GETTING STARTED: A FIGHTING CHANCE

EasyWayHardWay

By the time the end of November rolled around last season, the Edmonton Oilers had dashed any hopes fans had that they’d kinda-sorta contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Meaningful games in March and April? The Oilers were done by December.

With a rookie coach in Dallas Eakins and a difficult schedule that saw them play 16 of their first 27 games on the road, the Oilers did a face plant with a 3-9-2 record in October and followed up with a 5-8-0 record in November to finish the month 8-17-2. Thanks for coming.

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The simple fact goaltenders Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera couldn’t stop a beach ball played a significant part in that. Sam Gagner’s busted jaw didn’t help. Add in holes on the roster that included lack of a top-end on the blue line and you get what we got – a team playing catch-up without the horses to do it for the final 55 games of the season.

It’s reasonable to believe Ben Scrivens and Victor Fasth will provide better goaltending than Dubnyk and LaBarbera did at the start of last season based on what we’ve seen. It also looks like GM Craig MacTavish has filled some of the holes – not all of them – with the additions of Benoit Pouliot, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Teddy Purcell and Keith Aulie.

While we’ll have to wait to see how those additions play out, what we do know is Eakins is no longer a raw rookie as an NHL head coach and that the Oilers have a favorable schedule to start 2014-15. That’s not insignificant.

SOME CONSISTENCY

Consistency

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The shortcomings of Eakins, real and perceived, during and since his debut as an NHL head coach have been duly dissected here and elsewhere. So have his off-season attempts to expand his coaching horizons after feeling his way into the job with 10 thumbs in 2013-14.

While we don’t know exactly how much one season of hard knocks and learning on the job will improve Eakins as a coach, what we do know is after a carousel behind the bench that’s included Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger and Eakins, the message and the person delivering it won’t be changing for the first time in four seasons.

“I think more than anything this year it’s going to be nice to have some familiarity with the head coach,” Jordan Eberle told Chris Westcott of Inside The Oilers. “I think for me, and this is my fifth year coming up, I’ve had three new head coaches now. I think it can be a good thing and a bad thing sometimes too. We finally have a guy where we can pick up where we left off and I definitely look forward to that for sure.

“It’s huge. It’s one thing that really hurt us at the start of the year. No knock against Dallas, obviously. He was coming in and things change and that’s how it is. I’ve had that a few times. It will be nice to have the same guy come in and we’ll have a lot of familiarity when it comes to practicing, the way he speaks and what he expects so I think that for sure will help.”

SCHEDULE SAYS . . . 

Schedule

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After playing just 11 of their first 27 games at Rexall Place last season, the Oilers will play 13 of their first 24 at home this time around, including seven of their first 10 in October.

That, in itself, hardly guarantees a points windfall considering the Oilers were a decidedly lame 16-22-3 at home last season (13-22-6 on the road), but Eakins and his revamped roster won’t have to face a Murderer’s Row or live out of a suitcase right out of the blocks.

They open against the Calgary Flames Oct. 9. They’ll play the Vancouver Canucks twice, the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators the rest of the month.

THE WAY I SEE IT

Thinking

To be clear, a year of experience for Eakins and a better schedule doesn’t mean we’re going to see a 180-degree turnaround by the Oilers in the first couple months of the season, even with the bar set to low a year ago – the Oilers didn’t win their fifth game until November 16, when they beat the Flames to get to 5-15-2.

I do believe, however, that having continuity with Eakins, not to mention Craig Ramsay and Rocky Thompson on staff instead of Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, will eliminate some of the growing pains we saw a year ago and give the Oilers a fighting chance to get out of November without being absolutely buried in a chase position.

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Of course, there’s much more to do to get to March and April with something to play for – I still don’t see the Oilers as a playoff team, even if everything falls their way – but surviving the face-palm that was October and November a year ago this time around is a start.  

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.


  • paul wodehouse

    …it will be uphill for a few more seasons but making it closer and closer to the playoffs each year can be what this team has it’s sights set on …good luck to the Oilers!

  • D

    It’s possible the Oil could go .500 or better against Calgary, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Washington, Carolina, Montreal and Nashville. That would be a decent start.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    i don’t trust the Oilers, so i can wait for the season to start and continue to enjoy my summer. even if we have a good start, i’m worried the Oil will fall back into old habits and fall flat on their face again, with us ending up picking #5 or whatever at the draft .

  • IF MacT can find a legit 2C AND there are no major injuries this will be a playoff team. This is still possible via trade or waiver wire.

    I’m not looking for a high powered offensive center. This guy needs to produce a bit of offense and is solid defensively.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Habs are deep at center. Any one of Plekanec or Eller could be had? Galchenyuk needs to play his natural position at center to fully bloom. If the price is right Pleks would be a great fir at 2C.

