CENTRE OF ATTENTION

Faceoff

The old saying “possession is nine-tenths of the law” has been around almost forever – certainly a lot longer than the focus on puck possession stats in the NHL.

While the nine-tenths bit is most certainly an overstatement, there’s no getting around the simple fact that puck possession matters and, it follows, that starting plays with the puck instead of chasing it helps those numbers. It’s not surprising, then, that the Edmonton Oilers, who have been mostly lousy for the last decade, have been mostly awful at the point where every play begins – in the face-off circles.

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It goes without saying that failure or success in the circles isn’t the only factor that’s played into the Oilers being bottom-feeders for 10 years, far from it, but it’s a thing – it’s been a constant since that trip to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final. The Oilers have had countless shortcomings since then, of course, but lack of success on the dot is a problem to this day, even though this edition of the team is poised to break a decade-long playoff drought.

I’d like to think GM Peter Chiarelli is acutely aware of that. From where I sit, doing something about it, acquiring a face-off man who can make a difference, should be his first priority – by a $5 cab ride – heading into Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline. I’m guessing I’ve got a lot of company in that regard despite talk about maybe landing a right-winger or adding a depth defenceman.

FAILURE ON THE DOT

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Despite the vast improvement the Oilers have made in the standings this season as we get into the stretch drive, they remain inept as inept can be in the face-off circles. Today, they’re dead-last in the NHL at 46.8 per cent. The Anaheim Ducks, a team the Oilers could very well face in the playoffs, lead the league at 54.7 per cent. Of course, all face-offs aren’t created equal, but the gap between the Ducks and Oilers is considerable.

The Oilers got waxed again on the dot in Sunday’s 5-4 loss in Nashville, winning just 35 per cent of the draws. No, that wasn’t the telling factor – their struggling penalty kill allowed three goals – but it damn sure didn’t help the cause. Again. The Oilers were just 36 per cent in the circles in a 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals and they were 42 per cent in a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Even in their most recent wins, a 4-3 victory over Florida and a 3-1 decision over Chicago, the Oilers failed to break even. They were 48 per cent against the Panthers and were just 35 per cent against the Blackhawks in a game Cam Talbot stole. Milan Lucic, a left winger, is Edmonton’s best face-off man at 57.1 per cent. Minor leaguer Anton Lander, who can’t do anything else, is next at 56.0, followed by Matt Hendricks at 55.6. Their main men? Connor McDavid is 43.9, Leon Draisaitl is 48.4, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins sits at 44.2 and Mark Letestu is 50.6.

Last season, the Oilers ranked 25th at 48.8 per cent. They were also 25th in 2014-15 at 48.2. They were 21st in 2013-14 at 49.0. Again, face-offs are just one component – you can lead the league in face-offs but if you can’t keep the puck out of your net or score enough goals, you aren’t going to win. Still, it’s worth noting that, dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season, the Oilers are tied for dead-last with the Winnipeg Jets at 48.0 on the dot over that span. This isn’t new. Enough already.

DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT

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Identifying the problem isn’t rocket science. Doing something about it is the challenge facing Chiarelli. Who to get and what to give up to get that player is what the next three days is all about. Most of the names we know, and there’s quite a range of possibilities – not to be confused with probabilities – when it comes to targets for Chiarelli.

I liked big Martin Hanzal, who was 56.0 on the dot this season, but he’s gone to Minnesota. There’s been talk the Colorado Avalanche might be willing to part with Matt Duchene, among NHL leaders at 62.3 in the circles, but he’s a $6-million man, a big fish. Where’s the fit in Edmonton, given the salary cap and who would have to go the other way? Who would Joe Sakic want?

For me, there are three guys that make sense if a roster tweak will do. The name of hulking Tampa Bay pivot/winger Brian Boyle has been out there for a long time. He’s 53.0 in the circles and he’d be a cheap rental – he’s a pending UFA on a $2-million ticket. There is Brandon Pirri of the New York Rangers. He’s 56.5 on face-offs and is an RFA on a reasonable contract ($1.1 million).

The third possibility is Jay McClement of Carolina. He’ll be a UFA coming off a $1.2 million salary. He’s not as good on as Boyle or Pirri on the dot – he’s sitting 48.4 per cent – but he’s a pretty good penalty-killer and would fit in Todd McLellan’s bottom six. The search doesn’t begin and end with Boyle, Pirri and McClement, but I think they’re worth a look. Does Chiarelli?

