The to-do list

If I was King of the World, or better yet, Daryl Katz, and could snap my fingers and shape the Edmonton Oilers until they fit my vision of what a hockey team should be, there would be changes. Brother, would there be changes.

With the Oilers sitting at 14-14-2 through 30 games after Wednesday’s 4–2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, some fans are frustrated beyond words with the performance of a team coach Craig MacTavish deemed in pre-season as a contender for a Northwest Division title.

Then again, despite the inconsistencies — like playing one of their best games of the season in a 3–0 win over the Canucks last weekend before getting their backsides handed to them without a whimper in a 9–2 loss to Chicago Tuesday — optimists might peruse Western Conference standings today and insist, “It isn’t that bad.”

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Well, it is that bad, at least in my mind, and I didn’t even like the make-up of this edition of the Oilers as much as some fans did when the season began. I picked them to be in the mix, as usual, but to finish ninth.

What would I do?

Ain’t Rocket Surgery

Let’s first state the obvious — it’s infinitely easier to sit in front of a laptop and pontificate about what must be done, who should be traded and who should be acquired, than it is for GM Steve Tambellini or president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe to pick up the telephone and make it happen in the real world. Duh!

That said, here’s my list of things to do — in order of importance — based on what I’ve seen and heard, what I know and what I think. And, yes, much of it is Master of the Obvious stuff that has already been suggested by people smarter than I…

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1. PICK TWO GOALTENDERS. Three doesn’t work. Never has. Never will. I don’t care which two, as long as one of them is Jeff Deslauriers because I’m not willing to lose him to waivers for nothing at this point.

  • With no takers via trade right now, I’d send Dwayne Roloson to the AHL, even if he’s played better than Mathieu Garon at this point. Roloson’s a pro and he gets his full salary in the minors. He’d be a mentor to Devan Dubnyk.
  • It’s time to find out if Garon can regain his form of last season and prove he’s a legit No. 1 starter. If Garon can’t do that by starting, say, seven of the next 10 games, I shop him. If he doesn’t move, I send him to the minors, recall Roloson and ride Deslauriers the rest of the way.
  • In any case, Roloson’s gone after this season. What I want to know is if Garon or Deslauriers is my starter next season or if I’m diving into the trade and free agent pool to get a stopper.

2. SORT IT OUT UP FRONT. And, for crying out loud, stop trying to force square pegs into round holes, as was the case too often with MacTavish early this season when he tried to make a center out of Fernando Pisani and a left winger out of Erik Cole.

  • Keep Dustin Penner, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky together as the first line. It’s working.
  • Cut your losses and trade Cole. He’s not producing. He’s not re-signing in Edmonton as an unrestricted free agent. Get what you can for him — picks, prospects, a bag of pucks. The sooner the better.
  • Consider going with three offensive lines instead of the traditional two scoring lines, one checking line and an energy/grinding line format. Is there enough talent on the second and third lines with Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Gilbert Brule, Pisani and Rob Schremp or Marc Pouliot in the mix as your second six? While I’ve said before I’d rather not have more than four “small” forwards on the roster, I’d look at this group for 10 games to find out.
  • Establish a fourth line. For me, it’s going to be captain Ethan Moreau on left wing and Kyle Brodziak at centre every game. The right winger is Zack Stortini or Steve MacIntyre, when he’s healthy again.

3. FIX THE PK. Stop the presses!

This season’s miserable showing by the penalty killing is a bit of a mystery to me because the personnel up front — Horcoff, Moreau, Pisani and Brodziak — has proven capable in the past, although it’s obvious the Oilers have lost too many face-offs leading directly to goals and aren’t blocking shots like they have in past seasons.

  • Given that I’d move Cole and would like to at least look at the mix of the seven forwards mentioned above as components of secondary scoring lines, I’d be looking to move No. 26 for a proven face-off man who can kill penalties. If that took Cole and, say, Pouliot, Nilsson or Schremp, so be it.
  • Add a tough-as-nails-mean-as-hell defenceman (not named Jason Smith) capable of clearing the front of the net like a D9 Cat with a jammed throttle. See below.

4. TOUGHEN UP THE D. On paper, having a back end loaded with puck-movers makes sense — and it certainly works for the Detroit Red Wings — but the Oilers have sacrificed grit and shutdown capability with the personnel in place now.

  • Keep any three from the group of Denis Grebeshkov, Tom Gilbert, Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky and trade the odd-man for a proven veteran who can play a shutdown role.
  • In my mind, the likeliest candidates to go are Gilbert and Grebeshkov because both are relatively soft and I’m not willing to give Grebeshkov a long-term contract to keep him. Besides, not many teams will take Souray’s contract, despite a great start, because of his age and injury history.
  • If I’ve got, say, Souray, Visnovsky and Gilbert as my three offensive D-men plus a shutdown guy for whoever I trade, then I’m keeping Staios and Smid as my fifth and sixth guys for now and Strudwick as my swing man.

