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Why Does Everything Hurt So Much?

I thought I knew pain, and then I encountered this year’s Oilers. Here’s why, and here’s how they can fix my tears.

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NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Los Angeles Kings
Let this most excellent picture warm your weary heart.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After countless years of hopeless hockey, a period of pain so long you don't really remember what anything else feels like, you'd think we'd be immune to the searing disappointment of losses. You'd think it would be impossible for losses to somehow become even more unbearable, more frustrating. It turns out that being used to losing does nothing to counter the sting of it, especially when it is intermingled with an unexpectedly confounding new ingredient-- belief.

It doesn't take a mean Leafs or Flames fan to point out to us that losing is, of course, nothing new-- trust us, we know. But somehow, the past few losses to Arizona and Toronto came with much more intense doses of those feelings we associate with losing- the disappointment, anger, and helplessness heightened to pathetic new levels as many step up the abuse on their weary livers to counter the pain. I myself have consumed six packets of these fine Japanese gummy candies in the past five days.

I used to tune into Oilers games just for the comforting sight of the blue and orange jerseys skating around on the ice, to hear the familiar sound of the names Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins being uttered by the announcers. I watched without much expectation at all for what type of performance they would actually put up hockey-wise-- I just loved this team, unconditionally and irrationally, and being able to watch them play hockey was enough. It's like showing up every other day with alarming punctuality to watch a very ugly dog run around in circles. In retrospect, I often wonder how I was able to religiously tune into each game, putting off much more important things like a social life or nourishment, when the team lost 51 games in 2015 and 58 in 2014. When I have these realizations, I simultaneously admire and loathe myself.

Things somehow changed this season, when the team started to look something resembling a borderline legitimate hockey club. I know I shouldn't have allowed myself to believe, but I did. I know I shouldn't have put my heart on the line, but I did. Now, I'm feeling the full consequence of that foolish commitment, as each loss weighs more heavy on my heart because I know this team can do better.

The immensely frustrating thing about this year's team is that they are the most talented, skilled group that has been assembled in Edmonton in a decade. We've seen glimpses of what they can do when they are mentally focused and executing properly-- that 5-0 win over Chicago will be the equivalent of hockey pornography for Oilers fans for a long time. Their losses, especially the past few to teams lower than them in the standings, are confounding because it's not really for lack of effort-- the shots are there, the offensive pressure is there, but there are simply many untimely lapses in judgment and concentration. These are mental mistakes that gift the opposition with a few glorious chances a game that they capitalize on, while the Oilers hammer away with low-percentage shots that just don't hit the net.

This season, it's different. I just want the team to win so badly because I know they can beat these teams. Sometimes I feel like I can will them to a win by wanting it hard enough-- that Sekera's shot will suddenly gain 20 mph, that Lucic can suddenly connect on passes, that Connor can finally shoot the puck on the powerplay. When they lose, it's absolutely devastating because it feels like they could have won if they had just not monumentally dumbed it up at a few key moments.

I've stopped looking at the standings. I don't want to know that those first few weeks were merely ephemeral. I don't want my eyes to fall back into the familiar routine of immediately glancing towards the bottom to find those two torturous words: "Edmonton Oilers."

The good news is the team's flaws are repairable, and not a matter of just not having enough NHL-calibre players or a litany of injuries. It feels like this point in the season could be a big turning point when leadership and coaching have the chance to either make an impact with their message and course correct the team back to playoff contention, or another "December 2015" when things just go irreparably off the rails. From a high level, here are a few things that the team must fix to get back on track.

1. Oh, shoot! Or not.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Edmonton Oilers
Maybe I can shoot from this angle?
Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

I cannot tell you how familiar the sight of an Oiler shooting the puck right into the [insert body part] of an opposing player is. It is like they are not playing hockey, but that game at Chuck E Cheese where you throw balls at the clown's teeth to win tickets which you exchange for cheap lead pencils you would never buy in real life.

The perplexing thing about the past three losses is that the Oilers have won the Corsi battle in all three, quite decidedly in two of them. On the season, they still rank sixth in the league for CF% (52.1%) and fifth overall in Shots/GP (31.8). In the past three games, they've done even better, averaging 35.33 shots. So why does it all still hurt?

A glance at the stats would suggest that while quantity is there, the quality of shots has significantly diminished in their recent losses. They won their Corsi battle against the Leafs decidedly on Tuesday night (57.69% to 42.31%), even outchancing them a staggering 73-47 in all situations, but were even in high danger scoring chances (9 to 9). The fact that there was such a big difference that night between the Oilers' CF% (57.69%) and FF% (50.94%), Fenwick being a stat which does not count blocked shots, would suggest correctly that a lot of shots were being blocked-- and in fact, the Leafs blocked a staggering 31 shots on the night, which is more than the number of shots the Oilers had on the night (30). That is absolutely amazing, and the Leafs are absolute lunatics.

