They have been blessed with one of the most understanding and tolerant environments in sports history, given a once-in-a-generation free pass from the fans.
And they’re blowing it.
How often does a team begin a season knowing that it’s OK to lose?
OK to miss the playoffs? OK, even, to get rung up every once in a while?
Almost never. But this winter in Edmonton the Oilers have been handed a licence to lose. Fans have bought into the rebuild wholeheartedly. They see the draft picks, realize it’s going to take some time before the future is ready and are willing to accept the inevitable growing pains.
Expectations couldn’t be any more modest if Mike Tyson were trying a tongue twister.
Yet somehow, as impossible as it seems under these circumstances, the Oilers are finding a way to let everyone down.
Losing is OK, just don’t lose like this. Not 13 of the last 15. Not by five or six goals a night. Not being outshot by 25. Not with little or no passion. Not rolling over when the other guys are running up the score.
It’s been ugly to watch the last two weeks, but the concern here isn’t with the fans — they’ve made it clear they’ll fill the place no matter what they’re charged or what they’re forced to watch — the threat is just outside the dressing room, where the same negative vortex that turned last season into a six-month nightmare is lurking dangerously close this year.
“I think it’s a little premature to compare it to last season, but you don’t want to get there, obviously,” said Dustin Penner, after the Oilers, outscored 30-8 in five straight losses, tried to lighten the mood with a little shinny on Thursday. “Losing isn’t healthy.”
This much they know from experience.
“When you get the life sucked out of you it’s just no fun,” said defenceman Tom Gilbert, reflecting on last year’s 30th-place finish. “The moment you get caught up in it and you don’t even expect your team to do well is probably when it hurts the most.”
While the stats suggest Edmonton could be on the same path this season, nobody in the dressing room seems to think they’re even close.
“It might seem like an acid flashback or a relapse for the guys who’ve been there before, but we have a different mentality this year as an organization,” said Penner. “I think we have a better outlook and a better positivity towards it because there seems to be a more defined purpose and plan.
“It’s going to come, you always have to believe, as a professional, that the next one is the one.”
It’s best that it comes fairly soon, because nobody’s going to learn anything, other than how to be a doormat, if they keep getting walked on.
“We’re in a mode where we have to get people to be better,” admitted GM Steve Tambellini. “No one likes to be in a position of multiple losses. No player wants to go through that, no coaching staff wants to go through that. Our goal right now is from within this organization to make this team better. We’re committed to the process.”
In the meantime, keeping the psychological wolves at bay seems as important as keeping the puck out of their net.
“I think we were in danger of heading down that (last year) road,” said Andrew Cogliano. “But we had a good day, a couple of good talks with Tom and the coaching staff to figure out where we are as a team and what we need to do.
“Last year was one of the most miserable times of my career. Now, because we have a lot of optimism with the young guys it’s a little different. Last year seemed like the end of the road for a lot of things. This year doesn’t. Now it’s more about figuring out what kind of team we are and how we want to play.”