What kind of team are the Edmonton Oilers? Before you come up with the obvious one-word punchlines, I’m serious. Is there anything, aside from being perennial losers these past nine seasons, one trait, one aspect that defines the way the Oilers play? Anything they can hang their hats on?
The obvious answer is “no.” From where I sit, that’s one of the biggest problems facing GM Craig MacTavish as he approaches another off-season. With the Oilers locked into another bottom-three finish, MacTavish has so many roster holes to fill it’s ridiculous to think he’ll get to all of them with much chance of significantly improving the team for 2015-16.
The goaltending isn’t good enough. The blue line isn’t experienced, deep or talented enough, even if MacTavish has already said that he’s comfortable moving forward with the bulk of the personnel he has now. There are still questions up front, especially down the middle. All this we know and have talked about ad nauseam here.
MacTavish is busy just trying to find competent NHL players and piece them together in an effort to ice a line-up capable of mounting a playoff push. I can’t imagine he’s thought much about what kind of team he actually wants, what type of team he wants to build, how he wants the Oilers to play.
Right now, MacTavish doesn’t have anything resembling a starting point. He doesn’t have one single area of the team that’s strong enough to allow him to build around it.
GETTING IT TOGETHER
Jason Gregor asked a lot of good questions in the piece he wrote today and that got me thinking about the total lack of identity this team suffers from right now and the job MacTavish has ahead of him. What will be the calling card for this collection of players?
Is this a big, physical team that can grind opponents down and impose its will? No. Whether you’re talking about forwards or defensemen, the Oilers aren’t big enough, physical enough or nasty enough to play that way. They aren’t built physically or mentally to compete with Anaheim or Los Angeles, to name just two teams, in a bang-and-crash kind of game.
Are the Oilers a high-end offensive team with enough skill to win games by trading chances and prevailing 5-4? No. Not a chance, even if they are often described as an offensively talented team that can skate. It just isn’t so.
The Oilers aren’t a great skating team. They don’t get enough offense from forwards not named Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. They don’t get enough of a contribution from the back end. The Oilers have scored 188 goals – that ranks 26th.
Are the Oilers a team that can overcome lack of goal-scoring by locking things down with stifling defensive play and stingy goaltending? Uh, no. There’s no proven top-pairing on the back end. No established shutdown stud, let alone a couple of them. Goaltending is a black hole. The Oilers have given up 3.35 goals per game – that’s dead-last in the NHL.
Are the Oilers a team that can mitigate deficiencies in five-on-five scoring, defensive play and goaltending with brilliant special teams? No, even though the power play has improved under Todd Nelson. The Oilers can’t make you pay big-time on the man advantage– they’re ranked 18th at 18.0 percent. The penalty killing is ranked 26th at 77.0 per cent.
WHAT ARE THEY?
The Oilers don’t score enough. They aren’t close to average defensively or in goal. They aren’t killers on special teams. They can’t impose their will physically because they aren’t big or robust enough. Simply put, there isn’t any part of the game MacTavish can put a check mark beside.
If the Oilers were set in goal, MacTavish could concentrate on bolstering the blue line and the forwards. If the blue line was in order, he could find a stopper and fill out his lines. If the forwards were established he could concentrate on finding a shutdown pair and a goaltender. Instead, MacTavish is lacking in every single area. Tough order.
Beyond a stated desire to be a puck-possession team – every team wants the puck – we haven’t heard anything specific from MacTavish and his hockey-ops people about what kind of team they intend to build and the kind of players it’ll take to do it, including those in the organization now.
What’s the big picture, the plan regarding what this team will look like and how it will play the game when happy days are here again? What’s the vision? Is there one? As important, maybe more so, is MacTavish and his underlings in hockey-ops capable of carrying it out?
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.