EDMONTON - A road trip that represented Edmontonís last chance to even pretend they still had hope for the playoffs ended with too little, too late.
A 5-4 overtime win over Ottawa was good for morale on the long flight home, but opening the three-game eastern swing with back-to-back losses destroyed the last of the hope.
Making up 13 points and leap-frogging six teams in the last 27 games is impossible.
But there are still 27 games to play and even though theyíve been rendered meaningless, it doesnít mean there wonít be plenty to watch over these last seven weeks.
Here are some things to keep an eye on:
Should he stay or should he go, now? Fans seem split on the subject. His resume doesnít inspire confidence (the Oilers finished 30th, 30th and are currently 29th in his three seasons as associate and head coach) and his love affair with Eric Belanger doesnít help. Like most NHL skippers, he coaches not to lose instead of coaching to win, resulting in some pretty skewed ice time allotment. His slumping third line routinely logs more minutes, especially in the first period when itís time to set the tone, than his leading scorers.
On the last trip, even though Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle scored 13 of Edmontonís previous 16 goals, they had less 5-on-5 ice time in Detroit than Belanger, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Magnus Paajarvi in a game the Oilers lost 4-2 (Eberle had both goals). That kind of stuff looks bad on paper.
On the other hand, protecting the kids is understandable. You can still see traces of Junior hockey in their games. And Edmontonís home record (15-8-3) vs road record (7-20-2), suggests they do OK when Renney gets the match-ups he wants. But they have to learn, and thereís no better time to teach them than in a lost season.
In the final 27 games of his contract, and with a relatively healthy line-up, Renney and the Oilers need to show how well they can work together moving forward. How this team responds down the stretch, at home and on the road, will likely determine his fate.
His vision and talent are once-in-generation gifts, thereís no question about it. The concern, however, is that shoulder.
When a franchise player is sidelined for a month after a harmless looking spill, comes back for four periods, takes another minor bump and re-injures the same shoulder, thereís concern.
The Oilers say RNH didnít come back too soon and the two injuries are entirely unrelated, but thatís very difficult to swallow.
In fact, Oilers fans should be on their hands and knees praying he actually did come back too soon and re-injured the same area (or that he came back too soon and another area was left weakened and vulnerable by the initial injury), because if he really did come back at 100%, fully recovered and at full strength, and a little bump like that knocks him out of the lineup, are we looking at some very serious durability issues?
There are some who believe the Oilers should shut him down for the season, give him time to strengthen the area for next year. If he does come back, everyone in Edmonton will be holding their breath until April 7.
A good soldier and consistent producer during his time here, Ales Hemsky appears to be nearing the end of days. At least in Edmonton. He doesnít need to be jettisoned for the sake of freeing up space, but the fact heís an unrestricted free agent means either a long-term commitment or the risk of losing him for nothing in the summer ó and neither option seems palatable to management.
Trading him, however, is a lose-lose proposition. Whoever they get wonít be a top-six forward anytime soon (if ever) and there isnít anyone in the organization ready to step into that spot next year, either.
Heís an exciting player who plays fearlessly, and hurt, and has led Edmonton in scoring five of the last six years (missing by a point last season). Despite playing on a loser and surrounded for most of his stay here by mediocre talent, he never complained once.
It seems an ignominious end for a good Oiler. His last 27 games, in Edmonton and wherever he ends up, are worth following.
What else happens between now and Feb. 27? Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Ryan Smyth, Andy Sutton, Nikolai Khabibulin and any number of prospects could be on the block. But to what degree do the Oilers need to be sellers? They already have lots of draft picks and plenty of prospects. What they need are live bodies who can help in the NHL, and it seems unlikely a contending team looking for a playoff rental will offer that up. These are all useful players moving forward, so whatís the hurry to unload them for returns that arenít right now, and might never, be as good? Weíll see.
POINT PER GAME
You know whatís sad? That itís been 11 years since the Oilers had a point-per game player.
The decade long dearth of skill is over, with All-Star and scoring leader Jordan Eberle leading the way. Heís 10th in the Art Ross race with 54 points and despite missing four games is on pace to become the first Oiler to log 82 points or more since Doug Weight in 2000-01. Thatís a chase worth watching.
Heís been teasing Oilers fans and management for two years, showing all kinds of leg for a few games in a row, then turning cold fish out of nowhere. How will he be used down the stretch? With enough good teams in goaltending trouble, Nikolai Khabibulin needs to be showcased until the deadline, but after that, conventional wisdom says they should give Dubnyk 80% of the starts, win or lose, so they can truly get a read on his future. Will they? And if so, what will the 25-year-old, whoís never started more than 35 games in an NHL season, do with the opportunity?
Two months ago, while slumping offensively, it looked like he was out of the plans - a spare part shuffled from line to line, position to position. But in the past two weeks heís played himself back into the conversation. First of all, with his trade value at an all-time high, do the Oilers try to move him at the deadline? If so, for what? If not, will he continue to deliver first line production the rest of the way? Like Dubnyk, he needs to give the organization an answer.
Heís had the team for years and about the only time heís bothered to address the fans in Edmonton was to demand the city send a convoy of dump trucks filled with cash to build him a new arena. In the meantime, every season has been over by January, the GM and the head coach donít have contracts and we donít know if heís totally cool with the way things are being run or might actually want to see some improvement at some point. Sooner or later, people are going to confuse shyness with a lack of respect for the fan base. Will he finally deliver the state of the union address that fans here deserve?
What will the Oilers look like on Feb. 28? Who will be here, who will be gone, and who will the Oilers call up from Oklahoma City to fill in the blanks? If, say Smyth and Hemsky are out, who gets called up for the five-week audition? Linus Omark? Teemu Hartikainen? And how will the team perform after being made even younger by the departure of two veterans? Whatever they look like on Feb. 28, itís fight or flight time, and this team needs to put Ďem up.