GDB 82.0: Terminus

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After a long and disappointing 81 games, we have finally arrived at the final contest of the Edmonton Oilers’ 2014-15 campaign. Saturday’s road game against the Vancouver Canucks is irrelevant to the larger story for the Oilers, which has long since been written, and may be irrelevant to the Canucks as well if Calgary loses its afternoon contest.

It’s likely to be notable only as the end of the line.

Final Showings

Viktor Fasth is expected to get the start for Edmonton, and this will almost certainly be his final appearance as a member of the Oilers. Injuries and disappointing play have limited the fiery Swede to just 33 games with the club. This is an awfully important contest for the player, who may have trouble finding an NHL job next season; he turns 33 over the summer, he’s undersized, he’s been hurt a lot and he hasn’t really been all that effective since a 25-game rookie season with Anaheim.

There are others potentially in their final Oilers games, too, though we won’t know the full list until next season. Derek Roy, Matt Fraser, Keith Aulie, Martin Marincin, and potentially Curtis Hamilton (if he plays) are the guys who would seem to be the most at risk of not returning next season.

Products of Environment

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Robin Brownlee put a strong piece together on Friday, one I found myself nodding along with as I read it, a piece highlighting both some of the nicer stories and the ugliness that was the Oilers’ effort in their final home game of the season. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend it.

I’d like to go a little further than he did on the subject of passengers. Watching that game against the Sharks, Justin Schultz stood out in a negative way but for me the most culpable players were on the top forward line for the Oilers.

The trio of Benoit Pouliot, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle is of vital importance to Edmonton. All three are excellent hockey players, and despite my criticism here all three are guys who could play for my hockey team any day of the week. But in a game where the Oilers needed their veterans to carry the load against a veteran opponent, the three (and the latter two in particular) looked checked out mentally.

Pouliot made critical mistakes and was invisible offensively. Hall flew the defensive zone at the first opportunity and backchecked sporadically and halfheartedly, looking more like a 16-year-old winger trying to pad his point totals in a junior game rather than an NHL’er handling the defensive responsibilities that come with playing centre. Eberle’s game reminded me of a scouting report by Michael Remmerde back before he was drafted; Remmerde described him as a “casual player” and if I remember correctly (I can’t seem to find the report online now) suggested he wasn’t so much scared of going into battles as he was at times disinterested in doing so.

I don’t often critique effort level because I think there’s often a tendency to confuse a lack of effort with other things (style, injuries, matchups, fatigue, simply playing in situations a player isn’t capable of handling) but this was one of the rare cases where I strongly felt effort was the problem (and given the coach’s comments, he agreed). Maybe it’s forgivable that at the end of a long, brutal season and in a meaningless game these players gave less than their best. It would be easy to understand, too, if all the losing and long stretches of irrelevance at the team level have made it easy for bad habits to creep in. 

To me, though, these are tent-pole guys, and on any team those guys have to be consummate professionals, players who go out every shift and get their hands dirty.

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That’s going to be something that Todd Nelson (or his replacement, if it comes to that) needs to find a way to address out of training camp next season. I think it’s doable. Watching Hall backcheck and Eberle go into the corners back at the start of the year convinced me that these are players who care about winning, players who are willing to do the hard work to win games. My guess – and it’s only a guess, because I’m not in the room – is that mentally it’s much easier to do the hard things when there seems to be a point to it and that right now it’s hard for some players to see the point (which I would guess is also why AHL’ers fighting for their careers tend to look better at this point in Edmonton’s season than the guys who don’t have to worry about their futures).

Nelson made an interesting comment last year on how players respond to coaching. It seems relevant now:

They may [execute the system], but how badly do they want to do it when it’s May 20, it’s been a long year, the sun is nice, the girl you’re staying with says it’d be nice to get back home? You do it, but I call it ‘discretionary effort.’ Are you willing to go through the wall, or are you just doing it to do it?

A lot of times, that “discretionary effort” has not been in evidence in Edmonton. The players tend to get pilloried for it – and to a degree rightly – but to me it’s one of those things that tends to be there early in the season and that drops off as the losses pile up and the games stop mattering. I don’t really think there’s anything fundamentally unfixable about the players; I just think that this is the kind of thing that happens to young men who have only ever played for a lousy team.

I’m a total outsider here. I watch all the games, I listen to the interviews, I talk to some people who are more closely connected and I live and breathe this stuff but I don’t know these players personally or see them day-in and day-out so all of this comes with a big “for what it’s worth” caveat. 

For what it’s worth: My belief is that whoever is coaching next season needs to come in and convince these players that there is something to play for in 2015-16. He needs to convince these players to give an honest effort from the get-go, and then the team needs to have some success. We just might be surprised how much better Hall, Eberle, Schultz and the rest look if they don’t spend half the season playing meaningless games.

Lineups

Our best guess at the lineups courtesy of DailyFaceoff.com 

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What They’re Saying

From CanucksArmy.com

What a season it has been! When it all began, most of us thought the Canucks would be finding themselves or working their way back to credibility by the end of the season; boy were we way off! There still is one more key game left though, the Edmonton Spoilers are in town tonight. Spoilers…get it? they beat the Kings? Okay, you got it.

Edmonton will probably look to lose this game to try and lock in as good a chance as they can get to snag McDavid or Eichel. That’s fine with the Canucks. Vancity could use the win to solidify home ice to start the playoffs against the Flames. Not a ton of storylines in this one….OH YA, RYAN MILLER STARTS!!!! 

The tingly feeling of the playoffs is among us, let’s just keep this one professional today. Canucks go for the season sweep of the Oilers. Not surprising, but still important. #moralvictory

Predictions

LifeRaft

Game day prediction: 4-1 Vancouver.

Obvious game day prediction: Edmonton’s insanely inexperienced defence corps struggles to handle the Canucks, and the tough minutes pairing of Martin Marincin and David Musil isn’t a match for the Sedin twins.

Not-so-obvious game day prediction: Luke Gazdic has an excellent game. He’s physical, engaged and even chips in an assist.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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