There is probably no team in the NHL under more pressure for a fast start this season than the Edmonton Oilers.
They were the biggest disappointment in the league a season ago, their coach is the odds-on favorite to be the first one fired this season, and their season-opening game nearly one week ago — a 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, in Sweden — was about as ugly and one-sided as any game they played a year ago.
After a five-day break and a trip halfway around the world, they are finally back in action again on Thursday night in Boston.
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Even though it is only the second game of the season coach Todd McLellan is already putting some players on the roster “on notice” to turn their games around.
“There could be a lineup change or two,” McLellan said before Thursdays’ game when talking about bouncing back from the tough season opener.
“There has been a lot of meetings, or discussions, with different players, pairs of players, lines, that type of stuff. There are a number of players that are on notice that may be given an opportunity to turn their performances around from what we saw in Sweden, and tonight would be a good night to establish yourself in the lineup as a consistent player, rather than being a bit of an anchor if you will.”
Reminder, again, that this is only game two.
Among the changes that we know are getting made for Thursday is that Kyle Brodziak, one of the offseason depth additions by the front office, will be a healthy scratch after playing just 9:35 in the opener.
Increasing the pressure on McLellan and the Oilers is that their early season schedule is as nightmarish as it could possibly be. After taking a trip overseas to open their season against a fairly good Devils team, the rest of the month is filled with a who’s who of the NHL’s best teams on an almost nightly basis as they travel their way back to Edmonton from Sweden.
After facing the Bruins on Thursday, they have a weekend trip to New York to face the still-winless Rangers.
Things get infinitely tougher after that as their next 10 games on the schedule include Winnipeg, Boston again, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Nashville again, at Chicago, and then home for Minnesota and another matchup with Chicago. All of that before heading out on a four-game road trip that takes them to Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida.
That is … harsh.
That means over the next three weeks their schedule features games against all four of the top teams in the standings from a year ago (Nashville, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Boston — with two games against both Nashville and Boston), two games against the defending Stanley Cup champions, a high-powered Pittsburgh team, another top-10 team from a year ago in Minnesota, and two games again a Chicago team that, while not quite what it used to be, still has enough good players to make it a challenge.
Brutal. Just brutal.
While no one clinches a playoff spot in October, the first month of the season still goes a long way toward determining what sort of season your team is in for. Points are so difficult to make up in the NHL that a slow start this early in the season can pretty much ruin a season before it even begins.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Aw, we have 81 (games) left,’” said Milan Lucic earlier this week, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. “But we kept doing that last year. ‘It’s OK, we have 60 games left.’ ‘It’s all right, we have 55 left.’ Then, all of the sudden it was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got 40 games left and we’re completely out of the mix here…’”
The Oilers won just three of their first 11.
They were far from the only team that never recovered from a bad start. The Florida Panthers, for example, were the hottest team in the NHL in the second half of the season and had the second best record in the league after Feb. 1 (going 24-8-3 over their final 35 games). They still missed the playoffs because of the early hole they put themselves in. The Arizona Coyotes were an extremely competitive team in the second half of the season, going 16-9-2 over their final 27 games and still finished with one of the league’s worst records after starting the season with just one win in 14 games.
Basically, these early season games do not get the same attention that regular season games in March tend to get during the playoff push, but they are still extremely important when it comes to the success or failure of every team in the league.
Everyone needs to start fast, but given the circumstances around the roster, the expectations, and where the team placed a year ago there is probably no team that needs more than the Oilers. They did not get much of a favor from the schedule makers, either. We are about to find out what this team is made of very, very quickly.