The Edmonton Oilers are in last place in the Western Conference and we're more than a third of the way through the NHL season, but those facts haven't stopped head coach Tom Renney from making a bold statement regarding his team's post-season chances.
"Nothing would surprise me with this group at all, nothing at all. It won't surprise me when we make the playoffs, it won't. The biggest surprise of all might be if we don't," Renney said to media on Friday. "Because I know how deep the care is, I know how willing they are to be coached, how proud they are, quite honestly, to be here doing this in Edmonton."
Though the boys in blue and orange are a rather unremarkable 12-14-5 at this point, they've also been on a bit of a hot streak as of late, going 6-3-1 in their last 10.
In addition, they've garnered league-wide attention for the exciting style of play their young roster has brought to the ice every night - even in losing causes - and based on that recent record, it appears they're developing more team chemistry with each passing game.
So despite the fact that the Oilers are currently in the West's basement, Renney's prediction is not necessarily all that far-fetched when looking at the numbers. The playoff race is extremely tight; the Oilers have 29 points, while the Blackhawks, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot, have 37 points (plus they've played three more games than the Oilers). With 51 regular season matches to go for the team from Alberta's capital, that's only an eight-point difference to overcome (quite a different story from the East, where there is a 22-point gap between the 15th place team and the eighth place team).
That said, there are still six squads in the way of the Oilers and a post-season berth, so it'll likely take a little help from the hockey gods to make things happen; a few win streaks here for Edmonton and a few losing streaks there for another team or two.
If the Oilers do find themselves on the inside looking out, it would be sweet, sweet relief for a hockey-mad city that hasn't seen the on-ice results to match its unbridled off-ice enthusiasm. The Oilers haven't made the playoffs since 2005-06, when they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final, only to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in a heart-breaking seventh game.
That was the closest brush with greatness the franchise has seen since the enormously triumphant years in the 1980s with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier et al. The team has constantly had to live in the shadow of that success, success which came before some of the current crop of Oiler fans were even alive. But for the first time in a while, the general consensus in the hockey world is that the future seems full of promise for the Oilers.
If they don't end up getting to the promised land in April, this won't be their last kick at the can. Edmonton has the third-youngest team in the league with an average age of 25.98 (only Colorado and Toronto are younger). Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark are all between 19 and 23 and have made strong impressions on the local fanbase and beyond.
On top of that, they're hard-working, according to the bench boss. Renney, 55, praised the drive of his squad and their desire to win at all costs.
"The hard part about losing is that the masses don't get an appreciation for how badly our guys want to do well and win and be a playoff team," beamed Renney. "When they have those nights - and there's more to come, we know that - that's tough."
NHL coaches have made predictions about their teams making the playoffs before, only to have them backfire and blow up in their faces a few months down the road. But Renney's comments don't come across as a straight-up prediction as much as a very clear statement of confidence in his team's abilities and its passion.
Time will tell whether the coach's playoff vision will come to fruition. But Renney, who is in his first year as the head coach, said his playoff proclamation is hardly news to his team.
"They've heard this, for sure," he said. "We're on a mission."
Right now it may look like "mission: impossible", or at least "mission: unlikely", but about four months from now the hockey world will get to see if it is "mission: accomplished". Playoff-starved fans in Edmonton are certainly hoping so.