5. TAKE STOCK. Who’s who and what’s what?

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  • Decide once and for all by the trade deadline if Brule and Schremp fit in the long-term plans. If they don’t, move them.
  • Get a read and make a call on whether Theo Peckham is ready to play in the NHL next season. How about Taylor Chorney? Any chance Jordan Eberle is ready for 2009–10? If he is, does that make one of the small forwards on the roster available as trade bait?
  • Does Dubnyk factor into the goaltending picture at the NHL level next season? I’m guessing not, but my scouting staff has to be all over him for the rest of this season to find out if it’s a possibility.

6. THE BOTTOM LINE. Pink slips for failure.

  • If the Oilers miss the playoffs this season after tweaking and tinkering from the 40-game mark to the trade deadline, MacTavish and assistants Charlie Huddy, Bill Moores, Kelly Buchberger and Pete Peeters are sacked, fired, gone. No questions. No song and dance. Gone.

  • Jonathan Willis

    There's a lot of good stuff here, but a few things that I think should be argued:

    – Sending Roloson to the minors so that Garon can play.

    Garon's been miserable this season, while Roloson's been pretty good. I think that neither is in the mix next year, so dump Garon and run Roloson/JDD the rest of the way. If the team is still unsure on Garon, play him, but there's no reason to expose Roloson to waivers.

    – Three scoring lines

    It's not that it's a bad concept but I very much doubt the Oilers have the needed personnel. Pouliot and Pisani could give two-thirds of a scoring line that probably won't wilt facing tougher opposition, but everyone else needs some shelter. Thus far this season the Oilers have had difficulty icing two scoring lines, let alone three.

    – Chorney, Eberle and Dubnyk as possible NHL'ers next season.

    Dubnyk's AHL sv% is now .903, Taylor Chorney can't generate offense in the AHL and is lugging around a hideous +/-, and Jordan Eberle's a smallish goal-scorer when the Oilers have too many. I'd advise patience for all three and instead get a solid read on Ryan Potulny, and the other three guys that Brownlee mentioned (Schremp, Brule, Peckham).

  • Jonathan Willis

    shakey wrote:

    Not that is matters in the big picture but why is Brule on the farm and Reddox is playing every other game up here? From what I’ve seen they’re both gritty but Brule looks to have more offensive upside and is more visible when he’s on the ice.

    Probably to work on his offensive game – Brule's more likely to get his offensive game back playing 20+ minutes a night in Springfield than the 7 minutes that Reddox gets on an NHL 4th line.

  • OilFan in Calgary

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    No – its b/c MacT loves players who *he thinks* fit the role he did while playing (see T. Peterson). Time to ditch the Reddox experiment.

  • RobinB

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    I'm not necessarily picking Garon over Roloson, what I'm saying is pick two to keep – do whatever assessment needs to be done, weigh any consequences of picking two and do it.

    I see more upside to moving Roloson. In my mind, he'd be better for Dubnyk in the minors. In my mind, I'm not bringing Roli back at age 40 no matter how well he plays, but I'd like to have one last look at Garon before I decide to try to keep him or cut him loose.

    I don't necessarily want or need to know if Eberle, Dybnyk and Chorney can play in the NHL next season — I'm well aware of their progress or lack of it at this point — but I want a solid read, as in somebody putting their job on the line, tellimg me who WILL and WON'T be an NHL player. Same with Schremp and Brule — crap or get off the pot. Make a call and live with it.

  • Tim S

    I like the idea of ditching Roli and going with Garon and JDD. Imagine what is must be like to be a goalie on this team, if you are JDD you have been told you are not going to go anywhere so you can just relax and rest. Roloson has got to assume he is on the way out, and Garon is not sure what is going on.

    There is no chance Roloson has a future with the team beyond this season. Eliminate the destractions and let Garon dictate whether he is part of next year or not.

    If it appears that Peckham is ready then Staios needs to go. His paycheq no longer equals his play. He is being paid as a top 4 and playing in the bottom 2 and stuggling. Gilbert also goes if we can fetch the much talked about center with some size and face off ability. Grebs can sign a 1 year (not every contract needs to be 4 plus years.)

    Agree 100% with Cole, time to go. Besides the ability to skate shows no sign he is a good hockey player.

    Awesome article.

  • Oilersordeath

    Steele wrote:

    I will agree. This post is magnificent! I can agree with most of it besides firing the coaches. we have a terrific team of coaches here in Edmonton. They are all very sharp, but the fact remains that it is the players that play the game – not the coaches.

