Though far from panic, Oilers making no excuses for mediocre first quarter of season

dmonton Oilers goaltender Jack Campbell (36) reacts after giving up a goal to the New York Islanders. (John Minchillo/AP)

EDMONTON — The number is 76.3 per cent. But let’s call it 75 per cent — three out of four — for the sake of conversation. 

That is hockey’s U.S. Thanksgiving stat, updated and stretching back all the way to the 2005-06 season, excluding Covid and lockout years that began after the last Thursday in November. 

Three-quarters of teams in a playoff spot on this date get a Round 1 series, and you’d better be within five or six points to be eligible for the other 25 per cent. 

The Edmonton Oilers awoke here in Manhattan to a Macy’s parade, a team turkey dinner in the afternoon, and a set of standings that had them on the bottom end of a tie in points with St. Louis, Minnesota and Nashville for the final Wildcard spot out West. 

Not catastrophic, but not good enough for what is expected.

“We’ve got to dig in,” said general manager Ken Holland, in a conversation with Sportsnet. “The manager knows it. The coaches and the players know it. We know we’ve got to be better.” 

Edmonton went 7-3 out of the gate. But they finished their second 10-game segment at 3-7. 

That mediocre 10-10 record puts them well within reach (five points) of second place in the Pacific, so their season is by no means irretrievable. Some context: when Dave Tippett was fired on Feb. 10 last season, Edmonton was six points out of a wildcard spot with 38 games to play. 

Today it’s one point with 62 games to play. So there is no need to panic. 

The diehard fan would say, “If we can be right in the hunt after such a poorly played 20-game segment, where will we be once we put our game together?” 

But the pessimist would add, “If you haven’t ‘put your game together’ yet, maybe this IS your game?” 

“We are a 500 team,” admitted head coach Jay Woodcroft. “Yeah, we are what our record says we are.” 

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Woodcroft’s Oilers aren’t scoring much right now, especially among the defence and Bottom 6, so their defensive deficiencies are being exposed. Tomas Tatar scores a key goal while standing untouched and unmarked in front of Stuart Skinner in New Jersey, and Gabriel Pageau is ignored by two Oilers veterans to score a shorthanded goal on Long Island. 

If you’re not going to score a bunch of goals, you can’t play soft hockey. That’s Hockey 101. 

“You’ve got to get some ugly goals,” Holland said. “You can’t think you’re just going to rush down the ice, do a tic, tac, toe and throw it in the net. That’s not a reality. Can you do one of those occasionally? Yeah. But you’ve got to you got to spend time in the O-zone. You’ve got to be heavy on pucks. You’ve got to funnel pucks to the net. You’ve got to go hard to the blue paint — harder to the blue paint — and you got to do it over and over and over again.” 

Here are the stats that stand out for me. Edmonton is ranked:

• 29th in goals against per game (3.60).

• 28th in shots allowed per game (34.2). 

• 29th in penalty killing (72.2 per cent). 

• at five-on-five they are a middle of the pack Corsi team (49 per cent), 25th in shot share (47.7), and mid-pack in saves percentage (.915). 

• Only four teams have scored the first goal of the game less often than the slow-starting Oilers, who scored first eight times in 20 games. 

Meanwhile, Edmonton has been issued one fighting major this season. It went to Jesse Puljujarvi and he did not even drop both gloves in the “scrap.” That is the sign of a team standing around and waiting for someone else to get the dirty work done. 

Holland says, don’t panic after a lousy 10-game stretch. 

“I believe that we are doing some things better now than we were three weeks ago — the penalty kill, for instance,” he said. “We’re tightening up — the results just don’t show it. We also know we are one point out with 62 games to go. We do understand there’s a sense of urgency — certainly we don’t want to go 3-7 in our next 10. We went 7-3 and now we went 3-7. So we’ve got to regroup.”

Although Holland spent his U.S. Thanksgiving taking stock with several other NHL general managers (while, of course, watching some football), history tells us this is not an issue that will get solved by a major trade. The cap, the standings, the numbers of games remaining — they all conspire to create a level of patience for transactions that move players of greater import than a Ryan Reaves or a Conor Timmins. 

This roster is not — can not — be the finished product prior to the 2023 playoffs. But the current lineup is responsible for getting the Edmonton Oilers to the trading season of from mid-January to Deadline Day on March 3. 

Darnell Nurse, for one, exuded confidence on Wednesday evening that the responsibility is not too much to bear. 

“We went through a stretch last year with a sky was falling on us, where everyone was quitting on us, and we found a way to push ourselves into playoffs. We’re in a lot better spot sitting here speaking right now than we were in the depths of that last season,” said Nurse. “So we know we need to do better. 

“There are no excuses in our room. We know the things we need to take care of.”

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