EDMONTON – Dustin Penner stood after practice in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room Monday, a smile stapled to his face, ice-cold eyes locked on reporters as they urged him, just one more time, to recount what it was like to be called out in public by your coach.
The forward was asked because teammate Robert Nilsson had just become the latest underperformer to have his work ethic flogged for all to see by head coach Craig MacTavish.
Does public humiliation really work? Penner was asked.
The answers come in a monotone.
Yes, you have to work through it, put your nose to the grindstone. Yes, it was humiliating to be called out. Yes, different players respond to different motivations.
But what about MacTavish airing out the dirty laundry in public?
“Is it the nature of how (MacTavish) does it (that might rankle),” he’s asked.
“What do you mean, how he does it? Are you making a statement or asking a question?” he shoots back.
It continues: Does this punishment work for a youngster like Nilsson? Does one size fit all?
And, above all, tell us what you said to your teammate?
“Wow,” replies Penner, his voice still monotone, his eyes still laser-locked, his patience at an end. “Larry King Live over here.
“I want a gift basket if I’m going to be asked questions like that.”
The media scrum was a microcosm of a season that began with predictions of clear sailing to the playoffs but has since been cast adrift on the waves of inconsistent performance: three wins, five losses, two wins, two losses, two wins, three losses…
Heading into NHL action Tuesday, the Oilers were 13th in the Western Conference (14-14-3) and have scored 83 goals – fifth lowest in the league. On the penalty kill, only the woebegone Atlanta Thrashers are worse.
Forward Sam Gagner struggles through a sophomore slump. Defenceman Tom Gilbert makes the nightly highlight reel, standing in front of the net as his opponent reaches around to hammer home the loose puck. Power forward Erik Cole promised 100 watts but has delivered 60.
An exasperated MacTavish has emptied his bag of tricks: shaking up the line combinations, calling up minor-leaguers and – in historically un-MacTavishian fashion – has taken to questioning the heart of those who seek to be not Boys on the Bus but Passengers on the Bus.
It worked for Penner, who has racked up 11 points in 13 games since MacTavish benched him a month ago, telling reporters at the time, “We thought the contract (US$4.25 million a year) was a starting point for him, but he views it as a finish line. I can’t watch it.”
This week it is Nilsson’s turn.
The 23-year-old forward was expected to be benched Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes after MacTavish pulled him off the top line and sat him down in Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks. He has four goals and 10 points in 27 games after a breakout 2007-08 season (10 goals, 41 points in 71 games).
“We need some fire and he’s got a lot more skill than what we’re seeing,” said MacTavish on Sunday. “He has taken the game for granted.”
Message received, Nilsson said Monday.
“It’s never fun to be a healthy scratch. I know what I need to do to get back in there and prove every night that I can produce and help this team win.”
After Tuesday’s game, the Oilers are off for a Christmas break, returning for a Boxing Day road game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Gagner said a few days off might be the ticket to help the team find its compass to begin heading north in the standings.
“A couple of days to spend with your family and take your mind off the game a little bit and just step back and enjoy yourself. I think for us, just to have that mental break is going to be huge.
“Hopefully we can build off the energy we get over the Christmas break and bring it into the second half of the season.”