So this was the riff going through my head Saturday, watching another Edmonton Oilers season go down the drain at the hands of the visiting Detroit Red Wings: "Playoffs? You kidding me?! Playoffs?! "
Yes, the famous Jim Mora rant about playoffs – and why his Indianapolis Colts weren’t going to make them - can apply to hockey too, and especially when it comes to an Oilers team that openly and boldly talked about making the playoffs in September on the grounds that the bleeding had to stop some time.
It had now been seven years since Edmonton actually qualified for NHL postseason play and were adamant that terms such as “youth” and “potential” had to be exorcised from their collective vocabularies because they provided a crutch that they didn’t need any more. That was the message from new coach Dallas Eakins, who clearly wasn’t afraid to raise expectations. The Oilers had a decent nucleus in place, felt that adding Andrew Ference in the off-season would add veteran stability, and were ready to fly.
Except they weren’t. Playoffs? In Edmonton? This year? Don’t think so, not the way the Oilers played the first month of the season. The NHL awards three stars every month to celebrate excellence. They rely on us to consider the other end of the spectrum, the underachievers, where the Oilers arguably lead the pack after hitting rock bottom – maybe – during Saturday’s 5-0 shellacking by the Wings.
It is hard to imagine that it could get any worse than this. Right?
The Oilers were at home. They were rested and facing a Red Wings team playing for a second time in two nights. They were motivated, in theory anyway, after calling a players-only meeting to discuss their previous pratfall, 4-0 at the hands of the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week. And still they got clobbered, making it back-to-back shutout losses at home. The team now has a 3-10-2 record overall; and a trip to Florida, Tampa, Philadelphia and Chicago coming up this week.
At the very least, it gets them as far away as possible from the maddening crowd, a frustrated fan base in what used to be called the City of Champions that booed them off the ice Saturday night.
It is a grim thing how the Oilers’ season had gone off the rails, and hard to see any solutions on the horizon, even with Taylor Hall returning to the lineup from injury, possibly towards the end of the week.
The Oilers’ defence is leaky, their offence has ground to a halt and the goaltending remains largely mediocre. The confidence level appears to be zero; they are trying to be altogether too cute when they have the puck; and they don’t seem to have a clue how to play without it. Not a recipe for a quick turnaround.
As of Monday morning, the Oilers were 10 points behind the fifth-place Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division. Under the new NHL realignment plan, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs along with two wild cards.
So that’s 10 points they have to make up in a division that includes only one other real weak link – their Alberta counterparts, the Calgary Flames. It is the start of the second month of the NHL season and the task is practically hopeless already.
Many general managers, including the Red Wings’ Ken Holland, believe that teams move in tandem in the standings once you get about six weeks into the season and only on the rarest occasion can a club dig itself out of such a precarious early-season deficit. So the arithmetic is heavily skewed against the Oilers and then there is the matter of getting their act together on the ice.
Eakins spoke for eight minutes and 44 seconds post-game Saturday and if you listened carefully, he was asking about the team’s internal leadership, noting that when things started to go off the rails, “we had no one to stand up and push back.” “We’ve got a group that is hurting. They’re dying. They’ve lost their confidence. The best way to get your confidence back is to have some success and it starts with one guy to push back, and you hope it feeds the rest of the group.”