoffs, they are much closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than a playoff berth, having settled into 14th place in the conference.
Hall acknowledged after Friday's loss that the expectations for this team were high, but there is a belief in the room that they can be that kind of team.
"We know what we can be," said Hall, whose 19 points are second on the team.
There is a fine line that separates good teams from bad teams, he added.
"Right now, we're struggling with that line," he said. "We're going to have to find out what we're made of."
In spite of the obvious skill, the Oilers cannot score at even strength, ranking dead last in the league in 5-on-5 goals. Their power play has been potent, but they aren't getting as many opportunities as they would like because they aren't controlling the puck or using their speed the way they need to in order to draw penalties.
They did not draw a penalty in Friday's game -- the second straight game in which the power play did not get an opportunity. In their past five games, the Oilers have just seven man-advantage chances.
But if you're looking for frustration from Krueger you have come to the wrong place. No one likes to lose, but the longtime international coach who is in his first gig as an NHL head coach steadfastly believes in the course this team has charted.
And the cruel reality is that this team is simply not ready.
"When you look at our core group all being under 23 years of age, how important it is that we really understand there's still going to be mistakes made in the process. I'm a very patient person. I'm not a grudge kind of coach, so you did that yesterday, I'll talk to you about it. I'm very direct. Very direct and everything is very open here," Krueger said.
"But I'm realistic about allowing them still to find their way without capping their skill set. If I completely take the puck out of the kids' hands, for instance, and let them try nothing, then we're not going to evolve in the way that we want to evolve. It's very, very important that we do this properly without losing the line of the team."
The challenge for Krueger and the players in the Oilers' room is that, in acknowledging there are going to be mistakes, the players must still be made accountable for them in the hopes that they will stop repeating them.
"The biggest thing for me is not to get caught up in the results at all as a coach, and really truly bring the habits that we need on a daily basis. We need a consistent language because, if we bring it consistently, it will eventually become the habit of the players. Right now, it's not," Krueger said.
Many of these young players have come right from junior leagues, where they haven't been held accountable for playing two-way hockey.
Most were handled "with white gloves," said Krueger
"And where they never had to take responsibility without the puck, where they had the puck all the time, so of course they never lost it, and now they're getting this resistance. And the most important thing for me is to stick with the process through thick and thin, like really hold a straight line and keep pulling the players back onto that straight line," the coach added.
Believing in the plan, though, doesn't make the losing any easier.
Sam Gagner is in his sixth NHL season and he has yet to play in a playoff game. He acknowledged that the Oilers are a fragile group now.
"We're working our way through that," he told ESPN.com.
As disappointing as the current stretch has been, Gagner, the team leader with 21 points, is realistic about the learning that is under way with this group.
"You're not just turning the clock forward three years and expect to be good," he said.
What has made this season even more taxing for Krueger is that there is precious little time for traditional teaching given the schedule.
"We're teaching every day. But the biggest challenge we have as coaches is practice-to-game ratio. In the worst case scenario in the NHL, you're usually looking at a 2:1. Right now, we're looking at a 0:1. I mean we've basically gone three weeks now without practicing. We're using video, using board talks, but there's nothing that beats drills," Krueger said.
"With a young team, I have to say it's certainly challenging not to be able to pull them through the drills that will give them anchors. Right now, we're just trying to create them in their minds."
Krueger used Thursday's 3-0 loss as an example.
"We had a really good game going and one goal against and this young group wanted to tie it up the next shift. It's so hard to hold them back. It's not from a lack of will or trying, it's from the wrong kind of trying," he said.
"Here we are in Detroit, the mecca of calm and patience, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg doing their thing shift in shift out, waiting, waiting, waiting. When you watch that happening and you see us after the 1-0 just panic and risk and start turning pucks over, our whole structure went away in minutes and we went through a 10-minute phase, which was enough to lose the game."
That those mistakes would be followed up by a cacophony of errors in Nashville merely reinforces Krueger's point. Not that it makes a 6-0 beating any easier to swallow.
"Right now, we are -- you watch Edmonton, you're in for a good game, for sure," the coach said. "You just have no idea how it's going to end."