Oilers know they can’t repeat last season’s poor start

Edmonton Oilers' head coach Todd McLellan, centre, talks to players during a practice. (Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency via AP)

BOSTON — "We’ve got to get off to a good start this season."

As a journalist, I throw that quote on the scrap heap next to, "I really like playing with that guy," or "our goalie is one of the best in the league."

Until we start hearing players routinely say, "Our lousy ‘tender is one of the worst in the NHL," or, "It would be fine if we lost four of our first five games. No problem," those platitudes about the good starts becomes just another cliché.

But we’ll give you this: when it is uttered by a member of the Edmonton Oilers this fall, well, perhaps it has a touch more gravity. Heading into their second game of the season against Boston on Thursday, the 0-1 Oilers emotions lie somewhere between panicking over a loss in Sweden, and playing it cool the way they tried to a year ago, when it took them 25 games and two months to collect 10 wins.

How did the latter work out?

"It’s easy to say, ‘Aw, we have 81 (games) left,’" began Milan Lucic, who opened his season with a two-point night in a 5-2 loss to New Jersey. "But we kept doing that last year. ‘It’s OK, we have 60 games left.’ ‘It’s all right, we have 55 left.’ Then, all of the sudden it was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got 40 games left and we’re completely out of the mix here…'”

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Somewhere between nonchalance and sheer panic lies the nirvana known as urgency. An Oilers team that won its opener last season, then went on a 2-6-0-1 run the rest of October, knows well how fast things can get away. Before you know it, you’re chasing the season.

"The results are what everyone looks at and evaluates — the outside world. We look at how we played; at what we did and didn’t do," said head coach Todd McLellan. "It was a disappointing first night. But it was that: a first night. There’s no panic. We lost our first game. That’s happened to numerous teams who have gone on to win Stanley Cups.

"We weren’t very good against Jersey. We’ll be better against Boston."

It was, as McLellan said, a "disappointing" loss because of the many things that went wrong. Cam Talbot, who has vowed to have a better season, let in four (with an empty netter). The defence, where there are many questions, gave mostly negative answers. The depth forwards, a cadre that was supposed to be improved, hurt the club with a poor collective performance.

"We weren’t any good in our own end, and I don’t mean defending it, I mean coming out of it," explained McLellan. "We were a little bit slow; we didn’t have good board work. As a result, any time the puck was cleared we didn’t have possession, or we weren’t together as a five-man unit.

"That was the disappointing part of the game."

The coach was shuffling his bottom six forwards at practice Wednesday, moving Jujhar Khaira from left wing to third-line centre, and Ryan Strome down to fourth-line centre. Could that leave newly acquired fourth-line centre Kyle Brodziak in the press box only two games into the season?

"We haven’t made any decisions yet," McLellan said. "We need more from our third and fourth lines. They didn’t give us much the other day. It’s a four-line league and they have to be more productive (in providing) momentum, physicality, defending, pace, energy… We need more from those lines."


Does line juggling after 60 minutes of a season constitute panic? Or simply proactive coaching?

By moving people around after one game, is McLellan telling his charges that there is greater urgency this October than last? That he will not — as Lucic referenced — just chill, because there are 81 games left to play?

Our guess would be that Brodziak centres the fourth line with Zack Kassian and Tobias Rieder on Thursday at the TD Garden, and perhaps Khaira and Strome swap places on the third line, with Jesse Puljujarvi manning the right wing.

We’ve watched McLellan work for long enough to know that changing things at practice is his way of issuing the warning that, if things don’t improve, he’ll start making changes during games.

After a lack luster opener, you can’t blame the coach for trying to light the fire. Not this season, with this team.

"Good teams show up and bounce back right away," said Lucic. "The Bruins lost 7-0 in their first game and they’ve won three straight since. That’s the sign of a good team. We need to find a way to do the same thing."

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