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We’ll hear lots of names between now and Wednesday as the rumor mill cranks up – there is more buzz today about the New York Islanders possibly being interested in Jordan Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins. Whatever the name, finding a guy who can get it done in the circles has to be Chiarelli’s focus. This is a weakness that absolutely has to be addressed.

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

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  • ubermiguel

    Just hire Adam Oates as a Faceoff Consultant. Have semi-regular sessions with the centres. Problem solved. Second choice: Craig MacTavish. Pro: he’s already on the payroll.

    • Spydyr

      As you mentioned MacTavish is still on the payroll.

      This from Matty at the Journal yesterday:

      “Peter Chiarelli’s right-hand man Craig MacTavish was in Denver on Saturday….”

      That scares the crap out of me.

    • toprightcorner

      When Oates was with the Oilers for that one season, he taught Horcoff and Stoll how to take draws and they went from averaging about 47% to where they averaged 54% for the rest of their careers. Oates could get McDavid and his skill and drive to over 50% in a heart beat.

      If I were Chairelli, I would put Oates on a retainer and bring him in regularly to work on skill with the team. Teach Eberle, Lucic and JP how to finish, Nuge to get his offensive touch back from a couple years ago, Pouliot to do something and some skill to the younger guys.

      Oates is one of the top skills teachers and hockey intelligence people around and has experience for a coaches perspective.

      These are the areas that Katz can throw money at without cap implications and make a huge gain in the skill of this already skilled team.

  • Rama Lama

    How about just teaching our guys to take face-offs………..it’s not that hard? This is the job of coaches, to monitor, identify deficiencies, and find ways to address those problem areas.

    We had Boyd Gordon for all those years, surely our guys were watching him take face off? I think we are letting the coaches off way to easily and I find the notion we have to acquire a player to take face-offs as “letting the current centres off the hook”.

    Here is a simple solution…….make all four centres practice face offs until they become proficient.

    • I’m with you. Always puzzled how a player could make it to the NHL level without being extremely proficient on the dot. Then again, the learning process never really ends.

      Adam Oates made a big difference to the young centres with the Oilers the season he was here.

    • toprightcorner

      If you watch Lander now, he takes the draw just like Gordon, dropping to 1 knee much of the time and now he his a 55% face off guy. These guys need to set up a face off camp during the off season with a guy like Oates.

      The way this team rushes the puck, a 51%+ team face off would make a world of difference.

  • There’s this hot AHL guy I heard about. Plays for the Bakersfield Condors if I remember correctly. Anton Sanders, Coriander, something ending in “der” I think. Good on the dot, defensively responsible, good PK’er and I hear tell he’s ripping up the league scoring-wise. Maybe he’s available?

        • Spydyr

          Lucic has thirteen goals which is twelve more the Lander. Lucic also brings much more to the team then does Lander. Ask any opposition player who they would rather play against.

        • 4000miaway

          Last season McLellan made a comment on how Lander seems to grab his stick too tight. Meaning it’s probably a mental hurdle that he’s yet to cross.

          I’d love to see him centering Caggiula and some RW of decent skill/speed instead of being bogged down on a grit line and playing Hendricks’ role.

          • I am Batman

            Enough with the Lander talk.

            He is an AHLer for life – at best.

            Nobody is winning any Stanley cups with Lander playing significant minutes. Just leave it.

            Clearly PC isn’t too adamant of making the team better this year.

            LA and Calgary improved, Anaheim improved, the sharks don’t need to…. guess we wait….

          • McRaj

            The funny thing is that most of the writers on this website don’t want to admit it but the Oilers are dangerously close to falling out of the play-offs. The team needs help, and unfortunately PC can’t see it. The teams 4 Best players (McDavid, Drai, Klef, Talbot) have never played this many games before. Combine the games with the minutes they are playing and they will be fatigued by the end of the year.

            As much as i disagree with him, Henderson has been on the go all-in bandwagon for a long time and he is correct. This whole it is not our window yet crap is untrue, make the major trades and go all-in.

          • freelancer

            What is your logic that PC can’t see it? The fact that they haven’t made a deal yet. Okay let’s look who has been acquired so far. Hanzal? It would have been ridiculous to pay what the Wild did. Boyle? No second round picks. Trade a 1st plus for Shattenkirk? A guy who has said he has no desire to resign in Edmonton.

