Deep thoughts III

“A lot of previous years, I’m trying to generate optimism and enthusiasm, but this year I’m probably more interested in quelling it a little bit.”

“I can’t remember a period over the last 15 years where we’ve been so excited . . . this is the best chance we’ve had in a long time to win the division . . . it’s a very achievable goal. Young players have developed. Now we have lots of depth at virtually every position . . . we have a real good chance to do some great things this year.”

So, was that a meteor in the sky Thursday or Craig MacTavish’s lofty pre-season expectations hurtling to the muskeg on fire like a burnt weenie at a barbecue gone wrong after watching his Oilers get outclassed — forget the 4-3 score — by the Detroit Red Wings at Rexall Place? And, who says MacT has lost the dressing room? We’re only 20 games into the season and the players have jumped onside with their coach in putting an end to talk this team has the combination of physical talent AND mental make-up to be a real contender in the Western Conference.

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Consider it quelled.

HERE WE ARE

At 9-9-2 through 20 games, the Oilers are right about where I thought they’d be in terms of record and the standings when I looked at them in pre-season. Given their schedule — 14 of 20 games on the road so far — and line-up changes, I didn’t expect anything more at this point, although most fans were more optimistic.

How the Oilers got here, though, is surprising. After a misleading 4-0 start and with parade route planners looking down their noses at doomsayers who didn’t see a Northwest Division title in the cards, the Oilers had a chance to not only survive the schedule-maker’s handiwork, but hit the quarter-pole smelling like roses. But noooooooo.

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With five days before they face Los Angeles, the stench wafting through Rexall Place has everybody checking the bottom of their shoes, expecting to have to scrape something off.
With MacTavish sounding more frustrated by the day and having called out individual players — hello, Dustin Penner, Shawn Horcoff and Mathieu Garon — and his team in general for lack of jam and gamesmanship, I’m guessing that aroma is also filling the nostrils of Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini.

Something has to happen before the Kings come calling Wednesday. Doesn’t it?

THE OBVIOUS

– This team, as MacTavish alluded to Thursday night, is way too soft and too easy to play against. Being a nasty bunch of SOBs isn’t a matter of size, it’s a state of mind, so there’s no excuses, even with smaller players in the line-up. The next time Ales Hemsky gets planted into the end boards, a response, like maybe a punch in the mouth, might be an idea. Stink-eyes and name-calling doesn’t get it done.

Then, there’s the concept of actually initiating that kind of stuff instead of just reacting. No? More guys need to show some brass, and they need to do so before Steve MacIntyre’s broken face heals.

– Please, pick two goaltenders and stick with them. Decide which one is your starter and which is your back-up. Garon and Dwayne Roloson. Jeff Deslauriers and Garon. Roloson and Deslauriers. Flip a coin. Pick a pair. Three’s a crowd. It’s not stop-the-presses stuff.

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– There’s no excuse, none, for the way the Oilers have started too many games and Thursday’s loss was a prime example. Spot the Cup champs a 3-0 lead? What could go wrong? The Oilers have been outscored 18-10 in first periods. Brutal. Wake up.

– Outside of Hemsky, there isn’t a top-six forward playing well enough to merit top-six minutes. That’s five guys, with Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner and Penner being the most obvious, getting sugar time without earning it most nights. Either the situation changes or the personnel does.

JUST ASKING

– Given pre-season expectations and that Daryl Katz is now endorsing the cheques, what’s the over/under on MacTavish’s tenure if the Oilers don’t start to climb above the .500 mark and stay there? And, no, 2007 doesn’t count as a prediction.

– Bizarre as it sounds, is it too much to ask that defencemen, well, play defence? That right wingers play right wing instead of left wing or center? I know Laddy Smid longs for the Art Ross Trophy, but, like my mom used to say, “There’s a place for everything and everything in its place.”

– Not that it had any impact whatsoever, but whose idea was it to claim Jesse Boulerice off waivers in the first place? No, really. Was this a collaborative brain cramp or somebody’s singular epiphany? Who?

