EDMONTON - The comment took those in attendance by surprise.
Some even questioned as to whether Edmonton Oilers head coach Tom Renney was talking about this season.
Here, we’ve been led to believe the Oilers were in a rebuilding phase and the organization was willing to endure, at least, a couple of years in the NHL basement in order to restock the cupboard.
Tom Renney is talking about making the playoffs?
“Nothing will surprise me with this group at all,” Renney said on Friday. “It won’t surprise me when we make the playoffs. The biggest surprise at all might be if we don’t.”
A bold statement.
Especially considering the Oilers are currently last in the Western Conference standings and need to springboard over seven other clubs to get there.
But upon closer inspection, the team is a short win streak away from being back in the thick of the race and the rookies continue to impress on a nightly basis.
Who are we to say they can’t?
“That’s our No. 1 goal, it’s been a while since we’ve been back in the playoffs,” said Oilers defenceman Tom Gilbert on Sunday. “I think it’s great to hear a coach say that, because he’s got a lot of confidence in us to go out there and try to earn a spot there.
“It’s up to us. The coaching staff does a great job of preparing us to play. They’re giving us every chance to win, it’s just up to us to go out and do it.”
Renney wasn’t just blowing smoke. He really believes his team is capable of finishing among the top eight in the conference, therefore snapping a four-year playoff drought.
His job is to get his players to believe it as well.
“I think we all believe in here,” said Oilers centre Sam Gagner. “Obviously the way we started the season, we weren’t playing our best hockey. I think we’ve been able to turn the corner a little bit and I feel like we’re improving every day. Guys are starting to play with more confidence, we’re starting to play the system better and, because of that, we’re starting to get more wins.”
Winning is never bad, even when the blueprint for success sometimes dictates a team must struggle for a couple of seasons in order to stockpile high draft picks.
But it’s obvious Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and the rest of the new lifeblood in the dressing room have never played a hockey game they didn’t want to win.
For that matter, Renney has never coached one.
It’s the reason he and his staff are up at ungodly hours of the morning, breaking down film, devising game plans and trying to come up with systems that give his team the best chance of winning.
“Definitely playoffs are realistic,” said Gagner. “If you look at the way we’ve played, we’ve played some good teams and we’ve played some good hockey and come out with big wins. There are still things we need to improve on and get better at, but we don’t feel like we’ve reached our peak and we’re only six or seven points back of a playoff spot.
“As long as we continue to improve, and continue to have that mindset, where if things don’t go our way, we just need to stay positive, and if we continue to work through them, we’re going to be fine.”
Despite not ever having played in a playoff game, Gagner does speak from experience.
As a rookie, he too played on a team that was written off and not given much of an opportunity to qualify for the 2007-08 post season.
But even with most of their high-profile veterans out of the lineup with injuries, Gagner, Gilbert and Andrew Cogliano led an improbable charge towards the playoffs, which saw them fall just short.
“There is a lot of similarities with that group and this one,” Gagner said. “But, I don’t think we’re fooling ourselves here, we still know we have a long way to go. We’re still 15th in the conference and we still have a lot of teams to catch. But it’s still relatively early and we’re still in control of our destiny. For us we want to continue to improve, continue to get points and see where it goes from there.”