    • The legit 2C we need MUST be a high powered scorer. Don’t believe me? Just ask yourself – What happens if Nuuuuuuge stubs his toe in the showers and breaks a bone in his foot ten games into the season?

      Answer: WE ARE SCREWED.

      I simply cannot believe MacT is contemplating running a recent WHL graduate as a 2C in the best league in the world. It defies all logic.

  • Joy S. Lee

    Ah, hope slings eternal with Oiler fans. After watching the shut out against Toronto, the shut out against the Red Wings, the shut out against the Kings, and maybe one more I blocked out of my mind, playing at home didn’t seem to have a positive effect on the team.

    Is it the music at Rexall? The constant cries of small children every time the octane girls take the stairs? Maybe it was Tom Gazzola’s hair, or Principe’s puns? Or it could be, that unlike Krueger, Eakins was not so much into line matching? Whatever the reason (my money is on the Octane girls), the guys need to find a way to get an edge at home.

    But on the hope train, here’s hoping starting the year with Nuge instead of Hall at centre will help the team. Here’s hoping Fayne can take on the top competition, and that Niktin can find his form on the point again. Here’s hoping Schultz and Petry can do better against weaker competition, and not have to play above their heads. Here’s hoping Nail found a buddy, and those two will give the top line a run for their money in terms of production. Here’s hoping Perron can have a repeat performance, Hall hasn’t found his ceiling, Nuge and Ebs can stay healthy. Here’s hoping Fasth wants to make the Ducks look like fools for ever letting him go, and Scrivens has more to prove after a record breaking performance. Here’s hoping Arco will make the most, of what could be his only shot to make it into the NHL full time. Here’s hoping Poulliot and Purcell can help mentor from the wings, play up and down the line up, and some size and experience, and give the Oilers a better two way profile. Here’s hoping the team plays like they give a crap this year, instead of just letting Gordon and Hall and Perron show the fans that at least some players are sick of losing.

  • Beyond some of personnel changes there are other areas that require dramatic changes, if this team has a chance and even smelling a play off spot:

    1. Cut the goals against by 70 goals.This is not only on the tenders and blue line, but the guys up front. { JUNIOR hockey is over ]

    2. Fix the team chemistry, play as a team and for each other. No more fab four, and then rest,.

    3.Puck possession players only need apply for a spot

    4. Eakins leave your dam ego in the trunk of your car… smile and we already know you are not the smartest guy in the room.Make it happen.

  • Burmistrov has said he wants to come back to the NHL. I know he has one more year left on his KHL deal but I’m not sure if he can opt out or not. He did say he would re-evaluate next summer.

    If possible, I’d make a pitch to Winnipeg for him, whether it’s this year or next. Filatov, who is in a similar situation only netted CBJ a 3rd rounder. I’d be fine with a pick (2nd tops?) + prospect

  • A little better on defense.

    Forwards with a bit more size and talent.

    Better goalie tandem.

    Better coaching.

    Equals a few more (6 to 8) more wins.

    The wild card could be how much the top end talent such as Hall, RNH, Eberle and Yak will have matured over the off season. A healthy summer of training and just entering their prime years could be the biggest improvement in this team. I’m going to be optimistic and predict a 90 to 95 point season.

  • Just by the way this is worded sounds like you are throwing Bucky and Steve under the bus, are you?

    I do believe, however, that having continuity with Eakins, not to mention Craig Ramsay and Rocky Thompson on staff instead of Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, will eliminate some of the growing pains we saw a year ago and give the Oilers a fighting chance to get out of November without being absolutely buried in a chase position.

    • The Soup Fascist

      But there’s no retirement game for them to win at the end of the year, ruining their chances at 1st overall.

      Bah, just joking, I was in the lower bowl for that game and after a season of disappointing and expensive Rexall games, that one was great.

      Plus, if you had to do it over again, do you still wish we would have taken Ekblad?

      If we got Ekblad, I just can’t see – given proper development of course – how a core of Nurse, Ekblad, Klefbom, Marincin, Schultz, and Petry, would not have been one of the best in the league in 2 or 3 years. There’s just too much size and skill in that group.

      But now we will have a one two punch of Nuge and Draisaitl for years to come. And if Draisaitl can develop and live up to expectations to be our number two centre, that will be a deadly, deep, skilled forward core maybe as soon as this year.

    • paul wodehouse

      2 players do not a Stanley cup make…Crosby is the best C out there (you can debate whether it’s him or Toews all you want Crosby is right up there)…add in Malkin and you’re a dangerous team. But they’ve won 1 cup. Toews wasn’t ever as touted as Crosby, but throw him on a team with a bunch of other good players…and hey, your team is good enough to win it twice with strong prospects going forward. Let’s not worry about having the best player in the game, let’s get a collection of players, who when combined, make the best group in the NHL. That’s how you win the cup: having the best team.

