Are they nuts?

As Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish likes to say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

Fans can only assume, then, MacTavish and bosses Kevin Lowe and GM Steve Tambellini have seen enough in the wake of a 6-4 loss to the Calgary Flames on the final day of 2008 to understand they need to make a deal or maybe two before we get very deep into 2009. That, or check into a rubber room.

MacTavish’s 29th-ranked killing units were abysmal yet again in Cowtown as the Flames powerplay lit them up for three goals in five attempts. No matter who MacTavish throws over the boards, it’s like sending somebody to fight a fire armed with a can of gasoline.

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Hand in hand with that miserable performance, MacTavish’s centres got schooled in the face-off circles again. The All-Thumbs Unit of Shawn Horcoff, Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner and Kyle Brodziak went 25-40 on the dot for 38 per cent (including 7-23 in the defensive zone).

Neither of these issues is stop the presses stuff.

Enough is enough

“We’ve got to find a way, or find some new guys that can kill penalties,” an exasperated MacTavish said after his men in the middle and the PK soiled their straight-jackets again.

“It’s been an aspect in our game from the start of the year and it’s gone poorly from the start. We can’t clear the puck when we need to. Somebody’s got to step up and try to kill penalties or we’re going to have to try and find somebody that can.”

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To be fair to the ATU, the Oilers feeble penalty-killing record doesn’t rest solely with the pivots. That said, lost face-offs and lack of puck possession play a big part in it.

The biggest difference between this season and 2007-08, when the team was ranked fifth on the PK, is the Oilers have lost two key face-off men and penalty killers in Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner.

Stoll, shipped to Los Angeles with Matt Greene for Lubomir Visnovsky, is ticking right along with the Kings. He’s ranked seventh in face-off percentage at 57.6. Reasoner, with Atlanta, is ranked 49th at 50.3.

By the numbers

Horcoff, ranked 36th, remains the Oilers best face-off man at 51.8 overall despite a hideous mark of 8-16 on a night he’d rather forget Wednesday. After Horcoff, it gets thin.

Brodziak, the only pivot to break even in Cowtown at 9-9, is rated 55th at 49.9. Gagner is 118-148 for 44.4 per cent. Cogliano is 107-179 for 37.4 per cent. Say no more.

So here we are. The aforementioned centres continue to work with assistant coach Bill Moores on face-offs after practice. They go through buckets and buckets of pucks on a daily basis. They’re trying to get the hang of it, but the results speak for themselves.

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At some point, as MacTavish said Wednesday, personnel trumps practice and the faces have to change.

Good and cheap

If I was Lowe, I’d be picking up the phone and putting the arm on old friend and confident Scott Howson in Columbus and inquiring about what it might take to get Manny Malhotra.

I can’t think of too many reasons why I’d want a former first-round flop like Malhotra (seventh overall in 1998) on my roster, but there’s no question the 28-year-old journeyman has an element the Oilers need.

When it comes to face-offs, Malhotra isn’t only good — he sits fifth in the NHL with a face-off percentage of 58.6 — he’s earning a relatively modest $1.5 million this season as he heads into unrestricted free agency.

Malhotra is 286-202 in face-offs overall, and he’s a demon on the dot when the Blue Jackets are shorthanded. On shorthanded face-offs, Malhotra is 54-36. The other thing worth noting is he’s better on the road at 59.5 per cent than he is at home, 57.6 per cent.

Pull the trigger

You’d think an efficient, inexpensive player like Malhotra and a chance to address face-offs and penalty killing might be worth a call from Lowe or Tambellini. Maybe — again, I’m assuming evidence of this fatal flaw down the middle is sufficiently obvious — the call has already been made. I’ll try to find out in coming days.

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In any case, even if it’s a long shot, it’s a far more attractive and likely proposition than trying to lure Stoll back from the sunny sands of Newport Beach or watching the ATU get schooled.

The way I see it, Moores can dump rubber on the dot until his right arm falls off and MacTavish can diagram the penalty kill until the cows come home, but it won’t make a difference.

A trade will. Or, at least, might.


  • CurtisS

    Blah. Faceoff % is a minor piece of the puzzle.

    Doesnt Calgary have one of the worst faceoff % in the league. Yet their PK is in top 5.

    Im pretty sure it goes beyond that.

  • rindog

    Robin,

    What about an even cheaper fix???

    Yanic Perrault would come even cheaper and is a faceoff and PK specialist. He could "mentor" our younger players as well.

    Oates got alot of credit for showing our younger guys how to win faceoffs – maybe Perrault would be able to do the same???

  • RobinB

    @ rindog:
    Yes, he's another possibility and, based on past performance, maybe one of the better options. My point is it's possible to get a player who fits a need without having to orchestrate a big trade or spend wads of money.

    And Curtis . . . Blah? You're not paying attention. What the Flames do and how they do it is distinctly different than what plagues the Oilers. If you don't think face-offs are a significant part of the PK problem here, you're mistaken.

  • Sweet Jesus, is there any way to move Steve Staios? He looks like he spent his off-season lighting it up in Vegas and he's waiting for the stupor to wear off. I think rolling him out there 20 odd minutes a night isn't helping the PK or 5-on-5 either. I suspect moving his unfavourable contract will be almost as difficult as making the head coach accountable.

  • rindog

    @ hockeysmack:

    100% agree!!!

    Staios should be getting 13-14 minutes/game (if any).

    We have 4 guys that can log a significant amount of minutes. There is no reason why Staios has to play so much (other than the teacher's pet theory).

    It's the same reason why Moreau is out on the ice with the extra attacker against Ottawa???

  • The teacher's pet thing is more than a theory. How else can you explain why MacT's favourites manage to get fat, ridiculous contract extensions while players with offensive potential get run out of town? Please explain how Moreau, Horcoff, Staios and Pisani are worth their respective contract extensions? Nice frigging core.

  • Love the suggestion of Malhotra – he's a good, cheap, responsible forward who can handle defensive assignments.

    As for Perreault, he's not a penalty-killer. Here are his average minutes per game on the PK the last few seasons:

    2007-08 – 0.43
    2006-07 – 0.24
    2005-06 – 0.08

    He's soft, a defensive liability, and he's never been used on the PK. In other words, I don't think he's remotely what this team needs.

    Malhotra's a better player, but one possibility (who the Oilers could have for free) is Chris Gratton. He's tough, is better than 60% at faceoffs, has been used as a penalty-killer every year since the lockout, and adds size to boot.

  • Joey Moss

    i would contend that it isn't so much a matter of winning face-offs but recovering possession once at has been lost… for the most part, the oilers are too small to get the puck back after its gone. this team needs a few decent grinders (or one awesome power forward) that can throw a shoulder and work the boards to recover possession more than it needs a middling face-off specialist to take up a roster spot.

    forget Perrault and Malholtra, bring back Smyth.