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.
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
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
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?
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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