When they pick through the rubble of another lost season, the Edmonton Oilers will find a few glimmers of optimism to fall back on. Taylor Hall, for example, looks like the real deal. The No. 1 choice in the 2010 NHL entry draft had a slow start to his pro career, in the same way that Steven Stamkos did, but as he gains more confidence, and gets more NHL games under his belt, he looks as if he could be the franchise cornerstone that they will eventually need to turn the corner on this current - and mostly discouraging chapter - in the organization's history. A couple of the other kids, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, also seem like they'll be players as well, maybe not with the same impact as Hall, but keepers nevertheless.
But this season? On the heels of a 4-1 defeat to the Minnesota Wild the other night, it is now officially a lost cause. There was a pretty good indication that the bottom might fall out on the Oilers as soon as Ryan Whitney, their most valuable player this year, injured his ankle on Dec. 28. The initial reports on his return were vague - and probably for good reason.
It turned out Whitney needed surgery to repair a tendon, which happened Monday, and means he's gone for the season. Whitney was in the midst of a breakout season, playing 25 minutes a night as their top defenceman and somehow managing to record a plus-13 rating on a team that, at the time he went down, had given up 29 more goals than it scored.
Whitney's loss was critical because it left the Oilers without a No. 1 blueliner - and also helped undermine the team's power play, which finally scored a goal in the Wild loss, ending a slump that had lasted for the previous 44 tries with the man-advantage.
Some teams can survive the loss of a key player and still find a way to be competitive. A team such as Edmonton in the early stages of a rebuilding program simply can't.
Shawn Horcoff, who was in the midst of a decent bounce-back year, has missed 18 games, but may return this week. However, Horcoff's comeback will be offset by the absence of Ales Hemsky, who left the Wild game with concussion-like symptoms. Coach Tom Renney suggested that there wasn't a specific hit that laid Hemsky out, more an accumulation of shots to the head that had left him feeling out of sorts.
Sounds, in other words, a lot like what happened to Sidney Crosby this month - when Crosby initially figured his injury, suffered in the Winter Classic on a behind-the-back hit from Washington Capitals forward David Steckel, was just a sore neck. Players all around the league are still trying to figure that out - and their first instincts are usually to try and play through an injury, rather than take the cautious approach.
In the meantime, though, the Oilers, who'd been giving the Calgary Flames a run for the coveted 14th spot in the turtle derby at the bottom of the Western Conference, now have the basement all to themselves, and likely will for the duration of the season.
This is not an entirely unexpected turn of events. When they decided to revamp the culture and put all the kids in the lineup, the Oilers understood that the transition from old to new would take time - and that even the most talented of youngsters generally have their ups and downs in their first NHL seasons.
The trick is to skate that fine line between keeping them on the development path and not having them become so discouraged that they're actually going backward - by trying to go solo too often, in the hopes of making a difference.
It isn't easy to come up with new ways of exhorting the troops when the sad reality is there in the standings every day for all to see - that a year that started out with some promise and had some heartening moments along the way is slowly devolving into the same sort of dead-end finish that they endured last season.