            Look we’ve lost a couple games and people are getting nervous but the sky is not falling. Let the next couple days play out and take some deep breaths sir.

          • McRaj

            Hanzal was a dumb price and happy PC didn’t go for it. But could Boyle not have been had for a player like Davidson? I have no interest in paying for Shatty either. But to stand-pat while all other teams around you are gearing up is a mistake.

          • techmage

            Watch how Davidson plays. His hockey sense is through the roof. Last year as a rookie he was thinking and making plays like a 10 year veteran. Due to injury this year he is a step or 2 behind, but that is quickly fading away. Davidson is NOT a trade option. He is one of the future top 2/3 defenseman on this team. I just pray that Vegas already has their guys when it comes time to look at Davidson.

          • Not a First Tier Fan

            Bud – going .500 or just below on a tough road trip where the Oilers face mostly highly ranked playoff teams is far from having the wheels fall off…

            Flames have been on a little run – sure. But did they play Washington? Did they play Chicago? Hold off on spiking that punch with cyanide just a bit yet dude…

            The season will be decided for good or bad as it always was going to be – in the last dozen games where ten out of twelve of them will be played against divisional rivals. Looking at how well the team has done against the Pacific this year I like the Oilers chances.

          • McRaj

            Great hockey sense yes, but as soon as next season Klef, Lars, Nurse, and Sekera all ahead of him on the depth chart. He will likely be taken in the expansion draft, that is why it is important to trade him for a piece that can help us this year as a rental and potentially be able to protect in expansion draft.

          • McRaj

            They have 2 games in Hand so that 10 points becomes 6. I am not in panic mode, far from it, but it seems like too many people think the playoffs are a given and it is okay to stand pat.

            Over the last week, 3 teams either battling with us or chasing us have improved. That is what concerns me.

          • SALAKAN

            I AGREE with you we are not in a great place. plus he already traded the best player after 97, hall. now suddenly he doesn’t want to trade until something falls on his lap. #hemustbesosmartczhehazaharvarddegree

          • McRaj

            Can you tell me one thing I stated that is incorrect?

            Prior to the beginning of this season (recovering from injury), Stone has had numbers of a Top 4 D. the 4 players I mentioned are without a doubt the best players on the team. None have played these minutes or games before, anyone who knows sports or has played, knows fatigue is a factor.

            Careful who you take personal shots at. I ain’t no keyboard warrior so I ain’t going to call you any names, if I wanted to, I’d do it to your face.

            Why would I go hang at a flames site when I am a diehard Oiler. Just not a yes-man agree with everything the team does fan like yourself.

          • “Can you tell me one thing I stated that is incorrect?”

            Well, let’s start with this:

            “The funny thing is that most of the writers on this website don’t want to admit it but the Oilers are dangerously close to falling out of the play-offs.”

            First, you don’t have a clue what writers here do or don’t want “to admit.” Is the suggestion we’re here cheering and hoping the Oilers make the playoffs and we won’t say anything to the contrary? Win or lose, I’ll write the story that’s there. Doesn’t matter what that story is.

            Second, I don’t think the Oilers are “dangerously close” to missing the playoffs. You’re free to feel that way, but resist the urge to state it as fact. It’s not.

          • I somewhat agree with Chiarelli. We have too many young/first year players who will probably get destroyed in the playoffs. He’s obviously playing a longer game. That being said I’m also strongly on the side of continual improvement, if only to give those young guys the feeling they’re not being hung out to dry. On top of which sports is about trying to win, not “losing with dignity”.

        • toprightcorner

          He doesn’t have the wheels. In the AHL, if you have skill, you don’t need speed. In the NHL, no speed makes you almost useless.

          Remember Giroux in the AHL with the Oilers a couple season a few years ago? regular 50 goal scorer and well over a pt per game in the AHL but couldn’t do squat in the NHL cause he was slow. He had about 350 pts and 175 goals in last 300 games. Has over 700 AHL points and 368 goals (7th all time in 5 less seasons than those ahead of him) but only managed 12 pts in 48 NHL games. He is currently tearing it up in he Swiss league.

          If you can’t skate in the NHL, you will never succeed.

    • Randaman

      Ya, he was tearing up the AHL when he was recalled last time. I think that yielded one assist in two games.

      I personally don’t think McLellan has time for Lander. Letestu will take the third line C over Lander any day in his eyes but is that the best thing for the bottom 6??