The Edmonton Oilers are 0-3-1 through their first four games. It’s an ugly time for a franchise that absolutely could not afford another slow start. Where does the team go from here?
This is an extremely tough time of year to make decisions.
There’s a temptation to be emotional, to react to a team that just isn’t getting the job done. Long-term planning and the big picture are all too easy to lose because of the results of a short span of time. It’s important for anybody who is responsible for the big picture not to lose himself in short-term results or the heat of the moment. That’s when the big mistakes get made.
There’s a reverse temptation, though, the temptation to sit quietly and assess. An NHL season is a long thing, but it doesn’t take much time at all to dig a hole which is impossible to overcome later. Sometimes changes need to be made and just waiting for things to turn around doesn’t cut it.
It’s a lot easier for anyone (myself included) to understand that in theory than to execute it in practice.
The Wings: This looked like a strength entering the season. It’s looked like a strength even through the losses. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and David Perron are all known quantities; parts of the solution. Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell are veteran NHL’ers; they’ve looked like veteran NHL’ers. Nail Yakupov looks much improved to me at both ends of the ice. In those six players are the foundation for three real NHL lines, and the Oilers have been using them exactly that way. Matt Hendricks has been doing his part on a defensive zone line, and so far Edmonton’s gamble on Jesse Joensuu looks reasonable. There is depth at this position, too, guys who looked good in camp and can plausibly step in when injury hits. There’s no need to make changes here; this position is the least of the Oilers’ worries.
Centre: This looked like a weakness entering the year, and it has lived up to expectations. Dallas Eakins said his team had two NHL centres entering training camp. The situation’s a little better than that because Mark Arcobello has looked just fine in the role he’s been assigned, much as he did when given an opportunity last year. The guy who isn’t getting the job done early is Leon Draisaitl. There’s no shame in that; he’s 18 years old and given that he’s a worse player now than he’s going to be at any point in the future. It would be easier for him if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hadn’t missed the last two games, but that’s not the reality of the situation.
Defence: This might still be an improved group from last year, but it isn’t good enough. Justin Schultz and his rotate-a-rookie partner aren’t even close to what a top NHL pairing needs to be. Nikita Nikitin, Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference all suffered injuries in the preseason; they’ve played but the results have been up and down and it’s fair to wonder to what degree nagging injuries are playing a role. Mark Fayne has shown flashes but he too has been up and down. Darnell Nurse is 19 years old and Brad Hunt isn’t up to the task of playing 17:00 per game at even-strength.
Goaltender: Viktor Fasth had one good game, then got hurt early in his second. Ben Scrivens had a somewhat difficult preseason and that’s carried over to the start of the regular season. The Oilers’ defence hasn’t made it easy, but the team’s 0.831 save percentage has not helped either.
What Should Be Done?
Bring in an NHL centre. This is a priority. Gambling on both Arcobello and Draisaitl to be able to hold down important jobs was never a safe risk to take, and there’s a lot of risk associated with sticking a star prospect like Draisaitl into an unhealthy situation. We can’t know the full range of options open to Edmonton here, but one obvious one is Kyle Brodziak, who the Minnesota Wild would apparently love to dump. It doesn’t have to be Brodziak, of course, but it is essential that another NHL centre joins the organization to solidify the position. That would allow the Oilers to send Draisaitl back to junior to further his development and to ice four legitimate NHL pivots.
Recall Martin Marincin. Marincin and Petry were the team’s best defensive tandem a year ago, taking on the toughest available minutes and doing surprisingly well in them. Marincin adds some size, a lot of smarts, and another guy capable of moving the puck to the mix. Is he a perfect fix? No. But both Petry and Justin Schultz have performed better when paired with legitimate puck-moving options with some defensive presence.
If necessary, sign a goalie. The “if necessary” part depends on Fasth’s health. The Oilers rolled the dice this year (understandably so) on two guys with good track records, neither of which had proven himself as a starting goalie. That’s a reasonable bet, but only if there are two options. If Fasth is going to be gone for any length of time, the Oilers only option is to hope that Scrivens bounces back, and that’s living a little too dangerously for my taste. If Fasth will be back soon, there’s no need to give up on the position just yet; these guys have each started only two games and have good long-term records. If not, it’s time to phone for Tomas Vokoun.
Deployment. I have no complaint with the way the forward group is being managed. The Oilers came in with a plan and to my eye the plan still seems pretty reasonable up front.
The trouble is on the blue line. The cast isn’t all that strong, but there are some good options here and the coaches need to find two effective pairings. I wonder about Nikita Nikitin, who came back really early from a camp injury – there might be a guy playing through injury there but he and Mark Fayne weren’t getting the job done. Between those two guys, Petry, Schultz and Marincin the team needs to find two pairings and someone to play with Ference. On balance over four games, I’d suggest Schultz is the guy who has played himself to the third unit, but the Oilers could always opt to move Nikitin down until he’s fully recovered and move Petry or Fayne over to the right side.
But the details are less important than the essentials: get Marincin into the mix, keep Petry in the mix, and for the sake of all that is good and holy don’t send Schultz out with any more rookies to play top pair.
Does that fix everything? No; this is a process and it’s going to take a while. But as Dallas Eakins said the other night, it’s a game of inches; any positive change that can be made is worth making and there are a few options at Edmonton’s disposal.
What about Eakins himself? I’ve never been a fan of firing the coach after four games. This team made a choice in the summer, and it needs to have the courage of its convictions.