  • The Last Big Bear

    @sizzay

    The Oilers would do very well to add Burmistrov.

    He is quite comparable to Mikael Backlund, another kid who had difficulty producing early in the NHL, but had very strong advanced stats and passed the eyeball test with flying colours. Best case scenario sees Burmistrov develop into a two-way 20-ish goal scorer, but even in the worst case scenario he’s already proven capable of playing in the NHL in a shut- down role.

    His production even on a checking line at 20 years old was already better than Gordon’s career best, and he’s only 22.

    Really just underlines how many options are out there for the Oilers to upgrade over Mark Arcobello.

  • The Soup Fascist

    “It’s reasonable to believe Ben Scrivens and Victor Fasth will provide better goaltending than Dubnyk and LaBarbera did at the start of last season ……”

    Robin, in retrospect, a 50-year Grant Fuhr and 80-year old Glenn Hall would have been a better tandem to start the year with in 2013.

  • I know its been beaten to death, but all who play know the importance of the centre position.

    Nashville, NYI and Columbus all have extra Centre’s. I believe MacT will make it happen, might not be until 10 games into the season, but I like that he will wait until he can get the player he wants for the right price.

    Adding Fayne and Nikitin allows us to move a dman when necessary (Petry or a younger guy).

    I like our chances at the playoffs, sounds crazy but I just sense we are not as far away as most people think.

  • Our starting 20 look to be improved (save the centre position which has been discussed).

    What is our depth if and when we have 5 injuries?

    OKC seem to be in a re-building phase at forward and goalie and in a position to support the Oilers on defense.

    Big trouble if we have an injury at centre???

  • vetinari

    I may not agree with every move that MacT has made but in just over one full year at the helm, he’s added veteran depth to our lineup, rebuilt our goaltending depth from the NHL level down, held onto most of our quality defensive prospects while rebuilding the D, and allowed Eakins to get help behind the bench with his own coaches. Compared to Tambellini, MacT is a jackrabbit.

    I still don’t think that we have enough depth at centre and on defence to truly challenge for a playoff spot, but I do see improvements. By the end of the season, leaving aside the specific positional issues, I hope that we accomplish the following:

    1. we settle who our starting goalie is for the foreseeable future; 2. we get our defensive zone coverage figured out without embarrassing ourselves; 3. we get our PP into the top 10 of the league (we certainly have the talent) and we get our PK unit into the top 15; 4. we get an identity appropriate to the skills on our team; and, 5. we sort out who our forward lines are after Hall-RNH-Eberle.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      Reasonable view. I think you are right in that those are probably the best outcomes the fans can hope for this year. I agree with RB, they’re still not a play off team.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    I cant wait for the day that we get to see Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle play some playoff hockey going to be exciting. Hopefully not too long…

  • Quicksilver ballet

    With more changes to the coaching staff this summer, than last summer. Could the players learn to just tune Eakins out? Play for a coach (Craig Ramsay) who’ll tinker with the chosen system and play to his players strengths first, before finding fault in them. MacTavish has done all he’s going to do for Eakins now. The players have the power, and after a very poor first impression, Dallas is about to find out how much respect he’s earned.

    The few players that matter on this team punt this all hat no cattle character by Christmas.

    With the same major holes that sunk this team last season still not dealt with. Adding a few role players to the roster will have little effect. There are half a dozen serious contenders in the McDavid sweepstakes, and our Oilers are certainly one of them. Enough of this hope crap. Let reality have its day and focus on landing Conner McDavid. Only he could help turn this gong show around.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      I think you have won the grump of the day award. Even the serious one will have trouble topping (or is it lowering below)this.

      However your observation that there are more coaching changes this year than last is interesting. I would like to here from the crowd (which includes all of the MSM in this town) that have stated that coaching stability is critical on this.

      However, you are inaccurate when you state that the major holes have not been addressed. Completely different goalies, likely 3 new Dmen and abut 1/3 of the forwards being changed out (vs. last years start of the year lineup) says differently. How successful these changes are remains to be seen

      • Quicksilver ballet

        Still searching for a 1st or 2nd line center Eddy. Still seasrching for a couple top pairing blue liners as well. Question marks in goal to boot.

        Didn’t see any of these areas addressed this summer. Tell me the guys that did come this way, didn’t do it for the overpay/money issue alone? What we’ve seen this summer is all of the deck chairs Titanic variety, no? Grumpy or realist, it’s a fine line that separates the two these days.

        • Nuggets

          My point being he has “addressed” the goal tending with Dubnyk, Bryz and LaBabera out and Scriens and Fasth in. I accept we will not know how well it has been addressed until well into the season. But you shouldn’t claim it ahs not been “addressed”.

          The D has been “addressed” with addition of Nikitin, Fayne and Marincin (likely). Again how well this works out remains to be seen.