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– Just a thought, but with all the concern about a tough schedule to start the season, is anybody else concerned the Oilers have blown off too many of the few games they’ve had at home? Fellas, 2-2-2?

– Penalty killing. When does that start?

— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260


  • David S

    From MacT's post-game comments, I got the impression he was alluding to a player shakeup, possibly a trade in the works in the very near future.

    Saw Smid playing forward last night and I have to tell you, he handled himself pretty well for his first crack at it. I like the idea that MacT is trying new things. I must admit that there's probably way more development going on here than we might believe.

    BTW – Boulerice is back on waivers. Seriously, what was the point of this exercise?

  • It's discusting that Hemsky get hammered into the boards at the end of the first period by Franzen. Nobody did anything about it after it happened either.

    Nobody steps up to take on a guy who has 2 fights & 134 PIM in 234 hockey games…now I understand what MAcT is so pissed off about the intestinal fortitude of his team.

  • Oilerdago

    What are we learning? The sooner a trade the better because the forward lines are a mess because of the 3 goalies. No leverage to bench anyone when 46 is the alternative. Time to farm him out and bring up Brule.

    FYI – Boulerice was picked back up by COL.

  • shakey

    Mac T gets the blame for a lot of the Oilers issues, horrible starts and bad penalty killing to name a couple. But when the game is on and someone drills our version of a superstar, Mac T can't drill that guy back or drop the gloves with him, that's for guys on the ice to do. You see a teammate get drilled and if it merits instant retribution, the players need to step up. I fear that the team isn't playing for Mac T anymore and I really fear it's going to go on for a while before something is done about it. I hope this 6 day break isn't wasted with them doing more shot blocking drills.

  • David S

    It isn't that they're not playing for MacT. Its the fact that they're not playing for themselves.

    I have to say that it really looked like a bunch of very intimidated kids out there in the first period last night. Come to think of it, if I was a young guy trying to play the best team in the world, I'd be crappin' my pants a bit too.

  • mjsh

    The Franzen hit on Hemsky happened right in front of us last night. Elbow to the face in my opinion, should have been a penalty as well as an Oiler stepping up to defend the star player. I cannot stop thinking that there is something wrong in the room and it may not be the coach.

    Smid looked lost out there. Yes, he did manage to get a hit or two but for the most part when he was between the bluelines, he looked like a defenceman playing forward.

    As far as the home games are concerned, the fact is that most of them have been short stops on the way to another town no a true home stand in the bunch.

    I really am having a hard time deciding whether to defend the Oilers because of the schedule or blast them because they are not playing to my expectations of their abilities.

    Certainly a puzzling start to the season

  • shakey

    David S; I agree, they look beaten before the game is 5 minutes old. Being indimidated by the Wings was a last year excuse. All of these guys have played in big games and there is no reason to fear the Wings. It's clear they don't fear or respect their PP because they can't stay out of the box against them. Something needs to happen and you can't trade 12 players so…

  • Rick

    I have no idea how to feel about this team.

    They are at .500 record and we haven't seen a complete game from them and half of the team seems to be struggling.

    Or;

    They are at .500 record and we haven't seen a complete game from them and half of the team seems to be struggling.

  • Clarkenstein

    Read a pregame column in the Detroit papers yesterday and they felt they had to get off to a fast start because the Oil were an "undisciplined" team!! Ya think? So what happens in the first 10 mins.?? They were undisciplined!! When a team consistently does this game after game you point to the coaching staff. Nothing will change until we take THAT part of the team in a different direction. The sceptics will say it's the schedule or it's the injuries or it's the rookies or it's this or it's that. After 8 years we know what it is!!

  • Fiveandagame

    "I really am having a hard time deciding whether to defend the Oilers because of the schedule or blast them because they are not playing to my expectations of their abilities."

