I'm not one to rain on anyone's parade, but the image to the left is a pretty good representation of Steve Tambellini's version of the Edmonton Oilers. Tambellini put a few more eggs into his basket than he should have, and now there seems to be a serious problem in The City of Champions. After a 3-10 November, the Oilers sit 14th in the Western Conference, head coach Pat Quinn has no answers, and the Oilers have a rotating shift for players who are injured or sick. I can't fault Tambellini for trying to bring in as much talent as he can, but he has serious cap issues facing him combined with a lottery pick if things don't turn around quickly. And as of right now, the entire season is going up in flames right before their eyes. I believe this is due to one reason.
Some still think that Edmonton has a shot at the playoffs. There's nothing wrong with holding out hope that big-name players like Khabibulin, Souray, Penner, and Comrie can turn the ship around, but the worn-out path to the injured reserve is proving to be the Achilles' heel of this team. And at this point, that hope is nothing more than stubborn fan-ism.
I, for one, believe there is a completely different reason for the Oilers' woes, and it has nothing to do with who isn't playing. This comes about after watching them get hammered in Vancouver on Saturday, and it goes back to what Kelly Hrudey was saying on the November 17th broadcast of Coast to Coast on Hockey Night In Canada.
This is a team that plays ridiculously soft. And not soft in their own zone, but soft everywhere. Ray Ferraro, a columnist for TSN, wrote in his column/blog that Pat Quinn had told him "in the pre-season that small people can win puck battles, but they have to be willing, and he pointed out Igor Larionov as a great example of a small man who used body position and intelligence to win more than his share". I dare you to watch a game and point out the players who truly want the puck. As it stands, and as Mike Milbury pointed out with Patrick O'Sullivan, this is a team that is bailing out on everything right now.
The only two players who I have seen go hard into high-traffic areas and come away with pucks routinely at this point in the Oilers' season are Dustin Penner and Ryan Potulny. Penner leads the team with 15 goals and 15 assists - a full eight points ahead of the now-injured Ales Hemsky, and 13 points ahead of the next healthy Oiler in Gilbert Brule. Potulny has played a mere eleven games this season, but has five goals and two assists while logging time on the third line. Penner is a larger player, but Potulny is exhibiting exactly what Quinn was talking about: a smaller player with the willingness to go win a puck battle. His reward? Seven points in eleven games thus far.
There's no doubt that having a number of bonafide stars missing for extended periods of time will affect your overall standing. To miss Nikolai Khabibulin, Sheldon Souray, Ales Hemsky, Mike Comrie, Denis Grebeshkov, and Steve Staios for periods of time this early in the season will certainly undermine your overall talent level. However, the willingness to do the dirty work - muck it up in the corners, dig for pucks along the boards, take a hit to make a play - has been missing all season long thus far for the Oilers. It was apparent in that 5-2 loss to Chicago featured on HNIC on November 17, and it was clear to see on November 28 when the Canucks hammered the Oilers by a 7-3 score.
When the Oilers do play hard, however, success comes to them. They battled the Phoenix Coyotes hard all night long on November 23, and came away with a 4-0 win. The Oilers went into the corners hard, they chased after pucks with reckless abandon, and they got their noses dirty in scrums along the boards. An "A for Effort" translates into a "W For Win".
Edmonton needs to realize that they aren't the San Jose Sharks, the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins, or even the New York Islanders. If they take a shift off, they get scored on. It's that simple. They don't have the talent that some of their opponents do when it comes to coasting through a shift. If they don't work hard, they're fishing the puck out of their net. I've seen it over and over again this season with the Oilers, and it's not going to stop until every player wearing the Oilers' colours realizes that effort can trump talent every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Until that message gets through, the Oilers might as well get their draft party ready because they're looking at a top-five pick.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!