EDMONTON – For rebuilding teams like the Edmonton Oilers, the short-term pain of losing is supposed to be rewarded with the long-term gain of becoming a contender. The Oilers believe it. They have to.
Having experienced a humbling dose of the former with back-to-back 30th-place finishes, the prevailing sentiment of Oilers players when they filed into Rexall Place on Friday to open training camp was it’s time to start enjoying some of the latter.
“Enough’s enough,” said Sam Gagner. “Nothing just ever happens for you. You can’t just sit back and wait for it.
“If you look back at the past of everyone here, minor hockey and junior hockey, pretty much everyone here has won at some level in their life, When you go through years like we’ve gone through, it starts to wear on you.”
Gagner emphasized how badly he wants the Oilers to start winning.
“Like I said, enough’s enough. It’s not fun losing the way we have. We have a lot of pride in here and it’s time to turn things around now.”
Edmonton hasn’t made the playoffs since losing Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final against Carolina. Gagner, entering his fifth NHL season, hasn’t had a sniff of post-season since he turned pro.
While those back-to-back last-place finishes produced highly-touted first overall draft picks Taylor Hall in 2010 and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins last June, nobody is thinking about making it a three-peat.
“In terms of the team and expectations, I think a realistic goal for us has to be trying to make the playoffs,” captain Shawn Horcoff said.
“The only way to get these young kids and develop them, get them to the next level, make them become better players, is they have to play the big games. They have to play important games in March, sometimes February.”
Horcoff sees each round of the post-season as a proving ground for young players.
“That’s a whole other level when you’re fighting for the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs, once you go past each round, you learn to deal with a higher level of pressure,” said the centre. “That’s how you push yourselves to become better players. That’s how you gain confidence.”
Coming off a season where Edmonton was 35 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, any playoff push will have to come from a roster that will look much different in 2011-12.
While Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi remain key components of the rebuild, and Nugent-Hopkins will have an opportunity to make the team, the veteran mix has undergone considerable turnover for head coach Tom Renney’s second season behind the bench.
“The whole locker room has changed,” said Ryan Smyth, who returns after four seasons away after being acquired from Los Angeles. “A lot of different staff. A lot of different faces, but it’s all good. I’m really excited to be back and be in the mix again. I think there’s tremendous upside here.
“I don’t want to come in and change things. I want to be a part of something special. Like I said, I believe there’s something really special here with these young kids.”
Smyth, 35, is being counted on for leadership. Eric Belanger will help with faceoffs. Former Chicago first-rounder Cam Barker and Andy Sutton bolster the blue line. Forwards Ben Eager and veteran Darcy Hordichuk add toughness.
Gone are Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano, Colin Fraser, Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, J.F. Jacques, Zack Stortini, Jason Strudwick and tough guy Steve MacIntyre.
“When you surround yourself with guys like that, winning kind of becomes the attitude of the locker room,” Ryan Jones said. “That’s what we’ll find the difference is this year.”
Aside from finding out where the new veterans fit, if Nugent-Hopkins can make the grade and how Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi develop in their second seasons, Edmonton’s fortunes will hinge on how several players rebound from injury-shortened seasons.
Ryan Whitney, who led Edmonton defencemen with 27 points despite playing just 35 games, is recovering from ankle surgery. Ales Hemsky (shoulder surgery) and Horcoff (knee and foot injuries) played just 47 games each.
“The young guys here are a year older,” said Hemsky, who won’t scrimmage for the first week of camp. “We had a lot of good signings, the guys we need, we didn’t have before, so it’ll be fun to play.”
Renney said last season he expected the Oilers to make the playoffs. A spate of injuries, to Whitney, Hemsky, Horcoff, Gagner and Hall, turned that expectation upside down.
“The last couple of years have been the most trying of my professional career by far,” Horcoff said.
“Obviously, given how we’ve done as a team in the standings, and the injuries I’ve had to sustain and go through, it’s been extremely frustrating. I hope those are behind me.”
While the stated goal is a playoff spot, Horcoff’s target of playing meaningful games down the stretch is likely more realistic. That’s something the Oilers have haven’t done in two years.
“Management has done a great job of filling in the holes we need here,” said Gagner. “It’s time to go out and show that we’re capable of more.”