JASPER, ALTA. - It’s enough to give a hockey team an inferiority complex.
The season hasn’t even started yet and the world is already piling on Edmonton.
First The Hockey News picked the rebuilding and optimistic Oilers to finish dead last in the Western Conference. Again. Now Sports Illustrated, in its annual NHL Predictions issue, is forecasting another long winter of discontent in Edmonton. They’re picking the Oilers to finish 14th, just ahead of the lowly Dallas Stars.
Even gambling website Bodog.com, putting its money where its mouth is, gives Edmonton the longest odds of winning the Western Conference — 35-to-1, along with Colorado, Columbus and Minnesota.
“I couldn’t care less,” said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff. “I don’t look at that stuff. I wouldn’t know about it if the media didn’t bring it up. Those projections mean nothing to us.
“You can’t really tell until you start playing real games and for us it’s coming pretty soon.”
Sports Illustrated isn’t exactly a hockey bible. In the “Key Losses” part of Edmonton’s preview they included Colin Fraser’s departure, so their grasp of the situation is distant at best.
But the Hockey News knows what it’s talking about, and they had the Oilers pegged right last year (picking them 15th) and were pretty close two years ago (slotting them 11th before an injury pandemic sewered their season).
So you can’t entirely dismiss it. Or can you?
“You can’t listen to the critics and believe that’s how you’re going to do, that’s in our hands,” said defenceman Tom Gilbert. “And we definitely have more upside than we’ve had in the past few years.
“Last year, with a bunch of key injuries and being young, we just weren’t prepared. We were losing games in the first period. With a few more veterans in the lineup and a little more experience for the young guys, I think we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Ryan Jones isn’t surprised everyone thinks Edmonton will be a doormat again.
“I guess I can kind of understand. You follow the trends and we’ve been there the last few years,” said Jones. “So I’m sure they can justify putting us there. I personally couldn’t justify putting us in that spot, but that’s just me.
“Until you get to see the core of this team and see how it grows and how hard we work … nobody will ever understand how much competition there was at camp. When you have that sort of competition it just drives the team to get better. We have a group of guys here, and in Oklahoma, who are going to push each other.”
Having added Ryan Smyth, Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Eric Belanger, Andy Sutton, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk and Anton Lander, he asks how they can’t be better?
“And all these kids who were big for us last year have another year of maturity and that sort of thing is invaluable,” said Jones. “I’m excited to see what they can do. And a guy like Nuge coming into the league is going to have an impact right away.
“It’s just a matter of sticking together, staying healthy and winning some hockey games.”
How many? Is it realistic to expect this team to make the playoffs?
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” said Gilbert. “We just need the confidence to know that we can go out and win games.
“I think at times last year we got pushed around. We were in 30th place and we were always the underdog. The more you think that, the more you accept it. You look around now and we have guys who are just as good as anybody in the league.”