I don’t know if that 8-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday represented rock bottom for the Edmonton Oilers in what’s been an unquestionably terrible start to the season, but it’s as close to it as I’ve seen since Dallas Eakins was strutting around behind the bench and getting pissy with Taylor Hall over a little spilled water.
That no-show in the Show Me State prompted coach Todd McLellan to criticize his team for being second-best in virtually every aspect of the game. It caused TSN analyst Craig Button to rip GM Peter Chiarelli for the way he’s built this edition of the Oilers. In the name of equal time, Mark Spector over at Sportsnet carved the Oilers a new one, calling them quitters.
Much of the criticism directed the Oilers’ way — the big picture stuff by Button and the narrative about Tuesday’s game — was fair comment and richly deserved as they dropped to 7-12-2. A lot of that venom was still present when the puck dropped against the Detroit Red Wings last night. I can only imagine the uproar around town today had the Oilers gone as timidly and indifferently as they had the night before.
Instead, the Oilers drubbed the Red Wings 6-2 and looked pretty good doing it. They got goals from six different players and a solid night from Cam Talbot in the crease, as they improved to 4-5-2 on the road and 8-12-2 overall. When you sit in the standings where the Oilers do, one win does not a turnaround make — not even close. It doesn’t mean the team is built properly. It doesn’t mean the Oilers are on their way. There have been far too many wild swings in performance already this season to believe that. I did, however, come away with three thoughts. Here they are.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Talbot hasn’t been good enough this season. He faced the Red Wings having allowed 17 goals in his previous five appearances. He’d been under .900 in save-percentage in three of those five games. All told, Talbot has been under the pedestrian .900 mark in nine of his appearances. Not the stuff we came to expect of him after last season, when he was .919.
While Talbot’s been pretty good, very good actually, at owning subpar performances, that wears thin after a while. At some point, Talbot has to play better than the guy at the other end of the rink, and that hasn’t happened enough this season. He has to make not only the big save, but the timely save. He managed that against the Red Wings despite allowing the first goal and giving up one on a bad bounce on a night he made 20 saves.
I’m of the mind that Talbot has earned enough rope to be given the chance to play himself back to where he was last season. That’s a process that can be frustrating for fans, mostly because of the hole the Oilers have dug themselves early. The Oilers need wins to stay in the playoff race and I understand the sentiment that has some fans saying,” Get him out of there” if he’s struggling. That said, getting Talbot right gives the Oilers their best chance to win, even with the inevitable bumps in the road.
THAT BIG KID
As difficult as it’s been to watch Oscar Klefbom struggle mightily at times this season after what looked like a breakout campaign a year ago, it’s been an absolute delight to watch Darnell Nurse’s game grow in leaps and bounds this season. We saw more of that against the Red Wings. After scoring against the Blues Tuesday, Nurse got another in Detroit — the long shot he pumped at the net was no masterpiece, but it beat Jimmy Howard to tie it 1-1 on a night when he led all Oilers in ice time with 25:27.
It’s never going to be about offensive numbers for Nurse, who has 2-5-7 in his 22 games, but we’re watching a young D-man grow into the minutes he’s being given. I’m not sure he’s a regular 25-minute per night guy, at least not yet, but he’s knocked off a lot of the rough edges that limited him in previous seasons. He makes better decisions, he moves the puck smartly and he’s playing with more control while maintaining the physical edginess that’s a big part of his game.
Nurse hasn’t even hit the 150-game mark (137 games) yet, so there’s plenty of room for him to grow — there’s no guarantee that happens of course, but even if he stays right where he is now he’s no worse than a second-pairing guy. When Klefbom gets himself sorted out, and he will, I’ll take a top-four that has him, Nurse, Adam Larsson and Andrej Sekera in it.
As is the case with Talbot trying to regain his form, it would probably be far easier for 19-year-old sophomore Jesse Puljujarvi to establish himself and find his place in the line-up without every game at this point feeling like a must-win situation. There’s a happy medium between easing in and the team having to play catch-up in the standings with its collective hair on fire, but the big Finn does not have that luxury right now.
That said, the one-timer Puljujarvi blew past Petr Mrazek to make it 6-2 was a thing of beauty. We won’t know for a long while yet if Puljujarvi will be a big-time goal-scorer, but he damn sure looked like it on that goal. Confidence can go a long way for a kid trying to make his way into the best league on the planet as Puljujarvi is, and goals like that will do nothing but help.