EDMONTON - While the Edmonton Oilers head into the NHL all-star break with a disappointing record not unlike last season when they finished dead last, the team sees some light at the end of the tunnel this time.
Statistically that might be hard to fathom, given the team has only 15 wins and 38 points in 49 games, is 2-7-1 in its last 10 and finished the month of January with just three wins in 13 games, its worst month of the season.
To match 2009-10, when the Oilers finished with 27 wins and 62 points, they will need 24 points in their final 33 games.
In 2009-10 they could blame part of the problem on injuries, having lost 521 man-games. This year injuries haven't been a big factor with only 118 man-games lost to this point.
The reason for the optimism is the change in the team's makeup.
Leading the way are top draft pick Taylor Hall (tied for the team lead in goals with 16), enthusiastic and talented youngsters like Jordan Eberle (out the last 12 games with an ankle injury), Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi and young veterans like Ryan Whitney (out for the season after ankle surgery last week), Sam Gagner and Ladislav Smid.
"The atmosphere this year is way different," said Smid. "We're a way different team than last year. We thought we would be doing better this time of the year, but we're in the process of rebuilding. There's lots of energy in the room.
"Even though we haven't been winning, it's still fun to come to the locker-room because we have a great bunch of guys with lots of energy. The attitude is always positive."
It's a statement echoed by virtually every player and coach.
"Absolutely," defenceman Theo Peckham said emphatically. "It's totally changed. There's a lot more youth, a lot more excitement. We understand we're going through a tough time, but the playoffs are still in sight for us. You get hot, win six, seven in a row, things can change really quick."
Tom Renney, who took over as head coach when Pat Quinn was fired last summer, admitted he had hoped the team would be improved this year to a point where they would be at least challenging for a playoff berth. But he agrees the year is more about building a new beginning.
"It's about continuing to build, continuing to work on our culture and what we want our game to be," he said. "I would like us to be a little more competitive from a standings perspective, but we're not concerned about that."
When the team returns to action, with or without Alex Hemsky who has concussion issues, there will be one concern, however small it may be. That is to ensure there is no repeat of last season's funk when they won only 11 of their final 37 games.
Outwardly Renney and the players put on a brave face, saying that's not even an issue in their minds.
"It's not a concern for me because we have a great group of guys who care about results, who care about their input, who care about performing well," said Renney. "At the end of the day we're still a work in progress."
How much progress has been made, said captain Shawn Horcoff, will be determined by how well the team performs from now through early April.
"You never want to let mediocrity seep into your game," said the veteran centre who returned last week after missing 18 games with a knee injury. "We're going to have to take it upon ourselves as players to motivate each other. The difference is we have so many young guys now everybody is playing for jobs and they're playing for careers so there's lots to play for.
"So there's really no excuses for us to let up and just mail it in."