AVOIDING THE DEATH SPIRAL

DeathMarch

A team as flawed as the Edmonton Oilers is going to have games in which they absolutely stink, as fans here have come to understand all too well in recent seasons. They’re the kind of putrid performances that have you booing the team off the ice at Rexall Place or shouting at your televisions.

Lots of factors can and do play into paint-peelers like that – lack of jump, terrible execution, lousy goaltending, mind-boggling mistakes and even bad luck, to name just five. Sometimes, it’s a combination of all of them. One way or another, you’re tempted to check the bottom of your shoes just to make sure you haven’t stepped in something.

By my count, we’ve seen three of those games since interim head coach Todd Nelson shed GM Craig MacTavish as training wheels and took over the Oiler bench on his own. There was a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a 7-2 spanking from the Ottawa Senators and, most recently, Friday’s 4-0 blanking administered by the Minnesota Wild.

One of the ways I measure where a team is at and how it’s progressing is by how it responds to games like that. Does the team re-set, re-load and show some push-back? Or, as we’ve seen too often, does it, for whatever reason, buckle and skid into a stretch of futility? One loss becomes two. Two losses becomes three and on it goes.

So far under Nelson, it’s been the former.

RIGHTING THE SHIP

AbandonShip

We saw striking displays of the latter before Dallas Eakins was fired and Nelson took over Dec. 30 against the Los Angeles Kings after a transition period in tandem with MacTavish. The Oilers endured losing streaks of three, four, 11 and nine games – a stretch that included just one win in 21 games — in the first 36 games of the schedule.

The Oilers responded to their loss to Toronto with a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. After stinking out the joint against the Senators, the Oilers lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets. They had nothing, essentially giving Devan Dubnyk a free pass to a shutout, against Minnesota Friday.

It looked like more of the same in the first five or six minutes against the Anaheim Ducks at Rexall Place Saturday before the Oilers found their legs and their heads and pushed the Ducks before losing 2-1. It was a pretty good effort after looking completely out of gas against Minnesota.

“After the first five or six minutes I thought it was going to be a long night because we weren’t managing the puck well,” Nelson said. “Once we settled in I thought we played a strong game. Good bounce-back game.”

Still a loss, as was the case against Winnipeg, so I get it if fans sick of close-but-no-cigar results don’t want to hear about silver linings and consolation prizes. Fair enough. That said, there’s no question the Oilers have avoided the ruts of defeat they fell into under Eakins with Nelson at the helm.

IN THE LONG RUN

LongRun

The vast majority of the credit for that, of course, goes to the players. Same thing with criticism when results aren’t there. All any coach can do is work with the roster he’s provided. Right now, to play Captain Obvious, the Oilers aren’t good enough. No coach, be it Eakins, Nelson or anybody else, can turn this roster into a playoff team, let alone a Cup contender.

What I want to see in a situation like this is how the coach adjusts with what he has to work with. Does he tweak his line-up and his lines and defensive pairings? Is he willing to change what isn’t working or does he get stubborn? Is he forgiving to a reasonable point when mistakes happen, as they will, and show confidence in a player or does he staple him to the pine?

What’s the coach’s message to his players behind closed doors when things are going bad and how does he deliver it? We don’t know for sure about this because we’re not in the room. We only know what the players tell us. The bottom line, as always, is results. They have been better, if only modestly so.

Avoiding the “death spiral” as I called it off the top, is just one indicator that there’s at least some sign of growth. It’s far from the be-all and end-all – a team that avoids long losing streaks but still only wins 30-35 games a season isn’t getting a sniff of the playoffs. This, we know.

After the no-show against Minnesota, we heard the kind of loser’s lament mouthed countless times before – be it under Eakins or Tom Renney or Pat Quinn. Players offering up stuff about being embarrassed by their lack of effort and how it’s unacceptable, blah, blah, blah. 

So far under Nelson, one way or another the bottom line is we’ve seen some action to back up those words more often than not. I find myself wondering how that might translate if we get to a point when this roster is actually good enough and deep enough to contend.  

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

  • Jodes

    The team has been more competitive than not lately.Minus its key winger in Hall. The biggest issue continues to be consistent goaltending. Scrivens is what he is. A interesting news conference by Mact this week has me wondering what he plans to do with Roy and Yak. If he intends to keep Roy why wait till end of season to sign him. He went and signed klinkhammer. The way that Yak has played has me wondering if Yak gets traded in a deal that nets he Oilers a goalie(Gibson) or top defensive prospect. If that were the case I’d see the logic in drafting Mitch Marner to compliment LD in the future.Alot of dominoes in place. Which pieces will fall is anyones guess. Petry? Yak? Who knows. What I do know is that MacT has a lot of thinking to do and evaluating to do before the rade deadline. Winning team or not.

