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Despite another season in NHL basement, Oilers say they see progress

EDMONTON - If the Edmonton Oilers win their final two games this season, they'll finish with 15 more points than they did last year and the year before that.

But before the Oilers can plug those numbers into the equation, they'll have to beat the Anaheim Ducks at Rexall Place on Thursday and the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Saturday.

Is that progress? Sure. The debate is in the degree.

"I think we've already made progress to tell you the truth, regardless of what happens," captain Shawn Horcoff said. "We've had great leaps and strides forward with our young guys and we're going to get another good (draft) pick. We're going to be older and a little more experienced next year. I think experience goes a long way."

After finishing 30th overall in back-to-back seasons with 62 points, the Oilers face the Ducks in their final home game with a record of 32-39-9 for 73 points. At worst, the Oilers will be 11 points better when they're done with the Ducks and the Canucks.

The Oilers are locked into 14th place in the Western Conference. They'll miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season and fall well short of being post-season contenders, which is where GM Steve Tambellini set the bar when the season began.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs and that's it, really," said Sam Gagner. "You can talk about improvement or different things like that, but, at the end of the day, that has to be our focus.

"You have to have that fire that, you know? We are improving, but we have to continually get better if we're going to make the playoffs. It's an exciting challenge for us next year. We want to finish this season as good as we can and focus on the right things."

When the Oilers jumped out to an 8-2-2 start and briefly sat atop conference standings, they were the surprises of the NHL and the playoff push Tambellini talked about seemed possible. They'd win just eight times in the next 29 games and wouldn't recover, hitting the halfway mark of the season at 16-22-3.

"It's the long stretches of poor hockey we have to stay away from," Horcoff said. "We had a lot of injuries to significant players during that time, so it would be nice to stay a little bit healthy for one season, too."

While the playoff push went bust by the end of December and there's been minimal improvement in terms of moving up in the standings, there's are some obvious signs of progress.

Jordan Eberle sits 14th in league scoring with 75 points. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is tied for the rookie lead with 51 points despite missing 20 games because of a shoulder injury. Taylor Hall had 53 points in 61 games before his second season was ended by a concussion and shoulder surgery.

"I know we've made progress as far as being a better team," Eberle said. "A lot of things show it. I know we're making progress and that's all that matters.

"We wanted a little more. We wanted to be in that hunt for a playoff spot, so the season definitely hasn't gone the way we wanted it. That puts more expectations on next year."

The Oilers have scored 210 goals and allowed 233, leaving them minus-23 in goal-differential. Last season, they were minus-76 and in 2009-10 they were minus-70. The power play, ranked second, is greatly improved. The penalty killing has been better.

"Everyone in here is a competitor. That's why we made it to the NHL," Eberle said. "As hockey players, you want to win.

"A winning attitude is huge for us. You can't let a losing mentality creep into your game because that's when it really starts to hurt. For the most part, we've kept that out. With inconsistent play and injuries, we haven't had the season we wanted. We've definitely made progress, but we have a lot of work to do."

How far the Oilers have come and how far they've got to go is up for debate. Gagner, without a taste of playoffs as he completes his fifth NHL season, has his own perspective.

"They're starting to show commercials again for the playoffs at this time of year," Gagner said. "When you're not part of it for another year, to be out of it, it's disappointing.''

He's hoping next season will be different.

"There is progress, but we can't have another year where we look back and say, 'There's always next year.' It has to be a situation where we're ready to go, we're focusing on the right things and we don't let the little things get in our way."



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