The Oilers are 3-8-1 in their last 12 games, but due to a hot streak at the beginning of December the Oilers are still above .500 in their last 18 games (9-8-1). Considering they won their first five games in December without Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov and Benoit Pouliot, and then lost Oscar Klefbom in the fifth game and still won their sixth, was rather remarkable.
I’d argue Klefbom’s injury has impacted the team more than McDavid’s (I will explain later), and his injury combined with an atrocious powerplay and some bad luck this past weekend has the Oilers once again on the brink of falling out of the playoff race.
The Oilers have 37 points and sit five points behind third place Vancouver, with Anaheim (41) San Jose and Calgary (40) sandwiched in between. The Sharks have four games in hand on the Oilers, while the Flames have three, the Ducks two and Canucks one.
The Oilers have seven games before the All-Star break and the return of Connor McDavid, most likely on February 2nd. The main issue is they play five of those seven games on the road and the Oilers are a league-worst 5-14-2 on the road. They have been outscored 67-39, and most alarming is they are -26 in GF/GA EV ratio away from home at 30-56.
I felt the Oilers actually played well enough to win both games this weekend. Surrendering three own goals, all in the third period, in the 3-2 loss to the Lightning was an extreme case of bad luck. The Oilers had ample opportunities in the first 40 minutes to lead by three or four goals, but they couldn’t finish and then had no puck luck in the final frame.
Last night they held the Panthers to only 14 shots, but they still lost 2-1. Darnell Nurse coughed up the puck at the offensive blueline, and Jaromir Jagr scored, even though he mishandled the puck on the deke and it slid between Cam Talbot’s pads. The Oilers didn’t allow the Panthers to generate much, but outside of Taylor Hall in the first 35 minutes the top-two lines generated very little.
The NHL’s head-scratching offside review once again backfired on them. Hall and Draisaitl had an electrifying rush ending in a Hall goal negated on video review. It was offside, but how many rushes are blown dead that are onside? The rule negates offence, because once the play is blown dead it is over, even if the player wasn’t offside.
The Panthers scored 25 seconds later to make it 2-0, and the Oilers couldn’t recover.
The power play and offensive players were more of a factor than defensive woes this weekend. It is obvious to anyone who watches that the major weakness of the Oilers is their blueline. Klefbom’s injury has forced them to use Brandon Davidson or Mark Fayne in the top-four and they simply aren’t capable of playing those minutes for long stretches. Davidson can fill in for a short time, but it is asking too much of him to be a regular 20 minute D-man.
The defence wasn’t the main issue last night. The PP and specifically the top-two lines were unable to score.
Since the beginning of December the PP is 5-for-47, and during their past 12 games where the team has gone 3-8-1 the PP is 3 for 31, and the top players have struggled at EV.
Here is a look at the top two lines since December 1st.
Hall: 7-9-16 in 18 games.
Pouliot: 4-2-6 (in ten games).
The numbers don’t look bad over that time span, but here are their numbers over the last 12 games.
Pouliot 4-2-6 (ten games)
The Oilers’ top-two centres have combined for zero goals. Mark Letestu has 3-1-4 in the past 12 games and he was the Oilers’ best player last night. It is difficult to win when your top-two centres are struggling to score.
“Our powerplay has to get better,” said head coach Todd Mclellan. “With the talent we can put on the ice and the production that they get…the ten to twelve guys who play on the powerplay have to take individual responsibility and right now I think it is somebody else’s issue instead of mine and that (mindset) has to get better,” continued McLellan.
Yes, the Oilers could use a defender with a great shot, but they don’t have one right now, and in the past this team has still produced on the PP without one. They need to work harder and be more determined on the PP. As McLellan said they can’t wait for the other guy to do something, they need to be assertive.
The most notable player struggling on the PP is Jordan Eberle. He only has three PP points in 30 games. His EV scoring is at basically the same pace as past seasons, but his PP production is in the ditch. He needs to be more assertive, but the PP needs to involve him more than it has. They need to put him on the left wall, closer to the net, not up high.
In 2013/2014, Eberle had 20 PP points and 44 EV points and 1 SH point in 80 games.
In 2014/2015 he had had 21 PP points and 42 EV points in 81 games.
He led the Oilers in PP scoring last year with 21 while RNH had 14 and Purcell and Justin Schultz had 12. They year before he was tied with RNH with 20.
He needs to demand the puck more and when he has it he needs to make more plays. This is not a “soft” issue with Eberle. His EV scoring is at same pace as last two seasons, and there are more battles 5×5 than when on the PP. I would look at moving him positions, and also ask him to be more assertive with the man advantage.
- Leon Draisaitl has hit a bit of a dry spell and doesn’t look as assertive on the ice. Often a slump coincides with a drop in confidence. It happens to most players — it even impacted Sidney Crosby earlier this year. I asked McLellan what he says to young players in a slump.
