They are inching, if not toward respectability, then at least toward a level of bare competence for the first time all season. It is the Edmonton Oilers, no longer favourites in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, who begin a six-game road trip Saturday in Toronto in an interesting contrast between two teams heading in opposite directions.
At Christmas, the Maple Leafs stood seventh in the Eastern Conference with 43 points in 35 games and four points clear of a wild-card spot. The Oilers were 15th in the West and 30th overall, with 21 points in 35 games, seven behind the 14th-place Arizona Coyotes. Edmonton was dead and buried, in other words – and contending only for the opportunity to select first overall in the NHL's 2015 entry draft.
But in five weeks, lots changed. Toronto plunged down the standings while Edmonton made a modest surge – not back into playoff contention, but much improved since the last days of the Dallas Eakins era, when it looked as though they might never win another game.
As of Friday morning, the Oilers had sliced the gap with Toronto in half, from 22 points to 11.
Like the Leafs, the Oilers made an in-season coaching change. Unlike the Leafs, it appears to have made a difference. Originally, Oilers' general manager Craig MacTavish joined the new interim coach Todd Nelson behind the bench, so he could get a view of the team from ice level. Since MacTavish kicked himself upstairs, the Oilers are 7-7-2 with Nelson as their primary bench boss.
This improvement has received mixed reviews in Edmonton. Some believe that to win too many games when the season is hopelessly lost undermines the long-term future because it lessens the Oilers' odds of landing either McDavid or Jack Eichel, the two most-coveted teenage prospects available in this year's draft.
Others see the frustrating recent history of failure – eight consecutive years outside the playoffs – and just want the losses to stop, whatever the long-term consequences.
But there's no divided agenda in either the dressing room or in the coach's office. The Oilers are out to win every night and suggestions that they tank what's left of the season to enhance their draft position are decisively rejected. Players and coaches are in the business of a) winning and b) survival. Accordingly, they couldn't care less about who might be riding in with the cavalry come next season.
Under Nelson, "the biggest thing I'm noticing is, we're playing better as a team," said winger Jordan Eberle, who leads the Oilers in goal-scoring with 15. "We're playing better as a five-man unit systematically. We've upped our tempo in practice a little bit and we're playing more like that in games. Those two things – and we're starting to enjoy coming into the locker room a bit more. A lot of that goes with winning, but it's really a catalyst in helping you play better too."
The mood is lightening up compared with say the dark days of December. As Eberle implied, it is supposed to be a game and games are supposed to be fun.
GM MacTavish has made a couple of tweaks to his roster since installing Nelson behind the bench. He moved David Perron to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a 2015 first-round pick and shipped Mark Arcobello to the Nashville Predators for Derek Roy.
Since Roy arrived, he has developed some chemistry with the underachieving Nail Yakupov. Two nights ago, with Taylor Hall injured and on the sidelines, Nelson was prepared to move Yakupov up to the top line with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, but changed his mind after Yakupov said, why mess with a unit that's working?
Communication, according to Nelson, matters and communication "is everybody together, in concert, communicating with each other, knowing what we want to accomplish here and making sure we have a clear message and it's consistent.
"You can see, in the past seven or eight games, us doing some things we haven't done in the past," Eberle said. "The guys are playing hard for each other right now. That always has to improve and that's what we're striving for."
The Oilers' image around the NHL during this endless rebuild – of a young, fast, exciting, offensive team – has rarely meshed with the cold sober reality: a team without a distinct personality, with a scatter-shot approach to defensive play and inconsistent in goal.
Nelson has set out to change that, in part by upping the tempo at practice, so they are quicker in the games.
According to Eberle, as fast as the NHL plays in the post-lockout era, the pace has – unbelievably – been upped another fraction this season.
"It's definitely been quicker this year," Eberle said, "and that just goes with how everyone trains so hard in the summer. Speed – really if you want to play well in this game right now, you have to be able to play well. I think even coming down the stretch here.
"I know we're not mathematically eliminated, but it will definitely be tough for us to get in, but teams really up their tempo now because these points are so crucial – and you've got to keep up."