  • Jodes

    Good read Robin.. But I’d also include the stinker they played against Pittsburgh in that group with Toronto, Ottawa and Minnesota. Granted The Pitts/Toronto games were the only games in a row where they didn’t bother to show up.

    Yes the team is playing with more confidence, but Nelson can only work with what he has, and after the trade deadline it will probably be 2-3 pieces less.

    I don’t envy Nelson at all these last two months of the season!

  • Jodes

    This team still has no emotion or scrappiness to their game. Getting shutout to your former goalie on home ice is so embarrassing. They needed to play way more desperate and crash the net more in the third. They’re way too nice of a team to play against.

  • freelancer

    Well put. A team with as many roster holes as Edmonton has is going to get beat hard plenty of nights, doesn’t’ matter what coach is behind that bench.

    Robin, if Edmonton does put a different coach behind the bench next year, can you think of any specific NHL teams that would want to hire Nelson as a HC?

    • Right or wrong, the big dogs usually get to eat first. That means if a guy like Mike Babcock is available or Todd McLellan or Claude Julien come open, teams will look to them first.

      Once that gets settled, you have to see where the openings remain and if a relatively inexperienced guy like Nelson fits.

      • Serious Gord

        Katz, klowe and mact won’t tolerate the level of independence any of those coaches will demand/expect. Nelson will be permanent coach – mact will spout off about it by draft day.

        • WTF2

          This resistance to independent thinking and the novel idea of a coach with some semblance of power to make his own decisions is a classic symptom of a management failure. Lowe and MacTavish have each reached their level of incompetence.

          Professional coaches, including Nelson, will willingly consider the Oil as a viable opportunity once and only if there is a wholesale change in the organizational leadership.

        • The Last Big Bear

          I WISH YOU WERE RIGHT…BUT I DON’T THINK YOU ARE

          It would be the easiest thing in the world for MacTavish to say something like “Todd has done an excellent job, and at the very least he will be a prime candidate for the HC job for next season”. MacTavish has done the opposite, musing about getting a more experienced coach..

          I believe that MacTavish has already decided that he doesn’t want Nelson to be the HC next season. The recent improved play of the team is disappointing to MacTavish for two reasons: it underlines how idiotic the Eakins hire was, and it has the potential of ruining the turtle race for the Oilers.

          I really believe that MacTavish already has some kind of weird, “pet” choice in mind for HC for next season. That’s the thing about MacTavish as GM. He is so stupid that he thinks he is smart.

          Seriously, Lowe, MacTavish and Howson all need to be removed before they do more damage to the franchise.

          • R U Kidding Me!

            Possibly waiting for Peter Horacek to get fired? Maybe thinking of expanding the Old Boy’s Club with another player who’s most experience of managing something was their local 711? Hell I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Tambellini got hired as our coach

  • Rdubb

    Yes very good assessment on a good coach with a roster that was developed by grade school student……..or maybe Bubbles.

    I too look at the games and see how engaged the players are…….and it;s fairly obvious they are not as fragile as when Eakins was coach.

    Mac T still cannot believe that coaching has anything to do with it as he continues to spin this as a players issue. I guess he thinks that bringing in world beaters such as Klinkhammer and Roy has made all the difference……..I like these players but that is NOT what has happened here.

    It’s too bad that Mac T thinks us fans are so stupid that we will buy his feeble argument for the improved play of the team.

    If he wants to earn any respect, he will accept his failings, and give credit where credit is earned.

  • freelancer

    That fan scrap at the end of the Wild game should be getting more attention. Fans care so much about this team, and players should have 10X the emotions of fans since they’re the ones actually competing.

    I just wanna see Eberle or Purcell give an opposing player a good slash near the end of a terribly played game, like Crosby and other superstars do.

    Get angry!

  • Jodes

    At the end of the day, there needs to be a drastic change to the player make up of this team. Everyone says they’re not good enough, so adding a few “safe” additions isn’t going to work.

    Trade Hall, Eberle or Nail. Then we’ll see how good the roster looks.

  • freelancer

    At the end of the day, there needs to be a drastic change to the player make up of this team. Everyone says they’re not good enough, so adding a few “safe” additions isn’t going to work.

    Trade Hall, Eberle or Nail. Then we’ll see how good the roster looks.

