EDMONTON – Head coach Tom Renney was prepared for the growing pains that come with trying to rebuild a team that is young and inexperienced like the Edmonton Oilers.
It’s part of the learning curve. What Renney isn’t ready to accept is what he saw on the last road trip, a five-game swing in which his Oilers managed one win and were outscored 26-10.
What he saw was a team that made too many defensive errors, was too easy to play against and didn’t compete every shift.
Lopsided losses aren’t part of Renney’s process.
“There comes a point where there’s diminishing returns,” Renney said. “If you’re playing well and really working hard to execute, it makes it easier to identify the good things we’re doing and (say), ‘We’ve got to shore this up,’ so the learning curve becomes shorter.
“If there’s an inability to get your head around that and do what we have to do to be successful, you can only learn from losing so much. After a point, it’s useless.”
The Oilers, who will play at home to Chicago on Wednesday, are still stinging from an 8-2 drubbing by the New York Rangers on Sunday. They were also beaten 6-2 in Detroit, 7-1 in Carolina and 4-3 in overtime by New Jersey. Their lone win came against the Blackhawks, 2-1, to open the trip.
It’s not a 4-9-3 mark that’s the focus for Renney and his coaching staff. It’s how the Oilers arrived at the record that’s the concern.
“If you’re going to lose, you want to lose 3-2 or 4-3, things like that,” said defenceman Ryan Whitney. “When you’re getting blown out, there’s a huge difference from maybe being in a game and losing late to a really good team.
“You can take away good things from that. Blowouts? That’s just like a step backward. There’s a big difference between being competitive and losing when you have no chance.”
The Oilers, who have great rookie building blocks in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, are 29th in goals allowed with 66, entering Tuesday night’s games. Only Atlanta, which has played two more games, is worse with 67 goals allowed.
The Oilers are giving up an average of 34.2 shots per game, which ranks 27th. At the same time, they are 29th in shots (25.9) and their penalty killing is ranked 30th.
“It starts with getting the puck out of your own end,” Whitney said. “You can’t just be chipping it off the glass. You’ve got to be making some tape-to-tape passes. We haven’t done a good job of that.
“At the same time, it’s finishing guys. When they move the puck, you don’t just turn away, you finish them so they can’t get the puck back and play that give and go. It’s team defence. Unfortunately right now, the D is what really stands out on this team. You don’t want to hear that. It’s up to us to play better.”
The Oilers are spending so much time in their own end under pressure, there’s no time for the youngsters, or anybody else, to learn anything. It’s been scramble mode.
“When teams struggle and players individually struggle, they have this long laundry list because the coach is telling them every single thing they’re doing wrong,” Renney said. “That’s deadly. That’s fatal.
“What you have to do is help the players simplify the game by identifying two or three things they need to do well in order to have success. It’s a lot easier coming back to the bench knowing, ‘I got pucks deep,’ than, ‘I got pucks deep, got in on the forecheck, came back hard, did my job in the defensive zone, started a breakout and hit the post.’
“You can appreciate that’s demoralizing. Obviously, it’ll freeze people and paralyze the thought process beyond that. It’s really important that, as a team, we keep things simple. Instead of looking at a list of 14 or 15 things they have to be exceptional at, lessen that to three or four.”
Renney’s approach now, as it often is for coaches when their teams are struggling, is less is more.
“The important thing is getting better every day,” Sam Gagner said. “This is a process. Not everything is going to go smoothly. It’s the best league in the world.
“It’s hard to be great every night, but as a unit we’re trying to get to that point. At the end of the day, those losses are zero points whether they’re 8-2 or 3-2. We’ve got to focus on getting better every day.”
Ladislav Smid will not play against Chicago. Smid suffered a concussion when he was punched by Sean Avery of the Rangers on Sunday.
The Oilers have recalled defenceman Shawn Belle and forward J.F. Jacques from Oklahoma City of the AHL. Both will be available to play against the Blackhawks.