Saturday night’s game in Vancouver against the Canucks was an early season opportunity for the Oilers to show on Hockey Night in Canada that this is a new team. A team poised ready to make the next step and become a playoff team. The game did not leave that impression on Canada or the rest of the NHL.
The Obvious Stuff
It is very early in this NHL season. The Oilers are playing without their two top centers, and as a result they’re pretty green. Mark Arcobello played his third game as an NHL center Saturday, Will Acton his second and Taylor Hall his second this season after briefly playing the position as a rookie. That’s not a lot of experience down the middle for the Oil.
It was obvious Saturday that those three were not ready for the challenge of taking on two of the top centers in the NHL. Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler are very, very good centermen. I don’t care if you hate them, you have to respect their ability. Kesler was the best player of the ice. The young Oilers centers will have learned a lot from the game and matching up with those two.
So far this season Dubnyk hasn’t played the way he would have wanted. The two long bombs and a couple of weaker goals have gotten him off to a questionable start. To me he looks like he is pressing and not relaxed between the pipes. I think he will get into a groove. He is a solid goalie. Two rough appearances to start this season are not making me think the Oilers should run out and make a move for a goalie. That being said I would give him the night off against the Devils. Let him and goalie coach Fred Chabot clean up a few issues. He will be ready mentally and physically for the game versus the Habs on Thursday.
The centers and the goaltending are the obvious issues. On both post games shows so far I have done these have been hot button topics. They have been issues but I see two areas the Oilers can clear up quickly and they don’t involve either the centers or the goalies.
The Less Obvious Stuff
It was obvious this off season that general manager Craig MacTavish wanted a puck-moving group of defensemen. He wanted d-men that would get back quickly to the puck and pass it up to the swift skating group of forwards the Oilers have. It makes sense in theory; it’s better to play in the neutral and offensive zones rather than in your own end. But last night I saw the problem.
As a group the d-men were far too passive in their own zone. A defenceman’s first responsibility is to play defence. Far too often last night the ‘D’ were not being aggressive and taking the puck-carrying forward of the Canucks into the wall. Eliminating or pinning the puck carrier in the defensive zone should be job one for this group. It looked to me like they were following this player around, water-skiing or just containing. That doesn’t work.
I know some forwards are big and maybe the strength isn’t there to man handle the guy. I get it. But then you better figure out a different approach that works. Duncan Keith isn’t a giant but he is great at playing angles, using his stick and taking away time and space. These are skills the smaller guys will have to perfect. The Oilers spent too much time in their own zone; it is the job of the ‘D’ to snub out the opposition’s forecheck.
When the d-men did either pin the Canuck forward to the wall or take the puck away, too often the strong side winger was not ready for the pass. When under pressure the d-man will not always be able to make the perfect pass. The winger must be ready to not only handle the pass but make a play with it.
The winger must get his ass on the wall and stick in the middle to show a target. He cannot take his time getting into position. The defenceman has a split second to make a play, he cannot wait for the winger to slowly get into position. Once the pass is made the winger must make a strong play. Most likely the opposition blueliner will pinch down to pressure him. He MUST get the puck out. This is not a situation where fifty/fifty is good enough.
The winger has to get the puck out. He can chip it out or reverse pinch on the defence. It doesn’t matter how – what does matter is that is gets done. Early in the game on the road or when the opposition has the full court press on the pressure is relieved by that puck getting out.
There is no doubt that Dubnyk has to be better and that the inexperience at center has been hard on the Oilers. Those are easy fixes. The work on the wall by the wingers and in zone play by the D are two areas that need to be cleaned up. These are habits that playoffs teams have.
If I am Eakins I crack out the old VCR today. I show specific examples of guys not getting the job done Saturday night. You don’t do it to embarrass players; you do it so they see with their own eyes what they are missing.
BATTLE OF THE BLADES
I am back at it tonight. Second round of Battle of the Blades. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that makes one routine go. I am really enjoying it and proud to be skating for my charity Inner City Children’s Program. You can check it out at iccp.ca or follow them on twitter and @iccpinfo
Take a second to vote for my beautiful partner Violetta and I after the show.