    • Jodes

      You may get what your wishing for. “Safe” is well safe. But to get this trainwreck cleared and moving again in the right direction may take a move of proportions that may or may not set back this team once again. If MacT does as you want then rest button might be applied to this group of players.

  • Jodes

    Nicholson better have the cohones to get rid of Mac T and Lowe. These two clowns are the main reason to every major issue with the organization. We thought maybe Mac T was more intelligent and a good reader of talent but man were we wrong. He is worse than Tambellini who atleast did not talk out of his rear every time. This team and city has taken so much abuse for the last decade from the hockey world and seriously no more can be taken. Zero faith in Katz to do anything other than rip us off. So the only faint of hope is that Nicholson will do the right thing.

    • Serious Gord

      Does no one remember the day that Nicholson hiring was announced? He effused praise for both klowe and Katz. His relationship with klowe goes back decades and Katz was a huge help with cash and other donations to hockey canada over the past decade.

      His job at OEG was a retirement gift from katz. He’s not doing anything with the big three.

  • The Pittburgh and Toronto losses, the Nelson Oilers had to adjust to the loss of Hall to injury.

    The Minnesota loss, the Nelson Oilers had to adjust to the loss of Petry and Lander to injury (on top of Hall). The Anaheim game was a decent pushback.

    The Ottawa loss was the only real inexcusable #fail.

    It is really going to be hard to compete when Petry is traded. The only real legit experienced top 4D on the roster.

  • Kr55

    This is better than the little bump we had last season too under Eakins. Eakins still got around .940 sav% in his wins last year with Scrivens/Fasth. We were still playing like junk for the most part but got some goalie bailouts for a while last year to get some wins. Of course those bailouts started coming more and more infrequently as time went on.

    Eakins never got a single win (this year or last year) with .900 or worse sav% from Scrivens or Fasth. Nelson has won 4 games now with the goalies having .900 or worse sav%. We can suddenly win some games now when our goalies aren’t spectacular. Eakins teams were always totally goalie dependant while the rest of the team was clueless playing his terrible systems, which always made the goalies job even harder than it needed to be.

  • WTF2

    “I find myself wondering”, is an all too common theme for most Oilers fans. The only thing consistent about the team is its inconsistency.

    I have to wonder if MacT is oblivious to the fact his decisions have only prolonged the teams’ poor performance or alternatively if he intentionally ignores reality. He has to be honest with himself if not with the fans. My guess is the only way he can sleep at night is because of his personal relationship with Kim Jong Lowe.

  • camdog

    The Oilers have won 2 games in 9 against Western Conference teams since January 1. The trend with the team playing good hockey against Eastern Conference teams and bad hockey against Western Conference teams hasn’t changed. I don’t want to say it, but the results aren’t much different than they were to start the season.

  • Anton CP

    What would you expect from a team with half of rosters made up with AHLers? Oilers did not draft well for as long as peoples can remember, the lack of prospects in farm system will always bite when injuries occur. Since this is already a loss year that MacT has no reason to make trades to fill the spots. Only thing left for Oilers this year is to watch this team trying to compete night in and out, everything else is more of just whines.

  • R U Kidding Me!

    McLoose Lips stated that he expects 80% Of the current roster to be with club next season.
    Heck of statement to make when you are attempting to entice some UFA’S etc ! Every one in the world knows the roster and the Oiler recortd over the past nine years.

    Adding 4 new players [ unless they are Price, Crosby, and the likes] joining the current roster of mostely AHL and other Teams rejects, wont take this team to the play offs.

    Any idiot can see that , except the Clowns on Kingsway Ave.

  • The Last Big Bear

    I understand where you’re coming from about bouncing back after losses, and how that might tell you something about the team.

    But I think you’re missing the forest for the trees, when your analysis can draw on three big blow-out losses in the last 3 weeks.

    • Zarny

      Oh I don’t know; not much different than Cgy getting waxed 4-0 by Pit, out-shot 40-18 by LA and giving up 5 G against in the 3rd against Ana all in the last 3 weeks.

      • The Last Big Bear

        I was going to leave this as an Oilers thing, but if you want to make it a Calgary vs Edmonton thing, I could point out that the Flames’ recent performance has been a serious step back, even though they still went +1 in goal differential over that span. Meanwhile the Oilers went -13, and here we are reading an article about how this is progress. Or I could mention how that was the first time the Flames have lost a 4 goal game all season, while the Oilers are at half a dozen and counting, and really the more context you add the worse it looks for the Oilers.

        So yeah, there’s a pretty big difference.

        But my point was not to bash the Oilers. We know they’re bad, or at least we should.

