It’s easy to spot Edmonton Oilers fans these days.
They’re huddled in the corner, clinging desperately to pennants and foam fingers with oil-drop logos while trying to reconcile the idea that a team silly with No. 1 draft choices can still have fewer victories (entering Tuesday's games) than every other team not named New Jersey, Buffalo or Philadelphia.
And even when reason for optimism has arrived this season, it’s left just as quickly.
A two-goal lead midway through Edmonton’s opener with Winnipeg ended in a 5-4 loss. Its first victory of the season six days later against the Devils was followed by five straight losses. And win No. 2 on Saturday—by a 3-1 score at Ottawa—yielded perhaps the most difficult news of all.
Leading scorer Taylor Hall, the 21-year-old reason for much of what buoyancy still lingered after the Oilers’ poor start, will miss four weeks, according to the team, after a left knee injury sustained on an unpunished leg-to-leg hit by Senators defenseman Eric Gryba.
It’s merely the latest hit for a franchise that’s been stockpiling woe alongside talent since its last moment of glory, a stunning run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
All-world defenseman Chris Pronger demanded an exit from Alberta within days of the Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, and Edmonton plummeted quickly back to the Western depths, finishing last in the Northwest Division in five of six seasons before a heady, albeit non-playoff climb to third in an abbreviated 2012-13.
To say Hall had been the most impactful player—eight points in eight injury-free games—on an Edmonton unit slotted 27th among 30 teams is inappropriate praise. Perhaps more indicative of his emerging status was a 50-point effort last season, which made him the first Oilers player to average more than a point per game since Doug Weight in 2000-01, when Hall was 9.
Still, even as news of the hiatus sank in, first-year coach Dallas Eakins said the right things.
The Oilers promptly recalled forwards Tyler Pitlick and Ben Eager from their AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City to replace Hall and fellow hobbler Ryan Smyth, who’ll miss a week with a groin strain.
“It's never good to lose one of your top players, a guy that eats up a ton of minutes, who’s a danger every time that he goes on the ice,” Eakins said. “So are we going to miss him? Absolutely. Of course we are. He's a big part of this hockey club and when we do have success, he's right in the middle of it. He’s usually one of the catalysts. But he's not here. So we’ll look for him when he's healed and ready. It’s time for other people to grasp opportunity.”
Toward that end, it’s hardly as if the Oilers are short on talented bodies.
Even without Hall, Smyth and forward Sam Gagner, who’s still recovering from a broken jaw sustained in the preseason, the team’s top six forwards still include first-round picks Jordan Eberle (No. 22 overall, 2008), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (No. 1 overall, 2011), Nail Yakupov (No. 1 overall, 2012), David Perron (26th overall, 2007) and Ales Hemsky (13th overall, 2001).
Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov were on the top line for Edmonton’s Tuesday night game at Montreal, and the Hall injury likely means at least a temporary chance at resurrection for Yakupov, who had assumed a spot in the doghouse with comments indicating he was less than enthralled with the elements of big-time hockey beyond passing, shooting and scoring.
Two consecutive healthy scratches led to speculation the 20-year-old was about to be dealt, a suggestion that, coincidentally, was followed by Yakupov’s first point in the Ottawa win.
Elsewhere, a work in progress is, well…struggling to make some progress.
A not particularly abrasive defensive corps acquired some grit in the form of new team captain Andrew Ference in the summer, but the veteran’s impact has been less than immediately tangible either on the ice or in the locker room. Not to mention last year’s rookie sensation, Justin Schultz, had five points in his first eight games this year, but was a minus-8.
The most glaring issues, though, have been between the pipes, where presumed workhorse Devan Dubnyk had allowed at least three goals in all but one of six starts through Saturday while producing a supplemental stat line that’s got him 32nd in the league in wins (1), 40th in save percentage (.877) and 45th in goals-against average (4.19).
His ineffectiveness has already led to three starts and a relief appearance for veteran Jason LaBarbera, who was signed in the offseason with the idea that he’d not need to play more than 20 or so games behind Dubnyk, who played in 38 of 48 in 2012-13 ahead of since-departed veteran Nikolai Khabibulin.
It also paired nicely with the Yakupov speculation, prompting a report out of Buffalo that the Sabres were considering shipping their soon-to-be free-agent goalie, Ryan Miller, across conference lines in exchange for the embattled winger.
If Hall’s initial injury timeline is correct he’d not return before Nov. 19, when the Oilers host Columbus. That’s a span of 12 games (in addition to Tuesday’s visit to Montreal) and could leave Edmonton in a significant conference hole if the teams now battling for the two Western wild card playoff positions—Nashville and Vancouver—maintain their existing paces.
Given their rate through nine games, the Predators would reach Hall’s return date at 24 points, one point ahead of the Canucks at 23. Edmonton, with just five points through its initial nine games, would need eight wins in the Hall-less stretch to stay within one-game striking distance, or be forced into a familiar position of needing to make up ground.
At that point, it’ll be easy to see if optimism is still worth the bother.