EDMONTON - Unless you really believe that Dustin Penner is going to score 60 goals, the Maple Leafs are going to win the Eastern Conference and James Wisniewski will pantomime the entire Kama Sutra by April, you never worry about statistical trends four games into an 82-game season.
Except when you're talking about Oilers faceoff percentage. Four games into the season it's lower than morale at the Mel Gibson fan club, and it's OK to worry.
The same team, with basically the same faceoff guys, that finished 30th and 25th in the NHL in each of the last two seasons is sinking fast again. After a 29% effort in Calgary they're second last in the NHL.
Small, skewed sample, or the continuation of a problem that's 168-games long?
"It's very disconcerting," said head coach Tom Renney, adding it doesn't take long to connect the dots between poor faceoff work and several other areas of concern. "This is very, very dangerous territory for this team. For what we're trying to do, our face-off play is not good. It has to improve dramatically."
They're trying to be a puck-possession team that's good on special teams, which is kind of hard when 60 to 70% of their shifts begin with the other team holding the puck.
"It's been talked about, it's been worked on, we do it every morning skate, it's part of the routine," said centre Colin Fraser. "I don't know what to say. We're trying, but we're just not getting the job done. We have to be better, 30% just isn't good enough. There's no excuse."
Two of the constants in the two-year run of faceoff futility, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, are feeling the pressure more than anyone. Cogliano is 1-11 in his last two games, Gagner was 2-13 in Minnesota.
"It makes it pretty hard if you have to always go back and chase the puck," said Gagner, who's 34% on the dot this year. "If you can start with the puck on a power play it's huge. Last year I improved from previous years and I want to continue to improve. Four games is a pretty small sample size, but last game, for whatever reason, it didn't go well."
Cogliano spent all summer trying to improve on the draws. He's 25.9% out of the blocks.
"The first game I did well, a couple of the pre-season games I was over 50%," he said. "Then you get into a game where you go on the road against a good face-off team like Minnesota and come into the next game with the mindset that you're already behind the eight-ball. Then you lose one, you lose another one, lose another one and at the end of the day you're like, ÔWhat the hell is going on?' "
Right now, four games in, the plan is to try and work this out from within. But can players who've struggled at faceoffs for three years make significant strides in what many believe is a natural talent, like shooting is to Steve Stamkos or skating is to Cogliano?
"Some guys are just better at it than others," said Fraser (43.5% on the year). "It's no different than some guys being better shooters and some guys being better passers. That being said, you always have to work on it. I think it's improvable.
"To say we're going to go from 30% to 60%, I don't know if that's realistic, but to get it closer to 50% is very realistic."