Saturday night’s game between the Oilers and the St Louis Blues was a pretty good test of where Edmonton’s team is at. The Blues are a team starting to look more like the winning team I expected them to be before the season.
They had a great year last year. The club was built of team defence and very strong goaltending. The slow start this year is due to two factors: injuries and at-best average goaltending.
I know teams do not like to make excuses but it is hard to win in the NHL when there are AHL players taking the spots of established NHL veterans in the lineup. St Louis has missed numerous players due to injuries and it has cost them wins, that is for sure.
Their goaltending has not been good. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has brought up young Jake Allen to try and stop the bleeding. He has been good, and they are now working with a three goalie rotation. This does not work. At some point one of the goalies needs to grab the crease. If that happens and the team stays healthy, look out. The Blues will get on a roll.
On Saturday the Oilers more then had their problems handling the Blues. The Blues had a strong start (or did the Oilers have a flat start?). The Oilers were on their heels most of the game. They had a couple of grade-A chances but could not convert. The Blues kept pushing the pace.
I was very impressed with the line of David Backes, Chris Stewart and Alex Steen. These guys are big and can they cycle!!! Almost every shift they were on the ice the Oilers could not match them. Most of the Oilers forward lines and “D” sets took their turns but they could not contain them. So many shifts this line had the Oilers hemmed in their own end. These three big bodies imposed their will and game plan on the Oilers.
The games in which the Oilers have had success they have been solid in their own zone, had quick counter attacks that have led to power plays. These power plays have given the Oilers goals and momentum in wins. The team is not built to carry on in the offensive zone with thirty or forty seconds of cycle time.
Shifts like we all saw from the Backes line gain momentum. They set the table for the next line. Think back to the loss at home against Detroit and San Jose. Both were come from behind wins. How could the Oilers turn the momentum when they have trouble cycling the puck for a whole shift?
Skating through the neutral zone and attacking the opposition blue line with speed is great. The problem is it only takes seconds. When the Oilers get it deep, they can apply pressure but often don’t sustain that pressure. Too quickly, the puck is coming right back at them, into their zone.
This is an issue for the Oilers. Part of me says patience is the key. So many young players through this line up are playing big roles and minutes. Time will fill out their frames to allow them to cycle with bigger and stronger bodies. Experience will teach them how to recover pucks in the offensive zone and then use their line mates to increase offensive zone time and change or create momentum.
The other part of me wonders if this skill is in their DNA. Do they have the ability to play this type of hockey? It may not always be the sexiest game to watch but the Blues did it perfectly and they are now two points further ahead of the Oilers because of it. The Oiler management is ultimately in charge of making this call and it doesn’t get any easier for the Oilers next year.
With the realignment of the NHL, the Oilers are moving into a tough division. Phoenix, Vancouver, L.A, Anaheim, San Jose, Calgary are the Oilers new division rivals. As I write this the Ducks, Canucks and Kings are all in playoff positions. The Sharks are next in line and the Coyotes are only a few points from eighth. Pretty good competition.
Looking ahead to next year I am concerned about the challenges this new division brings to the Oilers. I won’t discuss Calgary because they are not going to be competitive. As an example let’s take a look at the top two centers of each team.
- Vancouver… Sedin and Kesler. Big, strong, skilled and experienced in playoffs.
- Anaheim… Getzlaf and Koivi (assuming he returns). Big, strong, skilled and experienced, Getzlaf with Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal.
- Los Angeles… Kopitar and Richards. Big, strong, skilled and experienced, Stanley Cup and Olympics.
- San Jose… Thornton and Couture. Big, strong and Thornton is experienced, playoffs and Olympics.
- Phoenix…. Hanzal and Vermette. Pretty big, pretty skilled. Older players with playoff experience.
- Edmonton… Nugent Hopkins, Gagner, Horcoff and Belanger. First two have great skill. Horcoff is a very good leader and face off guy. Belanger can win face offs. Horcoff has been through a Stanley Cup campaign and played in World Championships.
On paper these match ups for the Oilers in their own division look difficult. Many of the centers listed are in their prime years on more established teams. The Oilers top two centers are still moving toward their primes. They still have a bunch of upside. They will continue to evolve and they will learn to compete against very tough competition.
Accumulating points from their own division looks tough to me in the short term and the long term if some changes to the look of this team are accomplished. Do you wait and see how the team evolves or perhaps jump the gun and make moves to tinker with the DNA of this Oilers group? I am in favor of patience but then I haven’t been an Oiler fan for the last decade of patience.
The move into the new division will be tough and so will asking for more patience from the loyal Oiler fan base. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Jason Strudwick Defenceman camp
The camp is all set for the weekend of April 6th and 7th. There are still some spots open to register. Go to Jasonstrudwick.com to get your young d-man into the camp.
I am really looking forward to working with these kids!
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