Oilers tired of losing

Players on the Oilers bench protest to the referees during Thursday's game in Montreal against the...

Players on the Oilers bench protest to the referees during Thursday's game in Montreal against the Canadiens. (Eric Bolte, QMI Agency)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:32 AM ET

TORONTO — OK, dudes, take it easy with the points already.

You’re starting to make people nervous.

It wasn’t very long ago that the Edmonton Oilers, also known as the Dead Men Walking, were free and clear for last place in the NHL. That first or second pick overall in this summer’s entry draft was in the bank.

Guaranteed.

A lock.

Now, after going 2-1-1 in their last four games, for five of a possible eight points, the bottom of the barrel is no sure thing any more.

A win Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs would reduce what was once a stranglehold on last place to just five measly points. Too close for comfort if you ask the legion of Edmonton fans who’ve been counting their draft-day chickens for months.

For them, this game is an easy call. Just lose, baby. But for the players, choking down another defeat when you’ve eaten so many already isn’t easy — even if they’ve made so many of their other losses look that way.

“I get where they’re coming from,” said winger Gilbert Brule, well aware that a significant number of Oilers fans will be cheering for Toronto. “But we aren’t looking at it that way. Nobody is thinking that. We want this one. We have our pride to play for, if nothing else. When you string that many losses together, you’re tired of it; something has to change.”

Edmontonians want that change as much as anyone, just not yet. Because as tough as this year has been, the only thing worse than finishing dead last is finishing second last, and getting bumped back to third pick, missing out on Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, because somebody behind Edmonton wins the lottery.

“The fans want this team to get better, obviously, and they’re looking at that draft pick as a way to help,” said defenceman Tom Gilbert. “But, for us, a lot of these guys are going to be on the team next year and if we can’t put together the kind of character we want going into next year then these games are just worthless for us.

“There’s kharma, too. If you go out trying to lose a lot of bad things can happen.”

Looking for a soft spot on the canvas isn’t an option for a cast of young players auditioning for one of the many job openings that will come available next season. The last thing they want to do is take a dive on centre stage Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada, against Brian Burke’s Leafs.

“You want to put your best game forward for Canada to see,” said Brule.

And a lot of the veterans won’t be around when the rebuild is complete, so what do they care about Hall or Seguin?

“I don’t think the players in that dressing room really care about what happens at the draft,” said Oilers GM Steve Tambellini.

So there you go. May the best team win. The Oilers have a long way to go before they’re the best at anything, but they sense they’re getting better.

Between injuries and the stretch drive plan to play the heck out of the kids, Edmonton’s next generation is getting more ice and more responsibility and they seem to be making the most of it. It’s the exact situation Gilbert walked into in his rookie season — playing veteran minutes because the Oilers were decimated by injuries and long out of the playoff race — and it did wonders for his career.

“It’s obviously not ideal to come into this scenario, but it was a great experience for me,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for a lot of guys. You can go out there with no pressure on you and try to get as much experience as you can. You use it to learn the game and gain confidence, just go out there and have fun.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca


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