        My point was that this is not real progress. This team is not good enough, Todd Nelson is not the answer, and the players on the ice are not starting the walk the walk after talking the talk. This team has not turned the corner.

        This is the exact same #Visually Improved horse poop that the Oilers have been hanging themselves with for years.

        We see this Every. Single. Season.

      • DoubleDIon

        Glass houses and all that…

        The Flames got beat by teams with more talent than them at present, but the fact is we aren’t a capped out team that should be finished our rebuild already. This season has been a pleasant surprise for me.

        I thought the only western teams we would be better than were Edmonton and Arizona. I thought we’d be on a similar level with Nashville…

        The Flames have been the 2nd best story in the conference this year behind the Preds. I’ll take it as a fan after years of watching the Iginla/Kipper era end in disappointment.

  • Rdubb

    I DISAGREE with you Brownlee, I think that Nelson SHOULD get a fair amount of the credit for the Oilers turnaround, and yes, it is a turnaround.
    You even mentioned the coaching records, and Nelson’s record is thus far heads and shoulders above that of what Eakins was, and although Nelson has a 2nd line C in Roy, he also doesn’t have top quality players like Perron and Hall, and one must remember that Hall was in the top 10 in scoring last year and he was also the top producing left winger, or 2nd top producing winger all depending upon where the Great 8 was positioned?
    Under Nelson tutelage, young up and coming players like Yak, Lander, Klefbom, and MM, as well as veteran guys who are still very young in the likes of Eberle, & RNH have all taken a step or two forward under Nelson. And if you just look @ those names, well, it is pretty much Edmontons young core. Now if Hall could have followed suit in taking a step forward in his play and development, Edmonton could be a whole different team come next year.
    Is it a coincidence that the Edmonton players are now going to the net with and without the puck, they are starting to screen the goalie on point shots limiting the goalie’s view. The players are now starting to go into the corners a little bit more, their PP has taken 5 steps forward going from the 12% range all the way up to 21% under Nelson, now that’s a high improvement isn’t it?
    The Oilers practice habits have improved, the pace of the practice’s has also tarn several steps forward. The D is playing better, perhaps with the exception of Schultz, who, for some unknown reason is playing 25 minutes a night. Why?
    If Edmonton had a bit of puck luck and better goaltending, this teams record would be a whack better than it is. The goalies have cost both coaches more games than one can count, but that in itself is another story…
    And finally, Nelson’s Oilers have become competitive and hard to play against for the most part, they are not folding like a tent when they give up a goal or two, they generally seem to fight back and at least make the game close for the most part, and being competitive and hard to play against is the first step, of many by the way, to being a team contending for a playoff spot and then a team playing for home ice.
    Give Edmonton good steady goaltending night in and night out next season, along with a their top 3 pick, and perhaps we won’t be having these conversations so early next season…
    The players seem to like Nelson, and they seem to trust him too, and importantly, they are for the most part buying in to what he is trying to sell.
    The WORST thing for this young and fragile Oilers team is to go through yet another coaching change when the right man for the job already seems to be there. A guy WHO SHOULD HAVE HAD this job a year and a half ago. And next to a #1 goalie and getting a legit #1 or 2 d-man, keeping Nelson may be the import move MaT does this off season?
    Just a thought

    • If you’ve been following along, you know I do give Nelson his share of the credit, so you don’t actually disagree with me at all.

      In recent weeks I’ve written many of the same things you just did. You need to try to pick up some of the subtleties before bashing off a comment.

      “So far under Nelson, one way or another the bottom line is we’ve seen some action to back up those words more often than not. I find myself wondering how that might translate if we get to a point when this roster is actually good enough and deep enough to contend.”

      I like Nelson, but the team isn’t good enough to contend unless the roster changes.

      • DoubleDIon

        Agreed. Roster is the issue. Do you give the keys to the same group that has had them though and built the present roster or bring in a new perspective? Coaching is immaterial at this point. If 2 of the following 4 positions aren’t addressed in the offseason it will be the same next year.

        1. Legitimate starter in net.
        2. Legitimate 2nd line center
        3. Legitimate #1 defenseman.
        4. Legitimate #2 defenseman.

        It’s reasonable to expect management to address 2 of the main 4 holes on the roster. The draft gets you one of them. The other needs to be acquired by trade.

    • DoubleDIon

      You make some good points.

      My concern is that for many years we’ve seen the Oiler’s finish the season with some promise only to revert back the following season. What they do between now and end of the season is just noise.

      I’ll cheer for the noise, but remain pessimistic till Oct/Nov.