“Individuals have to sit back and say why am I not confident? What am I not doing? I will take Leon out of this and just refer to any player. If you were playing well and feeling good, and all of a sudden three games later you don’t (feel good) what changed? The ice surface is the same size. You are probably playing with the same linemates, you haven’t gotten faster, stronger, you probably aren’t a lot weaker, so what changed?
“You don’t just go to the mall and lose your confidence. You do things sloppily, slower, you do things softer. Go back and watch games when you thought you had confidence and players will see a big difference in how they play,”
- Nail Yakupov declared himself ready to play. He has missed 21 games so he’ll likely have need a few games to get caught up to the pace of play. I’m curious where McLellan will play him.
- The Oilers/Panthers game was unusually physical considering these teams aren’t rivals. It was an entertaining game. There was plenty of big hits, with two of them resulting in fights. The Oilers were physical, especially Eric Gryba and Matt Hendricks, which isn’t a surprise because both are comfortable playing that way. My concern last night was the lack of response when Gudbranson hammered Hall. It was a hard, clean hit and Hall was fine, but my concern is no one on the ice even glanced at Gudbranson.
This does not happen on other teams. When their star player is hit someone at least goes over and says something. It doesn’t have to be a fight, but the reaction to the Panthers team after one or their players was hit hard was completely opposite to the Oilers. Nick Bjugstad and Logan Shaw engaged Gryba and Hendricks. It was the first NHL fight for both of them against two veterans.
In the Panthers dressing room after the game Bjugstad had a cut on his head from his visor, but the teammates I talked to were proud of their teammates for going out of their comfort zone. It takes courage and when more players in the room are willing to go out of their comfort zone it galvanizes a team.
- Going out a comfort zone doesn’t only mean fighting. It can be selling out and blocking a shot for a star forward. Taking a hit to make a play. Going to the tough areas on the ice repeatedly and be willing to accept some physical punishment. It is about not hesitating, and my issue with the Oilers is they still have too many players who are hesitant to go outside their comfort zone.
- Being physical is one just aspect of stepping outside your comfort zone, but watch how winning teams respond when their best player gets hit. It doesn’t always result in a fight, in fact most often it doesn’t nowadays, but those teams possess a pack mentality of two or three players getting in the face of the hitter. Winning teams are unified. Watch the Blackhawks. When someone gets in Patrick Kane’s face his teammates, whoever is on the ice, are quick to defend him. The Oilers don’t do that, and for those not named Nurse, Gryba or Hendricks it doesn’t come naturally. I don’t think anyone is expecting them to become a goon squad, but when you get out of your comfort zone you grow as a player.
- Before you claim the Oilers couldn’t afford an instigator, I’m pretty certain the Panthers were leading 2-1 when Hendricks rocked Aaron Ekblad. Brian Campbell cross-checked him and then Shaw skated after Hendricks, who didn’t need an invitation to drop the mitts. Earlier this season when Jujhar Khaira delivered a heavy hit behind the net, Brendon Dillon went after him and did not receive an instigator. If you want to respond you can do so without guaranteeing an instigator penalty.
- The other aspect is the mental warfare of the game. When the opposition watches the Oilers do nothing when one of their stars is mistreated (Hall is recent example, but you’ve all seen it happen to Draisaitl, RNH, McDavid and others), it makes them believe they have an advantage. Teams sense weakness, whether it be the inability to move the puck up ice effectively or the unwillingness to stand up for a teammate.
- The Oilers have become better an agitating other teams. Hendricks never needs an invitation to play physical. His hit on Ekblad was not a response to the Hall hit. Hendricks forechecks hard every game. Khaira did it, Nurse does it, Gryba does and that is great, but many others still struggle with the reaction when a hit occurs. That “in the moment” situation.
Gudbranson said this after the game: “It is tough to go out and fight. It takes courage to stand up for yourself and your teammates, but when you see more guys willing to do it, especially guys who don’t do it regularly, it picks up your team. It makes you a closer team and you feel you can trust your guys in any situation.”
- I’m not suggesting a wolfpack mentality is the main reason the Oilers are losing, far from it, but it is another area the team needs to improve. As McLellan said earlier about the PP struggles and the mindset that it is someone else’s problem, the same can be said for standing up in the moment. The onus is on each player to be ready and willing to stand up to the opposition.
- Oscar Klefbom’s hand is healed, but he still isn’t back skating. I’ve discovered he has an infection in his leg. It is not a groin injury and definitely not a concussion. It sounds like some sort of staph infection. There is no definite timeline for his return because it impossible to predict how long it will take his body to rid itself of the infection. Some can be very serious, so the Klefbom and the Oilers have no choice but to be very careful.
Recently by Jason Gregor:
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- A Conversation with Zack Kassian
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- GDB 41.0: Halfway mark
- Looking ahead and a sincere Thank You
- Draisaitl’s work in summer pays off in November and December
- Are three scoring lines realistic?