EDMONTON — The disaster that was the 2013-14 NHL season mercifully ended for the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night and on Sunday morning the players couldn’t wait to do their exit interviews and get out of the rink.
A team that went into the season with high hopes — as the Oilers have done each of the last several years — ended it by missing the playoffs for the eighth straight year, finishing last in the Western Conference. Their 67 points — from a record of 29-44-9 — left them third last in the entire NHL, ahead of only Buffalo and Florida.
The year was, the players unanimously agreed, frustrating and disappointing. But as they have since early November when their playoff hopes had already faded after a 4-15-2 start, the players remained adamant the team is on the right track.
"I can honestly say I’m heading into next year with a lot of optimism not only individually, but as a team," said Taylor Hall, who led the team in scoring with 80 points in 75 games. "There have been times when I’ve laid awake at night wondering ‘When is this going to stop?’ But there have been signs I haven’t seen in years past… even though our record since mid-January was about .500 or just below it was just how we battled at times."
Third-year centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had 54 points in 80 games, stated the obvious when he said they can’t afford another start like they had this year.
"But I think the last half of the season, at least the last month, month and a half, I think we’ve been playing some really good hockey. For sure we’ve shown some signs of what we can do so there are positives there."
Fingers could be pointed in a lot of directions, but the consensus was two major factors led to the team’s horrid start from which they couldn’t recover — Devan Dubnyk was handed the No. 1 goaltending job but then couldn’t handle it, and rookie coach Dallas Eakins tried unsuccessfully to install a defensive system the players either couldn’t or wouldn’t play.
"You could point fingers at a lot of things but in the end it’s the players in the room who have to execute, have to play the game the right way," said forward David Perron. "Early on we were having trouble with the defensive system that Dallas had tried to get us going. When he saw it wasn’t going to work he was quick to go back to a more traditional one.
"It was one of the mistakes he made and he was able to adjust and he got a lot better himself through the year. I think the same could be said for a lot of guys in here. We made mistakes early and we got better."
But not good enough and not soon enough. For a team supposedly full of young, offensive talent the Oilers were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league with just 203 goals. On the flip side, despite Eakins’ insistence they play defence first, they gave up 270 goals, the worst in the league.
Eakins said the team has to upgrade in personnel, find more secondary scoring and improve on getting the puck out of their own end.
"I don’t think we handled a lot of things the right way, obviously," said Sam Gagner. "We need to improve in a ton of areas if we’re going to be successful and we all realize that and it’s on us to right that."
There were, obviously, more negatives than positives.
The players’ optimism is based upon the team’s record over the final 30 games — 14-13-3 — and the play of goaltenders Ben Scrivens (16-16-2, .917 save percentage) and Viktor Fasth (5-5-2. 903), both mid-season acquisitions.
"If anything I think it just gives us some confidence going into next year," Nugent-Hopkins said of the late-season play. "Having confidence is huge for a hockey player and obviously when you’re in 28th, 29th place, it’s tough to have too much. But the way we’ve been playing lately shows we have something to look forward to and that’s a positive thing."
While there will be player changes before next season, the Oilers have all their key forwards under contract. Defensively, however, only veteran Andrew Ference and youngsters Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin are signed, meaning general manager Craig MacTavish has important decisions to be made there including re-signing restricted free agent Justin Schultz.
Eakins sent the players off to summer with this thought: what will your legacy be?
"It’s something to reflect on over the next few weeks and then it’s time to get a plan in place. How are we going to get better so we can create the environment and leave the right legacy, not only for our team but ourselves, too?"
Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins all said they will not play in the world championship because of lingering injuries.