Tonight, Sam Gagner will not be wearing a face guard for the first time since returning from an injury sustained in the pre-season which saw him break his jaw.
"They told me about three months so I think I'm pretty much there. It's nice to get it off. I guess we'll see how it goes tonight. I think the biggest thing for me is I still get to dangerous areas. I've got to do that early, get it out of my head and just play."
It has been 11 weeks since Gagner returned so he is hovering right around that expected 12-week mark.
"It impedes your vision a little bit but I felt like I was getting used to it. It's nice to get it off now and just focus on playing."
“It’s two guys who are very strong on the puck. We’re really trying to establish a cycle game so we’re hoping with those two guys and Nuge we can get some zone time,” Eakins stated.
Perron was looking forward to lining up with Hall.
“It’s the first time I’ve played with Hallsy tonight, in 35 games. I’m excited about it," Perron remarked. "He’s a guy who you can give him the puck in the neutral zone and he has a lot of speed going. That’s what I’m going to try and do tonight.”
“We were looking for a match for Gagner. Ebs seems to be that match. That’s a pair that we like. It was kind of two thought processes that went into it," Eakins began.
"The way David has played and the way Taylor has played, that should be a really good line. And given some chemistry with Gagner and Eberle we hope that bears some fruit as well.”
The Oilers are on the ice for the morning skate ahead of tonight's game against the Jets. The skate is optional, with 12 players participating. Devan Dubnyk is in goal, meaning Ilya Bryzgalov gets the start. Notably, Sam Gagner is without the jaw shield for the first time since returning from his broken jaw injury.
Optional skate for Oilers today. No face shield for Gagner, who is on ice. We'll see come game time.— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) December 23, 2013
Sam Gagner is only about a week or two from having his face guard removed. It should be of huge benefit to him as he has been unable to play a more physical style or fight -- something that he has done in the past to try and spark himself and his teammates.
"It's something I like to do when things aren't going well. You look at it from a teammate perspective. When I'm on the bench and Luke (Gazdic) has a big fight or there's a big hit or guys are playing really hard, it gives you a lift. And I think individually it does as well, if you're able to do it."
|NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 28: Taylor Hall #4 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates his goal with Sam Gagner #89 and Justin Schultz #19 against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on November 28, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)|
Gagner added that he has had to try and find other ways to get that lift.
"It's tough not being able to do that, but for myself I just have to find other ways to make sure I'm contributing every night.I can still get to the net and still create chances that way, play hard in my D-zone, and that's got to be my focus."
Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins said that Gagner has gotten better as he's played more since returning from the injury. He also added that perhaps Gagner came back a little sooner than he should have, partially due to the team's play at the time.
“When he came back, we were in such a horrible place. I think he felt like the team needed him — and we did. I think he rushed getting back, maybe before he was quite ready or comfortable, for the good of the team. If you’re not quite ready physically or mentally, it’ll show in your game. When you’re off that little bit, it’s easy to go into a deeper hole.”
At the time of Gagner's return on October 29, the team was 3-8-1.
"Regardless, it's hard coming back when you've missed the first part of the season. I think it would have taken me some time no matter when I came back. There might have been some hesitance with the jaw but that's not an excuse for me. There was as stretch there where I was producing and helping the team win, and I can do that again. I can't use any of those things as an excuse."
Eakins feels there has been an improvement from the 24-year-old centre.
“I think he’s been slowly getting better. Sam and I talked as recently as yesterday morning. He feels it. He’s committed to getting better. He knows he can get better. His expectation on this team is to be the number one centreman — as does Nuge. And that’s the competition you want there.
“He’s not shying away from it. He knows he hasn’t played his best hockey yet but he’s fully committed to getting there.”
Gagner talked about moving up and down the lineup as he has been recently.
"I just want to win," Gagner stated. "I've been around this long enough that, obviously, there's personal success you want to have but at the end of the day it just sucks losing. I think for myself I just want to find a way to help contribute to some wins. It's a matter of continuing to push through and getting better."
Coach Eakins spoke about the play of Taylor Hall this season and how impressed he has been with the winger's play, not only on the offensive side of the puck but defensively as well.
|ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 15: Taylor Hall #4 of the Edmonton Oilers stands in front of a shot from Ben Lovejoy #6 of the Anaheim Ducks in the second period at Honda Center on December 15, 2013 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)|
“Taylor’s a smart kid. He understands the game. I think he thinks about the game a lot,” said Eakins.
The bench boss has been impressed with the play of Hall defensively as the season has gone on. Hall leads the team in points, with 30, despite having only played 31 out of 38 games. Hall is -11 on the season but is only -2 since November 15.
“Taylor’s defensive game has gone from one that I thought was very, very shaky with no habit to now starting to lead the way in how we play in our zone. He’s still got work to be done but if you wanted to go ‘most improved’ — who has improved the greatest in his understanding of what’s in our D-zone, it’s Taylor. And he’s quietly gone about his business in doing that."
Hall wants to continually improve on that. And his goals are lofty.
