The good news for the Edmonton Oilers is they won't finish last overall for a third straight season.
The bad news is they could finish with the second-worst record.
This was hardly the improvement envisioned by the club and its fans when the season began. A combination of poor defense and injuries saw a 9-3-2 start quickly fizzle, sparking a freefall in the standings which has currently put them 17 points out of a playoff berth, all but assuring the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
If not for the inept Columbus Blue Jackets, the Oilers would once again be at the bottom of the Western Conference.
Defense has been the Oilers' weakness. Currently, they have the fourth-worst goals-against average (2.95). They're also tied with the Phoenix Coyotes for the seventh-most shots-against per game (30.8).
Injuries contributed to those poor numbers, as defensemen Ryan Whitney, Corey Potter, Cam Barker and Tom Gilbert were sidelined at various times.
GM Steve Tambellini took a step toward addressing that issue, shipping Gilbert to Minnesota at the trade deadline for stay-at-home blueliner Nick Schultz.
Goaltending was also an issue. While aging Nikolai Khabibulin bounced back from last season's forgettable effort, the 39-year-old's best years are behind him. Devan Dubnyk, meanwhile, has yet to prove he's ready to move beyond backup status into a full-time starter role.
It would be understandable for Oilers fans to be pessimistic over their club's future, yet there are optimistic signs of a bright future.
Their offensive production has improved considerably, as their goals-per-game average climbed from 28th overall in 2010-11 to a respectable 16th, while their power play jumped from 27th to first overall entering this week's schedule.
In sophomore wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have the foundation for a lethal first line.
Center Sam Gagner, 22, is on pace to exceed his career-best in points (49) and still has potential to become a reliable second-line center.
Veteran left winger Ryan Smyth has delivered a solid performance in his return season with the Oilers, bringing valuable leadership and experience. It’s expected he’ll re-sign for another year or two.
Tambellini's surprising decision to extend oft-injured right winger Ales Hemsky for $10 million over two years, considered by Tambellini's critics a prime example of poor management, was met with derision around the league.
Still, the much-maligned Hemsky has picked up his performance of late, with 12 points in his last 17 games. Tambellini is gambling Hemsky can avoid the shoulder injuries which have hampered him over the past two years. If he can, his playmaking skills could prove invaluable.
An additional boost could come from young forwards Anton Lander, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark, who've been going through the inevitable growing pains of adjusting to the NHL, but still have considerable promise.
If Whitney can finally put his injury woes behind him, his puck-moving skills would be welcome at both ends of the ice. A full season with Schultz on the blueline should provide stability and defensive experience, while second-year defenseman Jeff Petry has made significant strides in his development.
Should the Oilers end up with another top-three draft pick, Tambellini could use it to add a promising young defenseman, like Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips, Mathew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels, or Griffin Reinhart of the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Goaltending will of course remain a question mark heading into the summer.
Khabibulin has one year left on his contract at $3.8 million. The Oilers could buy him out, but they'd get no cap relief, as he was over 35 when he signed with them three years ago. If there's no amnesty buyout in the next collective bargaining agreement, they'll be stuck with him for one more year, unless they bury him in the minors, loan him overseas, or he retires.
Dubnyk, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent and management will have to decide if it’s willing to give him another chance at the starting role or seek an upgrade via the trade or free agent markets.
The potential is there for the Oilers to improve into a playoff contender in the near future, but it will require still more patience from their long-suffering fans.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.
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