    The coaches are responsible for the players to perform to their highest caliber, the Oilers are not!! The coaches are clearly not getting through to these guys

  • Milli

    Nice. Except i too think garon is gone, Roli has been hot so why not ride roli and JDD. But, if there is even a shadow of doubt about JDD being an elite tender, make a trade or signing. We need goaltending, we ain't Detroit (and even they are struggling this year without an elite tender). Love Moreau on the 4th line, the guy is a grinder, he needs to play like it, hit, fight and get dirty.

  • OilFan in Calgary

    Cole should at least be given a chance on the second line with Cogliano and Nilsson. I agree with RB that we need a better third line – what about Shremp or Brule, Pou and Gagne. Then I like RB's fourth line.

  • cole

    Robin, totally agree with you, sort out Goaltending, give Delaurier games to develop because they started a youth movement last year and might as well complete it or wait till free agency and go hard after a big name tender if one is available.
    Defence is too soft. Lubo, Souray and Gilbert are fine but try to aquire a shut down D-man that plays like Robyn Regher via trade or from with in.
    Forwards are to small, and for petes sake go get someone to complement Ales Hemsky for a top line center. The name Jason Spezza comes to mind, if its do able.
    Most important fire the coach, and assistants, get the old boys club out of there along with the belief that mediocrity is alright. They need a new belief and new ideas in there coaching staff in order to completely revamp the team.

  • Jonathan Willis

    @ OilFan in Calgary:

    Last I checked, The GM decides who stays in the minors and who stays with the big club. In other words, Brule's in the minors because Lowe/Tambellini believe that's the best course of action.

  • Jonathan Willis

    @ RobinB:

    Fair enough on the prospects. As for the goaltenders, do you believe Dwayne Roloson (6-5-2, 2.77 GAA, .917 SV%) would actually clear waivers?

  • Rick

    This may be sort of off topic but since you are around the room….

    I don't know if leadership or lack of it is part of what's wrong with the team but strong leadership is never a bad thing.

    Garon strikes me as a guy that simply doesn't fit the build of a leader, but clearly I wouldn't know one way or the other. On the other hand when it comes to Rollie you sometimes hear real positive stuff about his presence in the room and sometimes that he is…well…a dick.

    Long winded question but I am curious if leadership comes into play at all when deciding on the goaltender?

  • kingsblade

    The one thing that I might point out is that if you are suggesting they run 3 scoring lines then it might be a better idea to keep Cole and give him a chance to score goals on the RW with a scoring line.

    Can Gagner play on the left side? If so I would try to run Cole with Gagner and Cogliano as a second line, since Gagner and Cogliano seem to be the 2 least likely to be moved.

    Then you use the 3rd line to try various line combinations/auditions for the trade market/auditions to stay in the NHL.

    Then the fourth of Brodziak, Moreau, and Stortini/MacIntyre is pretty obvious.

    I'm sure that something along these lines has been discussed many times before, but it seems so obvious that I do not understand why it hasn't been tried.

    Why has Cole not been tried with 2 kids? Why have they not even tried 3 scoring lines for even a short spin?

    I actually believe that MacTavish has the necessary knowledge to be a good coach, but I am starting to believe that his pride is keeping him down. He has repeatedly avoided even attempting the obvious, and I can only conclude that it is due to pride. He is unwilling ot admit that his ideas have not worked. Worse, he seems to be shunning the obvious intentionally because that would be giving it to everyone else, which his pride will not allow.

    This team needs a coach who will try anything that might make the team better, not a coach whose pride gets in the way of making the obvious choice.

    Sometimes things are obvious because they are the right thing to do.

  • Gord

    OilFan in Calgary wrote:

    Cole should at least be given a chance on the second line…

    I couldn't agree more. How many points is Cole expected to put up playing with Brodziak and Moreau???
    He puts out the effort – skates hard, drives to the net, finishes his checks. He surely can't be expected to produce like Hemsky. JW did a comparison of stats with Hemsky and Horc with various LWers. If my memory serves me correctly, when playing with Moreau that line was at it's worst. Why would we expect better results from this configuration of the current 3rd liners?

  • Jonathan Willis

    @ RobinB:

    I agree on fence-sitting, but after Garon's start to the year, I'm at the point where I wouldn't trust him in a tandem with Deslauriers. There are better, more certain options on the UFA market this season – a team hoping for the playoffs can't place its hopes in someone as inconsistent as Garon.

  • RobinB

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    I don't like Roloson's chances of clearing, but he's not in my long-terms plans and that solves the three-goaltender problem and leaves Garon and Deslauriers.

    If Garon can't take the opportunity and prove beyond any doubt he's a guy I wan't to re-sign for next season, he's gone too and I'm into the trade and free-agent market in the summer.

    What I'm preaching here in most instances is making a call after due diligence, sticking with it and living with the consequences. Fence-sitting may seem safter, but it also muddies the waters. We're seeing that in spades right now.