    "I have no idea how to feel about this team."

    mjsh & Rick –

    You echo my feelings to a tee. I think if we were .500 after 14 of 20 on the road at the beginning of the year we might have been a little disappointed but optimistic that the Oil would turn it around. But the fact is that they are .500 after a brutal road schedule, but they haven't been playing hard nosed hockey. They've been soft. With soft wins and soft losses. Apart from the surprising play of Moreau, that dominant play from Souray, and the dazzling Dangles of Hemsky, what has there been to cheer for about this team?

    Oiler fans have always cheered for effort. Not so much the wins and losses, but the hard work. If the team worked hard and they didn't win, we as a fan base were okay with that. (hell we had to be from 91 on) But one thing Edmontonians won't stand for is a half assed effort. Example Lupul.

  • Man, a lucky bounce the other way last night and we'd all be singing the praises of how awesome the Oilers are for beating the Red Wings…and nobody would be looking for a head on a stake.

    Is there even a clear cut, hands down, no doubt a bout it better coach available at the current time? I honestly don't think MacT is the problem.

    The arguments flying around of "they won't play for MacT" and "he's lost the room" are off base I think. A player, while he may not necessarily want to take a bullet for his coach at times, is still accountable for how he plays and should have some pride in his game enough to battle hard and show up. Regardless of personal feelings towards one another and the coach, everyone wants to win. A winning/no quit/team focused attitude falls squarely on the players themselves.

  • David S

    TB – You've got a point there.

    Moreau said in the post-game interviews that he was really starting to feel the schedule. As much as these guys may want to compete every night, it could simply be that their bodies are starting to affect their minds. Which means that this next batch of games after the 5 day break might be the make or break before something dramatic happens. There'll be no excuses afterwards and nowhere to hide.

  • Rick

    David S Says:
    November 21st, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Moreau said in the post-game interviews that he was really starting to feel the schedule.

    ….

    For all the talk about 14 of the first 20 being on the road I am surprised that there isn't more talk about there also being 6 back to back sets in there. Seriously, over half of their games so far.

    I don't think anyone can convince me that this team hasn't dodged a bullet based on how the schedule has been stacked against them but the underlying issue is that the worst is almost over and we have yet to see them really put together a good team effort/performance.

    The question is whether or not the team can actually do that now.

  • Robin Brownlee? Is that you?

    Are you calling for a rise to arms and make some changes in this team doomed for mediocrity? Great article, and for once you're not drinking the team kool-aid that has seemed fill the coffee mugs of the Journalists in this city. How long until you jump aboard the "Fire MacT Bandwagon" that I have idling outside the Robin Brownlee Manor? I've got a spot for you, buddy, right beside me.

  • shakey

    baggedmilk, it could have been that comet/spacerock/Russian space-waste that has this town sounding like we just walked out of a cave…'the sky…it lit up like, like I thought we was under attack'. It seems to be messing with everyones minds so for the sake of the environment, please turn off the “Fire MacT Bandwagon” instead of letting it run. Mayor Dufuss may send the five-O to give you a ticket.

  • Zamboni Driver

    Jiminy Christmas Staples, they're TIRED?

    Good lord, why? They haven't banged into anybody in several weeks.

    And they're paid professionals – just like you and me. You guys write lousy columns, someone sends you packing (they do not, in fact, suggest that you become the guy who runs the printing press – which is just about as intelligent as getting a professional defenceman, and turning him into a forward.)

    That's the 'creative' thinking with the Oilers right now. And people blame the CFR for the scent at Rexall 😛

  • milli

    Robin,
    Do you really think there will be any kind of real shake up to this team in the next 5 days? I think it is the perfect opportunity to fire CracT, but, I don't for a second think it will actualy happen. If we where in this shape and the team had competed in most games, I could live with the schedule excuse (and that is what it is). But, I refuse to keep count of how many nights I've wasted my time for 2 periods only to watch a mad dash in the third. I think it is reasonable to expect a pro team show up prepared and ready to play (preferably in position and with a *&^%*^$^$$#^&%$*(ing starting goalie.

