It has taken me a couple of weeks to get my thoughts in order about this Oilers season.
Before the start of the season I knew this wasn’t a playoff team. I didn’t see why such a huge jump in points was expected.
The start to the season was a mess. I was wrong about Devan Dubnyk. I fully expected him to make the last step forward to becoming a solid starter in the NHL. Instead he was very shaky. Some slack should be given to him. When Craig MacTavish came out publicly and questioned if the goaltending was strong enough he wasn’t doing Dubnyk any favors.
Dubnyk shouldn’t take all the blame for the poor start. The skaters were all a mess. Their confusion with another new system to understand was a big issue. They looked both unsure of themselves and frozen because they were thinking too much instead of reacting. Mix in a lack of competitiveness and you get the ugly start that you all saw.
I don’t think a start combining so many weak areas could be done again even if it was planned.
After the first twenty games the tide turned somewhat. The team started to play better. There is however a lot of work to do for MacT in this off season.
I will start with what I think are areas he doesn’t have to work on.
The goaltending duo of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fast are locked in stone for next fall. This is an upgrade on what started last fall. These two have some NHL experience but until one of them grabs the starter’s role from the other, the issue of goaltending is still up in the air. Starting goalies are good for years not stretches. Look at the Anaheim Ducks. They have a lot of depth with goalies but are uncomfortable using any as a starter in these playoffs. Depth doesn’t equate to strength between the pipes. Time will tell in net for the Oilers.
Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. This three are at their best when playing together. It is a dangerous offensive line. It is three players learning to play a complete two way game. Back checking is an area I think these three can improve as well as puck management during critical moments of the game. There are clearly times to take risks and time to be more conservative. With their speed a chip or soft dump is a much smarter play then a turn over at the blue line.
David Perron is the type of player the Oilers need more of. I like bigger players but with an attitude like his size becomes an non-issue. His willingness to go to the front of the net and to get into opposing players faces is unique for the Oilers. He is a part of the solution for the Oilers second line. If the day comes when the Oilers are seriously competing for a Stanley Cup he is the third line right winger because of the depth of the squad.
Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Luke Gazdic are a great fourth line. I would prefer to have a Gazdic/Mike Brown duo to rotate in and out of that wing spot. Then during the game give Hall or Eberle or whichever player is buzzing extra ice there. I said it in an earlier entry that on a Cup winning team the Gordon line is a fourth line, not a third line. These guys will do the hard minutes on the penalty kill and can easily play north of ten minutes every night. This gives your top guys a chance to rest.
On the back end Jeff Petry, Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz all played a lot of minutes this year. Trust me, Petry in a NHL player. He is not a top pairing guy, very few are. Schultz improved on his timing in jumping into the play over the season. His area of weakness is still his lack of determination and urgency in his own zone. He is quite often in the right spot; he just doesn’t do enough when there. Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin were both bright spots. I am uncomfortable with the idea such a young group anchoring this group of Oilers forwards. In a perfect world only one starts the year with the team.
Now it is time for the question marks.
The combination of Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov on the second line did not work this year. They both like to have the puck and defensively it just was not good. This line needs to be adjusted. Perron is a winger, and then the other two spots are up for discussion. I am unsure if both Yakupov and Gagner are back next year. MacT would be selling at a low price with them both coming off weak season. But if the Oilers want to make a step forward a change here is needed.
The whole third line is up for grabs. With Ryan Smyth retiring, Ryan Jones moving on and Anton Lander not having securing a spot in the NHL there is a lot of work to do here. I have already said I think the Gordon line is a fourth line so MacT needs to get busy. The best example of a line I would feel comfortable with here is made up of three free agents. MacT would have to overpay for all three. I just want it to be clear the type of energy and type of player I would want on that third line.
- Right Wing: Ryan Callahan, 29 – Solid leader, competitor, penalty killer and he produces points. 36 points in 65 games.
- Left Wing: Lee Stempniak, 31 – Solid player with goal scoring ability, although on the down slide. 34 points in 73 games.
- Center: Nikolai Kulemin, 27 – Solid two-way player. He competes and solidifies the third line with steady play. 20 points in 70 games.
The third line would be a veteran group of players. Dallas Eakins could count on this line to be solid all over the ice along with the duo of Gordon and Hendricks on the fourth line. There would be more than enough penalty killers amongst the bottom two lines; the Oilers would even have depth in that area! This line is probably a pipe dream but it is an example of what the team needs to find and bring in through trade, free agency or the draft.
The Oilers power play suffered this season. The Oilers need to bring in a PP coach that speaks the same language as the top players on the team. Adam Oates would be an example of such a guy.
Watching these NHL playoffs really should open Oilers fans eyes to the level of competitiveness the team needs to get to. There is no doubt that all the playoff teams go at each other harder when the Cup is on the line but as it is built today, the Oilers cannot get to that level or close to it.
I think too often I have used the work ‘character’ to describe an area of weakness for the Oilers. I have been thinking that isn’t fair. A better word I will be using now is desire. Do the Oilers have the desire to do anything needed to win not just a game but a shift? This includes blocking a shot, taking less ice time, playing a tighter defensive game, etc. You get the idea. Just watch any playoff game. Can you envision the Oilers as they are today getting to that level of desperation?
This group to find more desire and more players with desire need to be brought in. Then I will have something to believe in.