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.

In his first game of the regular season, Gagner centred the top line between Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov and played 22:01 minutes in a 4-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who got a four-point night (two goals, two assists) from Phil Kessel and a three-point effort from sidekick Nazem Kadri (a goal and two assists).

The Maple Leafs didn’t outmuscle the Oilers and, to hear head coach Dallas Eakins tell it, they didn’t necessarily outplay them. But they did “outfinish” them, they were more opportunistic.

No argument there. But enough is enough, said team captain Andrew Ference.

“We’re at the point where I don’t think there’s too many pats on the back for outshooting a team (Oilers won that one 43-26),” Ference said. “We’re in a position where we have to win.

“They buried their opportunities and that’s the only thing that matters in this game. We put up shots, but we also gave them pretty opportunities to score, which they did.”

Ference acknowledged the Oilers have fallen far behind in the Western Conference, far too big a gap behind the rest.

“This is something that we can’t accept,” Ference said. “It’s something that we have to turn ... now. For the first five or six games, you could focus on the fact that you’re taking steps in the right direction, but I said it then and I’ll say it again, you hit a point in the season where that’s not acceptable.

“We have to be professional enough to push ourselves to demand more than just progress. So that’s something that everybody has to bring every night, every period.”

For his part, Gagner thought the shot totals were deceiving.

“It’s enough talk about doing good things in here, it’s about finding ways to win games, that’s our next step,” Gagner said.

Given the increasingly restive Oilers fan base, it’s a step the club had better take mighty soon.

“I don’t feel like we got enough traffic and second opportunities,” Gagner said about not harassing Toronto goalie James Reimer sufficiently. “I feel like a lot of our shots were just one-and-dones.

“We need to find ways, when he lets rebounds up, to get to the net and create second opportunities. You’ve got to give him credit; he played a solid game. But we can’t be shut out in here. We need to find ways to get back in that game when we’re down.”

In general, there are two key ways the 3-9-2 Oilers can both improve overall and protect themselves. One is to push back themselves, master 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 sizable 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. Rarely have the team’s needs been on more evident display than the 4-0 loss to Toronto.

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.