SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers fans jumping ship

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI , SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

It’s not even Christmas and a huge segment of the Edmonton Oilers blindly-loyal fan base has already shifted its attention from the playoff chase to the draft lottery.

Premature? Maybe by a week or two - we’ll have a much clearer idea if they’ve just set the franchise record for fastest death of a season when they begin their five-game road trip - but with Ales Hemsky out for the season, with Nikolai Khabibulin out far too long for this to just be a sore back.

With scoring slumps in virtually every locker stall and with four wins in their last 18 games, there’s very little question the 27th place Oilers are going downhill and picking up speed.

The good news is that it’s only Dec. 1.

Or is that the bad news?

Plenty of time to fix what’s wrong, or plenty of bad and meaningless hockey ahead of us?

“It’s November, we have a very long way to go here,” said general manager Steve Tambellini Monday. “We’ll never give up on the group.”

Nor should they. And, frankly, what’s the alternative?

Talk of tanking the season to guarantee a lottery pick makes it sound like they actually have a choice in the matter. Like they can up and decide to finish seventh with a series of well-orchestrated deals. Teams with their heads pressed against the salary cap don’t have that option.

The season is already in the tank. And the only two paths are to do nothing, which has been the chosen course lately, and hope they climb out of it, or begin selling off pieces to build for the future, which isn’t easy when your trading blocks consist largely of big contracts, guys who can’t stay healthy and underachievers.

They have little choice but to ride this out.

It’s long shot, but they’ve got 54 games to make up seven points, and if a few guys get healthy and few other guys get going, there might be hope.

“This team is good enough to win games, we did it early in the season,” said defenceman Ladislav Smid, pointing to the 6-2-1 start. “We have enough guys here. We’re going to miss Hemmer, he’s a great player, same with Khabby, but we can’t look back. Some other guys have to step up and be leaders.

“We want to make the playoffs and we’re going to do everything we can.”

They’ve made wild charges before, later in the year and from farther behind than this, when a lot of key players were watching from the press box, so it’s too early to say it can’t happen again.

Too early by about two weeks.

This trip will show us if there’s the potential for something special here, if Gilbert Brule, Ryan Potulny, Ryan Stone and JF Jacques can do what Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert did down the stretch in 2008, or if they should warm up those funeral drums for the last 48 games.

They played well enough, without Hemsky or Khabibulin, to beat the San Jose Sharks and they didn’t quit in Vancouver, when spotty goaltending lost them a game before it was nine minutes old. Good signs, both.

“We played pretty good in some stretches here, we’re making some progress, I think,” said head coach Pat Quinn, who’s never doubted the fight in most of his dogs. “I’ve never had a question about (the heart of) this bunch here. They work. I’ve had questions about their knowledge and our skill level in some cases, but from an attitude standpoint we’re pretty good. The guys are fighting hard.

“They didn’t run away (in Vancouver) and that to me is a sign that we’ve got some character.”

They’ll need a lot of it from here on in.


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