"The goal for Taylor is that within a period of time, Taylor Hall is going to be the best defensive left winger in the game. And he’s still going to get 100 points a year. That’s the goal.
“He wants it. And that will be a great, great thing for our organization.”
Taylor Hall was on CBC's After Hours on Saturday. Click here to watch the video.
Jones collided with Andrew Ference during morning skate yesterday and had to be helped off. Eakins said that the word was, Jones was doing better today.
“I haven’t seen him but somebody told me that he was looking better this morning. But I haven’t even seen him,” said Eakins, adding that he hasn't been alerted that it's at all serious.
“If there’s a major concern with the player, TD will be in my office right away so I didn’t see him."
Philip Larsen missed the game yesterday as well as morning skate and didn't practice today due to illness.
"Larsen’s got whatever bug’s going around the city. I guess it isn’t a pretty one."
Dallas Eakins was asked whether he understands the frustration of the fans with losing, considering the Oilers have not made the playoffs for seven straight seasons.
“I totally understand. I just came from an organization where I saw it and I felt it. I understand it. I understand where, with my former employer, there would be a new coaching staff, a new GM and they would say ‘what does this group have anything to do with the past failures?’”
Eakins was previously assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and head coach of their farm team, the Toronto Marlies, through a large portion of a stretch which saw the Leafs go eight straight years without making the playoffs. That stretch was just ended last season.
“Have we not done well this year? Absolutely. Have I seen, quietly, progress in players and in our game? I do. But I understand that the fans and the people in the city are going ‘hey, you — and I mean me, Dallas — you’ve been losing for seven years.’ I understand that.
"They look at the jersey, they look at the colours, they look at the team on the ice. And I’m okay with that, because I fully understand it."
The coach also talked about the passion of the fans and how that's truly a good thing even though it may make things difficult at times for the players, coaches and management.
"They have great right to be upset. It is a passion in the market — and I think we alluded to this sometime earlier this year — I’d much rather they be really pissed off right now than to not care at all. And if you’re not a hockey market, where other sports are bigger and more attended and nobody gives a crap whether you won or lost, that wouldn’t be much fun.
"Is it very much fun having the boos rain down and the comments as you move around the city and things like that? It’s not. But at least they care.”
Eakins added that they are all working around the clock to try and find solutions.
“Between Craig, myself, the players, there’s no stone being unturned right now trying to get better. But I do understand the perception that the players in the room, myself and Craig are responsible for the last eight years. I understand that.”
Coach Eakins did add that he felt this current stretch of six straight losses feels better overall than the stretch of 11 games from October 24 to November 15 that saw the team win only once.
“When we were in the last one, it was really bad. And this is not fun, either. I still feel like the previous spot we were in was a horrible spot where we just had zero confidence. We couldn’t make a play, we would see zero flashes and I thought that was a real negative downtime and that was a point where I was trying to keep them very positive.
“Because we’re seeing full periods and two periods of how we want to play — last night chances were 10-2 for us in the first period. And then to shoot ourselves in the foot like we did, that’s for me saying the next day we come to the rink is not going to be a fun day. I don’t want you all smiles and giggles coming in here.
“The one thing I shared with the group today before practice is, I always prided myself as a coach on coming in the next day, yesterday’s gone. We’ve got to get ready for tomorrow. I just let them know, don’t let plays die today in practice because I haven’t let yesterday go yet.”
Eakins did feel that in practice today, the team responded very well.
“The positive game from how we practiced today. We practiced hard, we were efficient, we were good. We had good habits on the ice. It was an encouraging day coming off of that.
“It wasn’t fun early, there wasn’t a lot of smiles but by the end of the practice — they worked and had a great attention to detail — now we start feeling OK about ourselves again. Because in the end, we can’t do anything about yesterday now. We have to be ready for tomorrow’s game.”
Mark Arcobello, Ryan Jones and Philip Larsen all remain injured and are not participating.
Oilers lines look like this at practice: 4-93-57. 6-89-14. 94-27-83. 20-51-64. No Arco. No Jones.— Reid Wilkins (@ReidWilkins) December 22, 2013
Ilya Bryzgalov had his worst outing as an Oiler on this night, allowing six goals on 33 shots. After the game, Coach Eakins was asked about why he left Bryzgalov in the net and the bench boss was quick to defend his netminder and point the blame elsewhere.
“I think the only (goal against) that didn’t look great went off our defenceman’s stick," said Eakins.
"We were deep in the game. I didn’t see a reason to take him out at that point. Bryz has been great for us. I think his save percentage was something like (.936) going into the game. I’m not pinning this one on him, I’m pinning it on the boneheaded mistakes when we’ve got everything going in our favour. It’s like we love misery. ‘Hold on a second, things are going too well here, let’s have some misery.’ I’ve had enough misery already.”
Eakins then talked about how the will to improve needs to come from inside the dressing room.
“We’ve got some players here who have been here for a number of years. They have to be done with it. There has to be a change in the commitment level and accountability — not from me, but within the room. That’s where it has to be and it has to start.
"And if it doesn’t start from there, this is just going to continue. It just will. You need the guys in the room really holding each other accountable and not looking the other way."