  • RobinB

    Baggedmilk: Listen, donkey, stop with the backhanded compliments. Nice to know that FOR ONCE, I'm not drinking the team kool-aid? High praise, indeed.

    Either you're not paying attention or you have the comprehension skills of the breakfast I just painted the bowl with. In any case, you don't have the first clue. Just because I don't scream for MacTavish to be fired deosn't mean I'm on the payroll.

    And stop writing stuff like this "I've got a spot for you right beside me" BS. I'm not your buddy. If we met, I'd probably maim you in the first 30 seconds.

  • Ender the Dragon

    David S Says:
    It isn’t that they’re not playing for MacT. Its the fact that they’re not playing for themselves.

    You know that speech the coach always gives, how 'This isn't my team; this is your team. Go out there make it one that you're proud of . . . yadda, yadda.' I don't think that the players are really getting what that message is about. Maybe it's because they're from a new and younger generation. Whatever it is, they're acting like disinterested employees and missing the point. This isn't a job that you show up to, put in your time, and punch out as you leave the rink. This is a club, a fraternity, a brotherhood. This is men building something tangible from nothing but their associations with one another.

    We don't have that. We don't have that mysterious bond that makes the difference between a group of office colleagues and an unstoppable revolutionary force. Our guys don't have that brotherhood, or maybe even the desire for one. Until they get the message, that this is really their team to make great or not to, we will simply be a loose collection of guys that play hockey dressed in the same-colored shirts. That isn't enough to win in a proffessional sports league today, particularly not one requiring as much heart as the NHL.

    Maybe MacT has made some interesting coaching decisions of late, some even perhaps stemming from desparation. Still, I lay the root cause of what ails this group at the feet of every player in that room who hasn't made an effort off the ice to be more than a 9-5 guy with his own life to get to after practice. Sorry, mates, but for the term of your contract, this IS your life. This needs to be what you breathe, what you eat, what you ARE, every second of every day. That's how champion teams are born, when the sum of the whole is infinitely larger than the sum of the parts.

    I hope they get the message before MacT has to try and preach it somewhere else while the players here learn to ignore the new guy.

  • David M

    Lest everybody forget, Steve Staios was a winger before he played defence. So it obviously is possible for a professional hockey player to change positions and excel.

  • Wanye (David) Gretz

    Ender you know you are my boy – but I had to axe all that bold text. I damn near had a seizure when I saw it all.

    Also – is everyone in here named David today?

  • Robin –

    Re: Horcoff, since you're pointing the finger to him. As I'm sure you're aware, he's well into the black on the ES SF/SA meter at +20. For every 60 minutes that he's on the ice at evens, the Oilers have taken 32.4 ES shots and allowed 28.0. That's very good and if that keeps up, he's going to end up in the black for the season. It won't be his line doing in the Oilers.

    While he doesn't have the points, he only has points on 50% of the Oilers ES goals that have been scored while he's on the ice, which we all know is going to come up with time – the vast majority of forwards end up with points on between 65-75% of ES goals scored while they're on the ice. He's getting a ton of shots at ES, more than he has in the past. Every objective measure I can find of the guy says he's playing alright at evens.

    Same for the PP – he's at about 4.5 PPP/60, which is basically his career average. If he had 1 more point, he'd be where he was last year.

    My question is this: do you think that the things people bitch about with Horcoff, the turnovers in the offensive zone and such, are probably there even when the points are there? If he had three or four more points, would you be pointing the finger at him? I'm maybe not doing the best job of expressing this but I tend to think that people view players performance through the lens of the numbers that they care about. If a guy doesn't have the shiny scoring numbers, the turnovers stick out a little more, even if all of his other numbers are good.

    For all the world, it looks to me like the numbers that seemingly oscillate all over the damned place are the ones that are giving him trouble right now and the reason he lacks the shiny scoring numbers. I call it luck, if only because they're seemingly entirely unpredictable, maybe it's not luck, maybe there really is a cause but if there is a cause, it seems to come and go at random and not worth getting worked up about.

