EDMONTON - The rebuilding Edmonton Oilers expected a few bumps on the road back to respectability but never imagined having to endure a rash of injuries that has turned the stretch drive into a roller-coaster ride.
Edmonton's best defenceman, Ryan Whitney, was lost months ago to ankle surgery. Rookie Taylor Hall had a season-ending high ankle sprain while Sam Gagner is done after a freak hand injury. And on Monday, the team announced Ales Hemsky will require season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a damaged labrum.
"Obviously, the process takes a bit of a shift, but it's still the process," said coach Tom Renney. "Adversity is a part of every single team's season, no matter what.
"For us, as with most teams, we're suffering some injury things, but it's not uncommon for anybody. What we have to do is learn how to deal with that as a group.
"First, as a coaching staff and how we manoeuvre our lineup. As an organization, in terms of how we call people up and who we might call up to help continue to grow this thing and provide opportunity at the same time. To educate ourselves on what we've got."
With a roster that was thin and laden with youth to start the season now punched full of holes, the Oilers face their final 12 contests, starting against Phoenix on Thursday, in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
The Oilers are last overall in the NHL—where they finished last season—with a 23-38-9 record. They'll limp to the finish line with a mix of minor-league call-ups, rookies and veterans having missed the playoffs for a club-record fifth straight year.
"This is a great opportunity for us to establish our identity even more," said forward Ryan Jones. "We wanted to be a team that was going to work hard no matter what. We knew we were going to face adversity at some point.
"With guys out of the lineup, you fall back on your work ethic, your pride, your character and those are the things that define teams. It's a great opportunity for us right now to show we have an abundance of that."
While the Oilers won't come close to the franchise-record 521 man-games they lost to injury in 2009-10, they'll easily surpass 200 games this season. What hurts, too, is most of those lost games involve key players.
They've currently lost 194 man-games to injury, with Hemsky and captain Shawn Horcoff to add to that total. Horcoff, who already missed a long stretch with a sprained knee, has a cracked bone in his left ankle that will keep him out about 10 days.
"It's been frustrating. It's been a frustrating year both team-wise and, obviously, individually," said Horcoff, who was injured when hit by a Magnus Paajarvi shot in Pittsburgh. "You can't really do much about it. It is what it is.
"You have to battle forward. It'll be a good opportunity for some of our young guys to get a lot more minutes and some quality time."
Whitney played just 35 games before suffering a damaged tendon against Buffalo on Dec. 28 and subsequent surgery ended his year. Hall was looking like a Calder Trophy candidate when his season ended March 3 against Columbus—he fell awkwardly during a fight with Derek Dorsett. Hall had 22 goals and 20 assists at the time.
"Everyone is trying to stay positive," Hall said. "It's really tough when you've got a lot of guys hurt.
"They're key guys on the team, too. It's really hard, but you have to fight through that stuff."
Gagner suffered tendon damage against Washington on March 9 when Jones's skate sliced through his left hand on the bench as Jones was hopping over the boards. Gagner had surgery.
Factor in Hemsky and the trade of Dustin Penner to Los Angeles on Feb. 28, and there isn't much left of the group that made up Edmonton's top six forwards to start the season.
The Oilers have already pressed AHL journeyman Liam Reddox and rookie Linus Omark into service. They called up Finnish rookie Teemu Hartikainen from Oklahoma City on Monday.
"You get to see what we're made of as a group and an organization," said forward Andrew Cogliano. "You can feel sorry for yourself because that's the easiest thing to or you can be survivor in all this.
"We feel like there's been good steps taken toward the rebuild and we're doing a good job being better as a team and an organization. These last 12 games can't be a step backwards. Even with the guys we have out, we can't let things slip."
Given what's left of the lineup, the Oilers will be hard-pressed to match last season's 27 wins and 62 points, a finish that landed them the first overall draft selection used to take Hall.
"The results will take care of themselves," Renney said. "What would be most important is how we judge ourselves after that result, keeping in mind the dynamic.
"The big thing is are we improving? Did people get better? What did we learn by this season and how does that serve as a springboard moving forward? It better, or we're not doing our job."