It seems an odd thing to be harping on defensive conscience after a game where the Oilers held Calgary to a single goal through regulation. Yet, here I am, doing just that.
The guy in the picture is Mark Arcobello. I remember, early into his AHL career, watching him play the wing and thinking he was stuck there because he didn’t have the defensive ability to play at his more natural centre position. He was just an itty bitty forward with good but not spectacular offensive skills, and his tendency to cheat for offence was going to be the death of him as an NHL’er.
Somewhere in the years since then, Arcobello hasn’t just stopped going all in for points. He’s decided to do all the little things right. Pound-for-pound, there isn’t a more physical player on the team; every time it makes sense to finish a hit he does. The next physical battle he walks away from in the NHL will be the first one. He wins faceoffs.
And when the puck starts going the wrong way he’s on his horse and chasing after it.
Sam Gagner’s a popular whipping boy these days, and there is no mystery as to why, Two terrible plays with the puck tonight demonstrated a big part of the problem: his beautiful breakout pass on the power play to set-up a Flames short-handed chance in the first, a lazy pass into traffic in the second that might have been a goal against had the puck not been lucky enough to find Blair Jones.
But it’s more than that, and while Gagner’s a favourite target there’s a malaise that seems to afflict almost the entire lineup, including the stars. Jordan Eberle impressed as a rookie with his attention to detail; somewhere in the time since he’s gotten negligent in his own end and prone to making bizarre choices with the puck in the defensive zone. Justin Schultz has been cheating for goals since day one and seems unable to break the habit. Even Taylor Hall, a guy who drives results, seems far more engaged from the offensive blue line in than he does elsewhere on the ice and has a nasty habit of flying the defensive zone well before the Oilers have a clear exit route for the puck.
It’s hard to watch a guy like Arcobello on one shift – a guy who probably isn’t going to be a pivotal part of the Oilers future – and then watch one of the young stars on the next and know that the former is playing a 200-foot game and the latter are looking to fly the zone at the first opportunity.
Maybe it’s the losing, maybe it’s the fact that every coach the team has had has preached a different brand of hockey and the none of them lasted long enough to have a permanent effect, or maybe it’s something else entirely.
But Dallas Eakins has to figure out a way to fix it. He’s taken a hard line with the depth guys, and healthy-scratched second-tier people like Jeff Petry and Anton Belov and even the less-established Nail Yakupov. But the guys at the top end of the lineup keep getting fed primo ice-time, even when other options exist, and they’re the ones that really need to get the message if the Oilers are ever going to contend in something other than the draft lottery.