    Penner though…Christ. That guy barely seems able to get a shot but an awful lot of them have gone in this year. I see him and Horc as having been miles apart in terms of play, even if the results don't show it yet.

  • We don’t have that mysterious bond that makes the difference between a group of office colleagues and an unstoppable revolutionary force. Our guys don’t have that brotherhood, or maybe even the desire for one. Until they get the message, that this is really their team to make great or not to, we will simply be a loose collection of guys that play hockey dressed in the same-colored shirts.

    That's kinda where I'm leaning…not really a coaching shortcoming, but rather a 'guys not going for beers together enough' kinda thing.

  • Jason

    I find it frustrating that so many forwards are struggling. Are they good enough, or is it coaching? Only one way to find out that answer…

    Some starting stats that matter:

    PK – 27th in the NHL
    Shots/Game – 26th in the NHL
    Shots against/Game – 28th in the NHL
    Faceoffs – 28th in the NHL
    Goals For 2.60/Game, Goals Againt 3.05/Game

    How long is long enough to wait for change, beit players or coach?

    Mac seems way more stressed than ever, so that tells me some heat is on…

  • RobinB

    Tyler: I'm with you in many ways — I don't think Horcoff has been dismal, but he's just not quite right. He's been mediocre, not just in G-A-PTS but overall, and that's not good enough for a player who just inked a big ticket.

    I tend to to think a lot of the people who criticize Horcoff are coming from the camp that insists he's just not a No. 1 centre. They will find holes where they can because he doesn't fit their image of a top-line pivot.

    I think they're wrong. At his best, when all aspects of the game are considered, Horcoff is a legit No. 1 centre. Not an elite No. 1 centre, but a No. 1 centre nonetheless.

  • Kel-ster

    Things that make you say mmmm….

    Do you think Cole is happy playing the 3rd line with a 2nd year centre (Cogs) and a recent call-up from the minors? I think he is thinking he got traded into a nut-house.

    Smid – playing forward? Are you kiddin'? Bring up Brule or Schremp – the Oil need shots and goal-scoring, not a defenseman playing a position he has never played.

    The Captian playing on the number 1 line? I admire Ethan's game a ton, however we all know (including the players) that he isn't a number one line player or in your group of top 6 forwards.

    MacT is never shy about talking to the media and showing how smart he is or isn't. However when it comes to actually managing the roster, there are just too many decisions he makes that don't seem to make sense. As well he doesn't learn from what is working. Look at his defense pairings – as a whole most agree that they are pretty solid, improving and performing well. Reason: they have had time to gel and play a ton of min. together. Why not do the same with the forward lines? Scrambling lines after 3 games does nothing but confuse players. Put your top6 together and live thru their "gel-ing". It worked for the defense.

    The coach is responsible for creating a situation for the players to succeed. Cole may have the minutes played but has he been given the chance to "gel" with some talent? I think NO.

    This team will never finish better than 7th or 8th spot with MacT at the helm. Simply because MacT does a horrible job of managing his top 6 forwards.

  • Robin Brownlee you are taking a long walk down the short path to a smacked bottom. I don't know where the hostility comes from for a fellow contributor. I show you nothing but love on a regular basis. Including the time I dawned the Robin Brownlee shield of honor and defended you against the evil PensBlog. Telling the kind folks here at the Nation that we are not friends, is like using the Rainman to count cards. You may win in the short term, but you'll die inside from the guilt. Over internet extended arms to you, Robin, feel the warmth of forgiveness.

  • I agree with you Robin – Horcoff stinks, but he is all we have & the only number 1 centre we will have for a couple of years.

    I also agree with Towel Boy – Gilbert – Cogliano – Gagner house eating Pizza 73 & playing Halo or Guitar Hero doesn't really sound like a party Staios & Moreau are into.

    With the little bit of success all the under 30 crowd had last year when everyone was hurt, I think the "vets" lost the room…