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Onus is on Quinn and his assistants to upgrade Oilers Add to ...

They added a new starting goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin and brought back Mike Comrie to his original NHL home, but can two modest changes really make the Edmonton Oilers any better than they were a year ago, when their best wasn't good enough to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs?

Predictably, general manager Steve Tambellini answers that with an unequivocal yes.

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"First of all, it's because we have people in place that can make people better," explained Tambellini, who was responsible for the biggest change in Oil Country, a revamped coaching staff that features Pat Quinn, plus two able assistants in Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming.

Tambellini may be entering his second full season as Oilers GM, but there is a greater sense that, for the first time, this really is his team. Two of the coaches he hired - Quinn and Renney - crossed his path during his apprenticeship with the Vancouver Canucks, where he made the transition from player to management.

Quinn was his mentor, and Tambellini started on the ground floor, in contrast to the many ex-players-turned managers who are now fast-tracked to the NHL executive suite. The temptation there, as on the ice, is to go for the quick fix every time, a model that will not work with the current Oilers collection of talent.

Edmonton is a hybrid team, anchored by Khabibulin, Sheldon Souray on defence and a lot of homegrown talent, much of it waiting to realize its perceived potential. Hence the need for on-the-job training, a job that falls directly on Quinn's broad shoulders.

"I believe that Pat Quinn, Tom and the rest of the staff here have a history of making people better," Tambellini said. "He's worked with young players the last few years, and with championship teams internationally. For us, this is the first step of laying the template to getting better as an organization."

For the coaching staff, the list of objectives is long and easy to quantify. The Oilers were weak in the faceoff circle last year, relying almost exclusively on Shawn Horcoff to win draws. Horcoff took a league-leading 1,756 faceoffs and was constantly shuttling on the ice to take draws in the defensive zone. It meant he averaged almost three minutes more ice time a night than Ales Hemsky, his linemate, and disrupted their work in even-strength situations. The Oilers were also outshot in about three-quarters of their games last year and were a woeful 27th overall in penalty killing.

On the plus side, the things that need to be addressed can be fixed through coaching. They are teachable skills and don't necessarily require an Alexander Ovechkin skill set.

"You're not wrong," Renney said when last year's statistical shortcomings were laid out to him, "and that's why we really need to identify with the process here every day. Sure you can't look at the end point and identify where you want to be, but you have to pay attention to everything in between.

"We really have to commit ourselves to turning [Andrew]Cogliano and [Sam]Gagner into really solid NHLers. You know what it's like in this game, you've got to win yesterday, so we have to play a system that allows us to have success and still grow people at the same time."

A new approach behind the bench can make a difference, team captain Ethan Moreau said.

"The proof is that at one point last year, Pittsburgh was out of the playoff picture and made a coaching change and won the Stanley Cup," Moreau said. "Sometimes, just a philosophical change in the way you approach the game can make a big difference. Our talent level is high and we have some guys willing to do what it takes to win. Sometimes, minor adjustments can go a long way."

Beyond a new system, Quinn also put together some eyebrow-raising line combinations in training camp. For example, he put a robust 6-foot-4 Jean-François Jacques (one point in 60 NHL games over four years) on left wing with Hemsky and Horcoff, to give them additional space on the ice. Very Brian Burke-ish.

Philosophically, even though Quinn likes to run four lines and not overplay his best players, he sent a subtle message by starting Gagner on the fourth line and asking him to work his way up the depth chart. Add in Khabibulin and he believes the playoffs are achievable.

"We were a playoff contender last year," Tambellini said. "I believe the individuals we had last year were good enough to get into the playoffs, but the team was unable to do so. Is this team good enough to be in the playoffs? Absolutely.

"It should be in the playoffs."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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