VANCOUVER – It was a campaign that began with promise but ended in frustration for the Edmonton Oilers.
While Vancouver fans celebrated being first overall in the NHL by doing the wave and chanting “we want the Cup,” the youthful Oilers missed the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
And they left little doubt that would happen.
“Any time you’re eliminated from playoff contention early it’s never a good thing,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said after his 39-save effort in Saturday’s season-ending 3-0 loss to the Canucks.
“It’s frustrating when you’re battling and things aren’t going your way.”
While the Canucks rolled to the NHL’s best record, the Oilers ended their campaign 32-40-10 for 74 points, the second-worst mark in the 30-team league.
“We have to look at how that (playoff) race turned out in the (Western Conference) and realize that’s what it’s going to come down to,” Dubnyk said.
“It’s not easy for anybody to get in the post-season.”
The Oilers, who lost to Carolina in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup final, showed early promise, jumping to a 9-3-2 record after beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 on Nov. 8.
Then the slide began as the Oilers won only three of their next 11 games. The goaltending became suspect and the blue-line injury prone.
“I definitely think we’re a much better team,” said 11-year Oiler Shawn Horcoff who finished with 13 goals and 34 points.
“If you look at our season there’s just that one stretch (in the middle) of 25-30 games that we really have to do without.
“That really put us behind the 8-ball and made it a long season for us.
“We started well and finished pretty decent but it was just that little stretch. For us, we have to find a way to be more consistent in those areas next year.
“We’ll be a little bit older next year and obviously more experienced and we’re going to get another top (draft) pick so I feel we’re headed in the right direction.”
Helping to keep them on that track will be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first over-all pick in last June’s entry draft who is a solid candidate for rookie of the year.
The young star from suburban Burnaby had 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games and tied Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado, who played a full schedule, for rookie scoring honours.
“I learned a lot this year,” said Nugent-Hopkins who missed 20 games with shoulder injuries.
“I had some good experiences but I don’t want to go through this again,” he said. “I want to be in the push for the post-season.”
Players felt Edmonton fans remained patient with the club.
“All year long they were on our side and behind us,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It was great to see.”
There were other bright spots for a club that staggered to the finish line, losing five of its last six games.
Their defence improved and Dubnyk, who started 12 of the Oilers’ final 14 games, made a strong bid to be considered the No. 1 goalie.
A power play that ranked third in the NHL kept them in many games.
Jordan Eberle, the 22nd overall pick in the 2008 draft, is a possible Lady Byng trophy winner as the league’s most gentlemanly player.
He led the team with 34 goals, 42 assists and 75 points with only four minor penalties this season.
But Horcoff would like to see what his club would do without injuries that saw more than 250 man-games lost this season and 279 last year.
“The last three-four years have been pretty trying,” Horcoff said. “It’s the players that play the most are the ones getting injured.
“Those are impact players. You can do without one or two but when you’re missing three or four guys at the same time it makes tough.”
Coach Tom Renney, without a contract after completing the final year of his two-year deal, was philosophical about the challenges his club faced during the season.
“You have to learn under these circumstances,” he said after the loss to the Canucks.
Ryan Smyth, with 19 goals, and youngsters Sam Gagner and Nugent-Hopkins, both with 18, had chances for 20-goal seasons. Horcoff was one point behind Esa Tikkanen for eighth in all-time Oiler scoring.
“We had players in the lineup that had personal accomplishments in front of them that meant nothing to them,” Renney said.
“We had teammates that only talked about the team and what we needed to do. To me that’s maturing and understanding what it takes to be exactly that.
“I think we understand our shortcomings.”