  • RobinB

    @ Gord:
    Cole has some trade value. His track record, despite declining numbers in recent seasons, trumps this lousy start. Has he had the best opportunity? No. But let's start looking ahead instead of back.

    Cole is NOT re-signing here next season. He has some value in trading for players to address holes in the line-up. I'm not talking about running him out of town, I'm talking about giving up something to get something.

  • Gord

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    So you are suggesting that we should wait until we are clearly out of the playoff picture before we try to resolve the 3 goalie issue? :/ After 30 games and the team sitting at .500 they won't have long to wait. I agree with RB and his reasoning why Roli should be the odd man out. Don't get me wrong, Roli has played great and a few wins came squarely off his back, but there is no chance to see him between the pipes next year so let's move on.

  • Fire MacT at the 40 game mark if we are not at least six games over .500 and have Lowe coach the rest of the year or until a quality replacement can be found. We can not wait until the end for our traditional job saving late charge with promise of greater things next year.

  • Gord

    RobinB wrote:

    @ Gord:
    Cole has some trade value. His track record, despite declining numbers in recent seasons, trumps this lousy start. Has he had the best opportunity? No. But let’s start looking ahead instead of back.
    Cole is NOT re-signing here next season. He has some value in trading for players to address holes in the line-up. I’m not talking about running him out of town, I’m talking about giving up something to get something.

    I agree with trading Cole prior to year end, but let's give him a shot at IMPROVING his trade value. If Cole can put up 15 – 20 goals between now and the trade deadline, teams will be stumbling over each other to throw picks and prospects at the Oilers for him.

  • Jonathan Willis

    @ Gord:

    Nope, that isn't my suggestion. My suggestion is that since I wouldn't trust Garon with the starter's job next year, and Roloson gives the Oilers a better chance to win this year, Mathieu Garon should be sent away. As to where – I really don't care at this point.

    Play Roli/JDD the rest of the way, and at the end of the season, thank Roloson for his service and wish him luck in Toronto. Sign/trade for a real goaltender (caveat: not Khabibulin) in the summer.

  • OilFan in Calgary

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    Granted the GM does ultimately decide which players get sent to the minors, but I'm sure he doesn't do this in a vacuum. If MacT wanted Reddox sent down and Shremp or Brule called up – it would happen (s.t. any waiver issues as is the problem with the three goltenders). My bet is MacT wants Reddox in Edmonton b/c he can't help himself with a player like that. I really do enjoy MacT as the coach and don't want him to be fired -whoever the GM is should force his hand and make the call.

  • Fiveandagame

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    But wouldn't garon be an attractive Back up for the playoffs? A Low cost guy to be your back up and has some wins under his belt.

    If you were NYR and Lunquist (spelling???) goes down you're hosed. Having a guy who can play and has ant least at somepoint while not breaking the bank could be an attractive quality.

    AS for running three scoring lines I think the Oilers have the skill to do it, especially if your fourth line is Moreau Brodziak and Pisani/MacIntyre.

    Brule should be in the NHL and could fit in nicely on the third line.

    BUT the Oilers do need another center. Willis you've been saying that all year and I humbly defer to your awesomness.

    I personally Think Staios will be moved before the year is out. Either to someone looking for a veteran presence on the blue line for a cup run or a young team in need of stability (anywhere in the southeast).

  • RobinB

    @ OilFan in Calgary:
    Know this: MacT has more influence on who stays, who plays and who gets called up than almost any other coach in the NHL I can think of.

  • Jonathan Willis

    @ Fiveandagame:

    Depends on the team. The Rangers have Valiquette, whose stats line reads as follows for the past two seasons:

    2008-09: 4-2-0, 2.40 GAA, .920 SV%
    2007-08: 5-3-3, 2.19 GAA, .916 SV%

    I dont think that there are a lot of teams in the league who would trust Garon over their current backups (Garon's numbers below):

    2008-09: 5-7-0, 3.38 GAA, .885 SV%

    Then again, I didn't think anyone would sign Andrew Raycroft either (and no matter what the papers say, his .870 SV% makes it clear that he hasn't improved from last season). I suppose Colorado might be interested in Garon.

  • Jonathan Willis

    RobinB wrote:

    @ OilFan in Calgary:
    Know this: MacT has more influence on who stays, who plays and who gets called up than almost any other coach in the NHL I can think of.

    Fair enough. I'd assumed that Reddox over Brule is a choice made by a GM with a long-term plan, because after the gong-show in Columbus, if I were a GM I'd give Brule a year in the minors too.

  • Rick

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    I think Brule is handicapped by the number of games he has played in the NHL.

    He is dangerously close to being waiver elligible so if they are to call him up for any real length of time he pretty much needs to stay for the year.

    It's tough to accomodate with three goalies on the roster.