NHL coaches work with what they have, and what Edmonton Oilers head man Dallas Eakins has is a surfeit of skill in small packages that opponents like to push around.

Eakins got some of his skill back from the injured list on Tuesday night with the return of centre Sam Gagner, who suffered a broken jaw during the pre-season when Vancouver Canucks forward Zack Kassian thwacked him in the mouth with a reckless swing of his hockey stick.

That was the same pre-season game in which left winger Taylor Hall absorbed an elbow to the head from Dale Weise. Hall wasn’t injured on that play, but remains out with a knee injury after a seemingly accidental knee-on-knee collision with Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Gryba last week.

So far this season, five opponents have been suspended or fined for cheap hits on Oilers players: Kassian, Weise, Jason Chimera, Martin Hanzal and Kyle Clifford. Their targets have been Gagner, Hall, Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, respectively; skill players every single one of them.

There are two key ways the 3-8-2 Oilers can both improve overall and protect themselves. One is to push back themselves, learn to play the harder, 200-foot game needed for success in the NHL. The other is to beef up their lineup with a couple of capable but sizeable bangers on defence and a winger or two with some size and skill and a mean streak.

That is up to general manager Craig MacTavish, who knows better than anyone what his team lacks. He also knows it’s not easy to obtain any of these pieces.

Anyway, the first option for improvement — playing harder — is central to Eakins’ job, coaching some grit, gristle and responsibility into some young, creative minds perched on slender shoulders.

“New habits,” Eakins calls the two-way game he wants to see.