EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oilers are struggling mightily with just five wins in their last 17 games as they prepare for contests in St. Louis and Dallas, but general manager Steve Tambellini is preaching patience.
Despite a 9-10-2 record that has the Oilers languishing in 14th place in the Western Conference as they face the Blues on Saturday and Stars on Sunday, Tambellini is expressing confidence that his coaching staff and players have the ability to turn things around.
“We still have faith in this group,” Tambellini said. “We have a big weekend coming up. We can have a solid weekend here. We need a strong effort against St. Louis, no question.”
After a promising 4-0 start to the season, coach Craig MacTavish has come under increasing fire as the Oilers have gone 5-10-2, including five straight losses at Rexall Place.
Following a 4-3 setback to Detroit on Nov. 20, MacTavish made it clear he expected a more concerted physical effort and better starts from his team. After five days off to rest, practice and work out the kinks, the Oilers responded with a lethargic 2-1 loss to Los Angeles, prompting speculation the players have tuned out MacTavish.
“I don’t think that at all,” Tambellini said. “We’ve got a strong coaching staff. If you’ve watched the practices the last five days, they worked extremely hard.
“Sometimes, there’s a fine line between being caught up in the pressure of the moment and trying to produce.”
The most glaring deficiency has been a lack of offence, as the Oilers have scored just 54 goals in 21 games. Several forwards, including Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Erik Cole, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson, have under-achieved.
The Oilers have looked nothing like the team that, with the additions of Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky last summer, had MacTavish talking during the pre-season about challenging for a Northwest Division title.
“The players have to produce,” Tambellini said. “They have to play regardless of system or pressure, whatever the situation is. That’s their job.
“We’re working hard. We’re under-achieving in some areas as far as the offensive output, but I think everyone would agree there is enough skill on this hockey team to be a good offensive team.”
Aside from Ales Hemsky, who has 22 points, MacTavish hasn’t had a forward he can count on consistently. A pair of defencemen, Sheldon Souray and Visnovsky, are second and third in team scoring with 15 and 12 points, respectively.
Horcoff is MacTavish’s next best forward with 11 points. Penner has six points. Cole has seven. Gagner, who had 49 points as a rookie, has just five. Cogliano has nine points and Nilsson seven.
That lack of production has prompted MacTavish to change-up his line combinations – not only game-to-game, but period-to-period. He’s inserted AHL call-ups Tim Sestito and Liam Reddox into the lineup and went as far to play defenceman Ladislav Smid at forward.
“We know we have a good hockey club here,” Tambellini said. “We know there is a good skill set here.
“Are we surprised we haven’t scored as much as what we think we can? Yes. We think we have the potential, for sure, to score a lot more than we have, but it hasn’t happened at this point. We’re confident it’s going to pick itself up.”
While the Oilers had a difficult schedule to start the season, playing 14 of their first 20 games on the road, that’s not the case now. After the games in St. Louis and Dallas, the Oilers play 12 of their next 17 games at home. It’ll be difficult to make a case that hovering at or under the .500 mark after the next stretch is good enough.
“That assessment is always one that is ongoing,” Tambellini said. “We’re 21 games into the season. We went through extreme travel there for a few weeks.
“You’re always trying to get better every day. If there’s something out there that makes sense for our team to get better, we’ll consider it. But right now this is what we have and our job is to get better.”