EDMONTON — Dr. Quinn is in — just in time for the team everyone agrees needs a heart transplant.
The Edmonton Oilers and new head coach Pat Quinn open their NHL regular season Saturday against the Calgary Flames in what they hope will be a new beginning for a lurching franchise.
"We’re going to work hard, we’re going to be tougher to play against, and we’re going to be better because we’re going to have a better system," said veteran defenceman Sheldon Souray.
Quinn, the longtime NHL coach hired this spring to replace the ousted Craig MacTavish, has brought in a system that focuses on puck pursuit, puck control, and skating, skating, skating.
"More emphasis has been put on our team defence. If we’re caught up ice, we’re getting back a lot harder, and that will reduce the amount of scoring chances we give up," said captain Ethan Moreau.
Added forward Shawn Horcoff: "(Quinn’s) a little more lenient on guys making plays and turning (the puck) over. But he’s said to us, `If I’m going to give you that leniency, you better return the favour by making sure if you’re the one who turns it over, you get back hard and make sure that odd-line rush doesn’t happen."’
Quinn and associate coach Tom Renney are working with almost the same lineup that finished 11th in the Western Conference (21st overall) last year with a 38-35-9 record.
The only significant additions were two free agents. Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, 36, was signed to a four-year deal to play goal. Winger Mike Comrie, who left the team in an ugly contract dispute in 2003, has returned on a one-year deal. He led the league with 10 points in the pre-season.
The strength remains defence. Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert, Denis Grebeshkov, Ladislav Smid, Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick provide a solid mix of defensive grit and offensive flair.
Up front, the situation was fluid throughout training camp with 20 or so players battling for 14 spots on an offence that needs more production. The team ranked 18th in offence last season and two of the top four point getters were on the blue-line — Souray and Gilbert.
Two-way centre Horcoff and puck-wizard Ales Hemsky are still the first-line marquee performers.
Behind them, it’s hoped that Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano will rebound from sophomore slumps and that the mercurial Robert Nilsson, who has been on the bubble in training camp, will justify his US$2 million contract by staying focused for 82 games.
Moreau needs to rebound from a year of inconsistent play and bonehead penalties.
Strong pre-season performances were turned in by Gilbert Brule, J.F. Jacques, Ryan Stone, Patrick O’Sullivan, and a svelter Dustin Penner, the big-body forward whose lacklustre play and US$4 million contract have in years past made him the team poster boy for under-performance.
Also fighting for roster spots were tough guys Steve MacIntyre and Zack Stortini. Stortini led the NHL with 25 fights last season on a team of small forwards that got pushed around far too often.
Fernando Pisani, with back problems, and Marc Pouliot (inflamed pubic bone) are expected to start the season on injured reserve.
In goal, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers will back up Khabibulin, and is expected to see about 15 to 20 games.
Quinn said the goal is to set the bar higher for a franchise that has won five Stanley Cups.
"We’re trying to resurrect those standards for ourselves," he said.
.Recent history has been unkind to the Oil, which hasn’t made the playoffs since its improbable run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006.
While the team had been slowly drifting off the road for years, it hit the ditch and rolled in 2008-09.
It was clear MacTavish’s time was done. As the losses mounted, the normally cerebral, unflappable coach publicly called out Nilsson and Penner. Line combinations were blended and re-blended into pureed mush. The dressing room was cleaved — veterans demanding the kids step up; the kids insisting the veterans show the way. Hemsky beaked off about having to backcheck.
It was a mess.
"We didn’t really feel we had a system we went back to every single game. I think we played a lot to other teams," said Cogliano.
Nevertheless, Souray noted, "It shouldn’t have been an excuse for older guys to let their play slide, let their professionalism slide."
Sadly, said Quinn, training camp has only reinforced that while there’s no "I" in team, there is one in Oilers
"We have some guys that aren’t leaders that are veterans. They’ve hung around because they know how to play, but we need our veterans to care more about the other people around them," he said.
"Some guys don’t have time for that. They’re busy with themselves."
That could make for a long year for a team now fighting for millions of dollars in taxpayer money to build a palatial downtown rink to replace Rexall Place, the aging 35-year-old concrete bowl with concourses as narrow as two Smart Cars and intermission bathroom lineups that snake long out the doors.
Oh, and for fans wishing to drown their sorrows this season, draft beer is going up a quarter.