The Progress Report
Oilers struggle to find consistency as we enter the 5th week of the season
Ladislav Smid battles against Tim Gleason of the Hurricanes.
But perhaps the most the most shocking detail lost in the 1-3-0 record is the journey the team took to get here. It began with a denied comeback effort against the division rival Vancouver Canucks.
The next step was a close, yet equally as disappointing defeat against the Detroit Red Wings; a team that looks poised to prove any and all doubters wrong.
And then we arrived in Chicago. The reigning Stanley Cup champions haven’t had the best of starts, but their present talent and success last spring cannot be denied. Most didn’t expect the Oilers to come up with another win in the Windy City, given their recent success against the Blackhawks.
They surprised again. Nikolai Khabibulin was strong and the offensive attack came to play at the right time. The Oilers left Chicago with a 2-1 victory and feeling good about themselves as their marathon trip continued.
The next stop was in Carolina and, well – we know what happened there.
So what can we make of this team? The Oilers have shown spurts, but currently sit with a 4-7-2 record in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Head Coach Tom Renney has been experimenting with a variety of line combinations to develop chemistry and familiarity across the roster. While some players have been playing exceptionally well so far, the efforts are concentrated so that a greater balance can be established. Certain players have had slower starts than others, and the coaching staff is making a stringent effort to make sure all players are put in the right positions to succeed.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the swapped line combinations has been speedster Andrew Cogliano. After a slow start to the season where he struggled to find consistency, both in his offensive game and with a variety of linemates, Cogliano has emerged recently as one of the team’s most productive forwards.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to assume that his resurgence has been completely the work of his linemates. Coglliano has played a much different, much simpler game in the recent weeks that has greatly assisted his game-night performances.
|Andrew Cogliano celebrates with Dustin Penner vs. Vancouver last week.
Cogliano has also been given a greater role with the absence of captain Shawn Horcoff, as he nurses a minor leg injury that kept him out of Tuesday’s lineup.
Defensively, the theme is the same. The Oilers began the season with firm pairings that seemed to be established with clarity in the pre-season. Minor injuries, performance resurgences and other factors have contributed to the alteration in the defensive pairings. The team is still growing and adjusting to not only the changes, but to the challenges of the process as well.
Again, we ask: What can we make of this team? What we do know is that we're seeing the growing pains of a young, yet incredibly talented team. Consistency is going to be an issue as the group builds its collective confidence.
It's becoming increasingly obvious that the final three games of this road trip are going to reveal a lot about the team's character and mental makeup going forward. It's an excellent opportunity for the team to develop from top to bottom, and that kind of growth could be an integral building-block for the rest of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Oilers continue to operate with one of the league’s least-efficient penalty kills, with just a 69.4% success rate. In a league that’s now dominated by special teams play, a strong penalty kill is especially important. Not only does it have the obvious benefit of either killing a penalty or scoring a timely goal, but the resulting momentum can often carry over to even strength play as well; an area where the Oilers have been reasonably successful this season.
Gilbert Brule has done just that. After playing most of last season and the early portions of 2010-11 on the wing, Brule has been counted on to provide greater responsibilities in this area. While Brule is naturally a centerman, his game is often better suited to a role on the wing where we can utilize his speed and shot, rather than focusing purely on defensive responsibilities.
With Andrew Cogliano still learning the process, Brule has stepped up and assisted his line in this area, providing a lift that the Oilers desperately need in terms of a possession game. Brule has quietly owned the team’s best faceoff numbers this season. In his past four games, Brule has amassed some impressive averages: 80, 66.7, 60, and 75% respectively (making up an average of 70.4% over the past week). These are encouraging numbers for the both the team and Brule as an individual moving forward.
After suffering a 7-1 defeat a night ago against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Oilers are looking for some positives to take into their remaining three games on this marathon road trip. While it will be a difficult stretch as they complete the roadie with three games in four nights, they will be doing so in buildings where they have had plenty of success in recent seasons.
Of course, the team isn’t quite the same as it was last year or even two seasons ago, but the organizational confidence should be a benefit to the team as they look to complete the trip with a strong record.
The three game set begins in Detroit, where the Oilers played well and established a 1-1-0 record at the Joe Louis Arena last season. The following night, they head to New Jersey where the Oilers had a perfect 1-0-0 record at the Prudential Center in the 2008-09 season. The final stop is at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the Oilers haven’t lost in regulation time since the 2002-03 campaign. In total, the Oilers have accumulated a combined 3-1-0 record over the past two seasons in these buildings.
While these numbers are, in large part, irrelevant considering the new makeup of each team including the Oilers, having some extra poise going forward should be an added bonus. These are buildings that the Oilers don’t visit often, and therefore should subdue any potential intimidation factor for a young team looking to build confidence.