January 2, 2012
Oilers need to see results — fast
By DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency
CHICAGO - Steve Tambellini can sense the frustration.
The Edmonton Oilers general manager believed his team would take a big leap forward this season after finishing last in the league standings the previous two years.
Yet as the calendar turns, the Oilers find themselves just two points better than they were at this stage last season.
It’s led to plenty of reflection venturing into the New Year.
“I think the way the team looked the first month and a half, is because we had very good contributions throughout the lineup offensively,” Tambellini said. “Our role players as far as energy and tenaciousness looked good. What was noticeable for me was when we had our experienced players in the lineup, our ability to defend in front of our net looked a lot stronger. I thought Nick (Khabibulin) was outstanding the first month and a half.
“I think for me, the biggest thing is that when we had (Ryan) Whitney, (Cam) Barker, (Andy) Sutton and (Corey) Potter in our lineup it gave us some experience and some heaviness showed up in our games exposing us to a little bit more.”
When healthy, the Oilers blue-line proved to be one of the team’s biggest assets. Yet Whitney has been unable to fully recover from ankle surgery, Barker ripped up his ankle and Sutton has been suspended for almost as many games as he’s played.
The Oilers goaltending also hasn’t been as outstanding as it was through the first month of the season.
“Right now, things like the sacrifice from our forwards to defend and score, which was very, very good at the start of the season, has to get better,” Tambellini said. “Our ability to defend five-on-five, boxing out and blocking shots has to get better, like it was before.”
Tambellini points to the fact the Oilers special teams are among the league’s best as evidence this club is more talented than previous editions.
Heading into Monday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Oilers have the fourth-best power play in the league and the 11th-ranked penalty-killing unit.
Yet those numbers have not translated into victories.
“It’s not our special teams, we have to get better five-on-five as a group,” Tambellini said. “You have to have the confidence, poise and trust to close out games. You’re seeing good things that almost happen, but didn’t. Sometimes you can say it’s experience, but sometimes it’s not about experience, it’s about being in the moment and getting it done. We need to be better when we get in that moment.”
This season, the Oilers have been lead by their high-end draft picks, as Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall are producing offensively nearly on a nightly basis.
Ryan Smyth has also played well although he’s cooled down after a torrid start.
It’s the lack of secondary scoring which has hurt the Oilers during their current slide.
“I know we’re a better hockey team than what our results are showing,” Tambellini said. “If we can upgrade our team at any time we’ll do that. That’s not an issue with me. But I do know that there is more talent on both sides of the puck right now and our special teams is a good example of that.”
Tambellini needs to get more out of his current roster, including some of this summer’s free-agent signings.
Eric Belanger has played well in his own end of the ice, but has just one goal on the season. Ben Eager brings much-needed muscle to the club, but is spending too much time in the penalty box.
“I know from an offensive standpoint Eric is frustrated, because he’s always been pretty reliable offensively,” Tambellini said. “He’s reliable, he moves the puck very well, he’s got a good, quick release, but for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to score.
“Eager is a big, heavy, aggressive player and he’s shown an ability on some other teams to play up in the lineup. One of the things that we talked about last year is that we needed some emotion, some heaviness in our lineup and he brings that. But it’s a fine line when it gets intense and there is some frustration that you do have to control your emotions at times.”
The Oilers feel they’re close, but they’re running out of time to put everything together.
“We’re showing that we can defend and score goals, but we’re not winning enough games,” Tambellini said. “We have a first-place team in our minor-league team, where we have some guys that have worked and played extremely hard, so we have some options there. We’ll see what happens prior to the trade deadline, but we have some time before that. This group doesn’t have to worry about those things, they have to worry about themselves getting better and better every day.”