          The lack of size and “willingness to battle” has been addressed by the addtion of the likes of Hendricks, hopefully with Pouliot and Purcell and by shipping sammy snowpants out.

          No doubt the center situation is a huge hole which will has not been addressed in any meaningful way to date.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            Do you really need to wait and see how this plays out?

            What was needed were a couple 25+ minute a night guys (centerman and a blue liner) Not numerous 15 minutes a night types to plug the holes like they did this summer. Look at what playing Ference 20+ minutes a night has done to fan perception of his game. Andrew is a 15 minute a night guy when he’s effective.

            C’mon Eddy, you’re smarter than that.

        • Nuggets

          I’m still not set on our goalies. Combined they barely have a year experiance. Maybe one turns out to be a great one, who knows. Scrivens has a good attitude and from what I’ve seen some fire in his guts but can he be a number one? Lots if questions marks and turning over the team as much as macT has will compromise team chemistry.

          No hope or dissapointed here yet. Just neutral. Let’s wait until December to see how these guys do.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        While he’s always the downer around here, “Next Up” isn’t really off… There are stil huge holes at center and defence, and both new goalies are unproven. As much as we all hate to admit, Oilers could very well be in the Lottery again next year.

  • Spydyr

    MacT has a plan, I truly believe that. Does anyone else feel that this off season has been the longest in memory? I cannot believe how the time has dragged and I cannot believe how we all made it through the lockout. There are 52 days to go……….I guess there’s no hope for me, I just want the season to start and the Oilers to make us proud. Is that so wrong?

  • MacT could not have made a better pick than Draisatl, can you imagine any other player even Ekblad? He drafted a future 2nd/1st line centreman and Draisatl will contribute this year in some capacity. As far as criticism MacT did not land a top 2 d-man it looked to me they just were not available in FA. When Sammy and Potter were on the ice I shuddered and I think there is an upgrade by not having either back. Doobie killed us last year and we had no depth both situations have been upgraded. I see a better team and I wonder how our analytics are looking based on the new players.

  • The Soup Fascist

    Is anyone else impressed with Yak’s commitment to the team and the city? Maybe it is a good publicist, Igor working an angle or whatever but man, this kid is something else and he seems genuine.

    Hanging with Drai, showing up at the Oilers hockey school, selling Blizzards for Stollery, doing interviews, signing autographs, working out and taking power skating from Pelletier. This from a “non-Canadian” kid who seems to be going out of his way to be a good soldier.

    Maybe I am naive, but I feel a whole lot better about Yak then I did last year.

    I am very hopeful that #10 has a great year and Eakins puts him in a position to be a solid, exciting hockey player.

  • Serious Gord

    Robin you understate the easiness of the first quarter of the schedule.

    Klowe has friends in high places: other than the kings, the oil do not play a team that finished in the top six in the west until Chicago on NOV 22(!!). If the oil can’t get off to a good start this year then what looms in the final sixty could be very bad indeed – especially if there are significant injuries on D or at centre.

    The oiler season this year is like what we used to described the weather in March in Newfoundland: in like a lamb; out like a lion. Or the opposite. Personally, I liked the latter.

    • “While we’ll have to wait to see how those additions play out, what we do know is Eakins is no longer a raw rookie as an NHL head coach and that the Oilers have a favorable schedule to start 2014-15.”

      “After playing just 11 of their first 27 games at Rexall Place last season, the Oilers will play 13 of their first 24 at home this time around, including seven of their first 10 in October.

      “That, in itself, hardly guarantees a points windfall considering the Oilers were a decidedly lame 16-22-3 at home last season (13-22-6 on the road), but Eakins and his revamped roster won’t have to face a Murderer’s Row or live out of a suitcase right out of the blocks.”

      Just because I don’t hold your hand and walk you through the schedule by running the 2013-14 records of every opponent for the first two months doesn’t mean I’m understating anything.

      People can take my premise — that the schedule is favorable in terms of home games and that they don’t face a Murderer’s Row — check it, as you did, and draw their own conclusions.

      I don’t know if you’re pissed that Willis showed you up by pointing out the holes in an argument you made in the comments of the mailbag today – there was an overstate/understate exchange there — but don’t come at me with that stuff because you’ll get no slack from me.

      • Serious Gord

        I’m not trying to get in some kind of conflict – just adding what I think is a very salient point re: not playing but one game against the top six in the first 21 games.

        Has the oil ever had a starting sched this weak? It’s hard to see how it could be much easier.

        As for Willis “showing me up” both he and I overstated our cases. Unless you agree that “… The depth isn’t all that good…” Is an accurate description.

  • Serious Gord

    With Eakins behind the bench there is no way this team will improve more than a 500 hockey team. Burn another year of contracts.Wonder what new invention hes going to start the season with, last year was “swarm” (works well in nhl14) this year its probably what “hive”. Eakins stings me.