Welcome to Club Craig

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

In his first five years as coach, in a pre-salary cap era that reduced Edmonton to a second-tier franchise locked in a stifling $35 million poor house, Craig MacTavish might have let some of this stuff go.

Same goes for the fans.

Three-game losing streaks? A starting goalie trying to prove he's not finished? Slumping veterans? A $4.25 million winger who somehow found a way to be overweight and not hungry enough?

In mid-Novembers not long ago, MacTavish and the fans might have grudgingly accepted these early struggles as the cost of living in the NHL's low-rent district.

OUT OF EXCUSES

Now, with the last of the excuses collectively bargained away during the lockout and Edmonton paying as much or more in salary than anyone else in the league, fans and coaches here are expecting as much or more in production.

So when Dustin Penner sleepwalks through 15 games, or Mathieu Garon gives up 18 goals in four starts, or the Oilers lose three in a row, there is hell to pay.

Garon got called out by his coach after a Nov. 6 loss in Pittsburgh and hasn't played since. Penner spent two games in the press box and took the most frank and public scolding MacTavish has ever delivered. Shawn Horcoff and Erik Cole were bumped down from the first line. Robert Nilsson demoted to the fourth. Zack Stortini took heat. Kyle Brodziak and Ladislav Smid took seats.

"It sends a really clear message that you have to be prepared to play and you have to compete every night," defenceman Steve Staios said of MacTavish's tough love tactics. "It shows everybody that you need to be accountable. Put in a good effort."

After all those years of wishing for a level playing field, wishing they could move into the same neighborhood as Detroit and Dallas, they're finding it's not as easy as they thought.

Expectations are higher, collars are tighter and leashes are a lot shorter.

Ask Penner, or anyone else in the dressing room who felt the buckshot zing by their stats when MacTavish emptied both barrels this week.

"He's not going to accept mediocrity and we don't want him to," said Horcoff, adding none of MacTavish's reactions are knee-jerk. "He gave it almost a quarter of a season to come around and when it didn't he felt it was time to put his foot down.

"It's definitely a wake-up call for a lot of people."

The fans have been no less demanding this year. Every loss brings a louder chorus of 'Trade someone! Fire someone! This is unacceptable!' This, for a team that sits one game above .500 after playing 14 of its first 19 games on the road.

"In the past that storm would come after we lost five or six in a row, now it's after two or three road games," said Horcoff. "And it should. We have the ability to win five or six in a row, to win the division."

That's the thing about high expectations, it takes a lot of work living up to them - a lot more work than it takes to finish ninth.

"Maybe it's a good thing that we're not so thrilled (about being 9-8-2)," said Cole, who understands why MacTavish is pressing buttons lately.

"That's why he's the coach. He's trying, he's working at it, everyone can see that. He recognizes that there's potential there and we need to play to our level of capability."

If that means stepping on some toes, so be it.

"When I was younger it worked for me," said Horcoff, who took plenty of heat in his first few years. "He was hard on me, but it worked. Sometimes when you're younger you need that kick in the ass. It's not always a bad thing."

WON'T SETTLE FOR SAD PLAY

MacTavish said from the beginning that he sees division-winning talent here, and won't settle for anything less than division-winning effort and consistency.

"As a team we're not at that level yet," he said, adding that waiting for it to happen by itself is no solution. "We all need a corrective jerk at times in our professional lives. I'm no different, and I get it once in a while.

"It's just a case of realizing what people are capable of and trying to help them whatever way possible. That's my job - to get guys to play to their level of capability. We'll all grow because of it."


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