VANCOUVER — With all the talk of the Edmonton Oilers’ vast depth at forward to start the season, you’d think they’d barely miss a step despite the losses of Ethan Moreau, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth.
It was obvious by the time Moreau was shelved with a dislocated shoulder on Oct. 21 all that firepower on paper was more blown smoke than anything else.
Now, with Hemsky going down with a shoulder injury against Anaheim last Tuesday, and Smyth breaking his right thumb in Saturday’s 4-0 loss to Columbus, waltzing is not an option. Staying upright is the challenge.
With so much heart and their best pair of hands on the shelf, the Oilers have lost three straight as they face Vancouver tonight.
The only depth I’m thinking about is how far they might sink in the Western Conference standings by the Christmas break.
The depths of despair.
“Every team is going to go through these situations,” said coach Craig MacTavish.
“You have to make sure that you can survive them and it’s a test of the mettle of our team collectively.
“Your margin of error is less. You can’t take bad penalties. You’ve got to compete. You’ve got to win one-on-one battles and be better in the areas of the game that aren’t necessarily indicative of skill.”
The Oilers said all the right things while trying to shake the shock of losing Smyth and getting collared by the Blue Jackets, but they haven’t been much in the action department.
They’ve been outscored 14-5 in three straight losses that have them teetering at 13-10-2.
“It could make us better,” says an optimistic Shawn Horcoff. “We talked about winning the division in here at the start of the season. For that to happen, this is going to be a good test of the will of this team.
“It could go either way. It could really bode well for us or it could really make things tough in the second half of the season.”
The party line in September was that if any team could withstand the loss of three key players like Moreau, Hemsky and Smyth, it was the Oilers.
In reality, ask yourself this: outside of Petr Sykora is there a forward who has knocked your socks off?
Horcoff has two goals. Jarret Stoll has six. Joffrey Lupul has eight. Fernando Pisani has four. Raffi Torres has four, and his confidence is so shot you could convince him he only has two.
“We all have to be better,” Lupul said. “With our two best players out, average isn’t going to cut it. Guys have got to play above average, starting with myself.”
Sykora is going to get a lot less room to operate in coming games. He’ll be the name circled in the dressing room of every opponent.
“It’s going to be a very tough stretch,” Sykora said. “But it’s been tough since we lost Chopper (Moreau). People don’t realize how much he means.
“You can’t replace Smytty and you can’t replace Hemmer. We can’t play pretty hockey. A lot of guys, me included, have to play gritty.”
Lupul, Horcoff and Stoll, all struggling to overcome mediocre starts, are going to have to do so while fighting off the attention of opponents who don’t have Smyth and Hemsky to worry about.
“We’re at a stage now where we know it can go bad, really bad,” said Stoll. “It can happen if you don’t do the right things to stop it. We’ve got to stop it now. If guys are hurt, it’s not an excuse. It happens. Teams get banged up.”
Tenuously perched atop the Northwest Division and third in the conference, the Oilers will have to go some just to get through the 10 games between now and Christmas – seven of those are on the road – at .500.
“We can’t let it ruin our season,” Lupul said. “They (Hemsky and Smyth) are out and they’re out for awhile. Everybody here knows that.
“Everyone has to do a little bit more and, hopefully, they’re back as soon as possible. But we’ve got to think worst-case scenario.”