EDMONTON — If there’s a silver lining to the Edmonton Oilers’ dismal season, it’s that there’s only one direction for the five-time Stanley Cup champions to go, and that’s up.
It’s little wonder coach Pat Quinn and his players spent Tuesday casting a hopeful glance to the future as they dissected a campaign in which they finished last in the NHL’s overall standings.
Better days, they have to believe, are ahead.
“Clearly, the goal is to be a team that competes for a Stanley Cup,” Quinn said. “At least that’s my goal and I think it’s the organization’s goal.
“Were we legitimately capable of that? At the start, we thought we could be a playoff team, at least I did. We had a reasonably good start coming out of camp and then we hit some stuff that we just couldn’t handle.”
Calling the 2009-10 campaign an unmitigated disaster would be only a slight overstatement.
The Oilers finished 30th with a 27-47-8 record, 12 points back of 29th-place Toronto and 33 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Their 62 points was just two points more than the franchise low, set in 1992-93.
They won just 18 games on home ice at Rexall Place and nine on the road.
A disaster? Yes.
Unmitigated? No. After a 6-3-1 start, the Oilers won just 21 times in their final 72 games as they were riddled by injuries and illness on the way to a franchise record 531 man-games lost.
“This year was tough,” said forward Shawn Horcoff, who was hampered by a shoulder injury much of the season. “We had a lot of injuries to key players that we lost. That put us in a tough situation early.”
While few pundits projected the Oilers as a powerhouse when the season began, many thought they might be able to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
That bubble burst with season-ending injuries to goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, Ales Hemsky, Sheldon Souray and Ladislav Smid, putting the lineup in a constant state of flux.
“It’s my third year and the team’s fourth year out of the playoffs,” said forward Sam Gagner. “That’s not acceptable. You play hockey to be a playoff team.
“If we’re going to move forward, there’s got to be a core group in here that’s got to step up and take the leadership reins. I think we’re all excited about the future.”
The Oilers had neither the experience nor the depth to overcome the injuries. Khabibulin, the team’s major off-season acquisition last summer, only made 18 appearances before being sidelined by a back injury that would require surgery. Rookies Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk were forced to carry the load.
Hemsky, the team’s most talented forward, had 22 points in 22 games when his season ended with a shoulder injury. Souray had played 37 games when his season ended with a broken hand.
“You take away three top players, your best forward, your goalie, a defenceman, it’s going to be a tough year,” said veteran blue-liner Jason Strudwick.
“Unfortunately, it happened to us and it happened early. We lost a lot of good guys. It’s hard to recover from that.”
With Steve Staios, Denis Grebeshkov and Lubomir Visnovsky traded at the deadline, and Souray having requested a trade, the blue-line will have a different look next season, led by Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert.
“Obviously, we want to remain positive in here,” Gagner said. “We feel like we’ve learned a lot over the past year.
“It’s been a tough ride for us. It’s one of those things where if you get continually beat down, it’s not good for your confidence or trying to remain positive, but we have to do that.”
Up front, Gagner and Andrew Cogliano will be going into their fourth seasons. Dustin Penner is coming off a career-high 32 goals. Hemsky will be healthy. Horcoff is expected to rebound from a difficult season in which he managed just 36 points.
“I’m not happy with the results,” Quinn said. “How much of it is stuff I missed, should have done, could have been better at? I’m sure at the end of the day by the time I evaluate, there will be some things I don’t particularly like about myself.
“I’ve always believed you come back the next day and try to correct those things and do a better job.”
General manager Steve Tambellini is expected to weigh in on Souray’s future at a media availability Wednesday afternoon.
“We understand Sheldon has had a tough year and he has a desire to play elsewhere,” Tambellini said in a statement. “His additional comments regarding being ’forced to play’ when injured are far more serious and my stance is that they are demonstrably untrue.”