Even in their shootout loss against the Coyotes, a game in which they were leading for the majority of the match, they outchanced the Coyotes 50 to 47, but the Coyotes had eleven high danger scoring chances to the Oilers' seven. So no, it's not just your eye that leads you to want to throw up each time you see the puck being shot straight at bodies, whether a goaltender's or skater's. Of course, we commend the opposing teams for being good at using their bodies as shields, but it's clear that something is off here.

2. The "Power" Play

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Pittsburgh Penguins
“I know plans, Todd. I have the best plans.”
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers power play is an insult to the word “power.” Right now, it is softer than the extra soft tofu (soondubu) used in Korean stews. It has gotten to the point when I no longer feel excited to go on the power play-- it takes a lot to undo a lifetime of conditioning during which I've been taught to see hope when a power play opportunity presents itself. Now, I see a mirage of Jay Woodcroft's face, sometimes just his eyebrows. Please, just make it stop.

I don't have to say more than the fact that the Oilers are 0/12 on the “power” play in their last three games. Watching them pass the puck to each other like it's a piece of rotten durian is one of the worst things for blood pressure in this world. I do not want to be one of those people who is always shouting "shoot! Shoot!" at the TV. But I can't help but think that maybe they really should sometimes.

Even Patrick Maroon agrees. "We need to be a shooting power play," he told reporters after practice on Wednesday. "We're not shooting enough. If we're shooting it, we wait, we wait, and then we shoot." To the eye, they're shooting a lot at even strength, as mentioned, just not very good shots. On the power play, however, they try too hard to refine and finesse, waiting for a very good shot but never really ending up getting it. The softness of many players' shots has also become very apparent-- Eberle and Sekera's shots, while infinitely better than mine will ever be, just don't seem very intimidating. I'm all for seeing McDavid shoot the puck more because at the moment, it looks like the opponents never even expect him to shoot (and he doesn’t), making the plays a lot more predictable and easy to diffuse.

There is a plethora of offensive pressure but few quality shots, and when the team does make a defensive mistake, it's usually very costly. Not a good combo.

3. Secondary scoring, where art thou?

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where y’all been?
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I remember the good ol' days of this season, just a few weeks ago, when I would wax poetic about the generous contributions of the likes of Zack Kassian and Anton Slepyshev. The third and fourth lines were rolling, and oh, here comes Connor, and things were just dandy.

Now, we still have Connor, but that seems to be all there is as the rest of the grown men have walked backwards and retreated into the woods. The last time the Oilers scored a goal Connor McDavid was not involved in was the November 25 loss to the Coyotes. Without McDavid, this team would be…my mind is truly afraid to wander into these dark, dangerous areas.

And somewhere in Alberta, Tyler Pitlick is wailing into the darkness, "I would like to help! Free me!" I know, Tyler. I know.

4. Let’s get INTENSE

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Anaheim Ducks
Kassian and Manson mess up the death spiral again.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Intensity is probably one of my least favourite words to use, because its definition to me consists of someone enlarging their eyes and maybe flaring their nostrils. But I can't think of any better word to describe that certain something the team seems to be lacking these days.

A lot of the errors the Oilers are making seem to be mental mistakes. As Coach McLellan put it Wednesday after practice, the team needs more "awareness and attention to detail defensively." It's a missed assignment here, two players covering the same guy there, a moment being caught out of position that leads to a goal. There are too many lapses in concentration at the most inopportune times, and perhaps the people most in power to change that are the coaching staff and leaders in the locker room. McDavid also stressed the importance of increased communication in his post-game interview on Tuesday. The problem is not a lack of skill or talent, which makes it perhaps more correctable, but the mental side can be the most difficult to repair.

It’s not that they aren’t trying or don't care, but there seems to be little of that grinding, agitating game we see in Nazem Kadri, whose face continues to be astoundingly annoying, and perhaps expected more of in Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian. Watching Benoit Pouliot skate by as his teammate Adam Larsson was being serially cross-checked and harassed by Kadri was almost unbelievable-- it felt like watching an asshole ignore a mugging happening right in front of him. I would have at least come up with some creative insult to shout at Kadri, like calling him a ugly, shriveled cocoon or something. Anything. Please.

I want to be able to look upon this team and cheer for them with something more than the unconditional affection I’ve given them these past few years. I want to believe they can give us something to really get excited about, that the possibility of winning is something we are allowed to feel. Is this too much to ask? I know that the cost of investing in this team even more emotionally than in years past can come back and bite me in the heart, but we've sacrificed too much to fall into cynicism at this point. The team knows what they need to fix-- they are better than this, and they know it. Let's see if they can return to and uphold the level of play they are capable of, and will this weary fanbase back to belief.