It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On Friday, June 26th, 2015, the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres got much brighter. The Oilers selected Connor McDavid first overall, and the Buffalo Sabres took Jack Eichel. Both were going to be catalysts to respectability.
McDavid missed 37 games his rookie season, but last year the Oilers made the playoffs and won a round. Eichel missed 21 games last year and the Sabres finished worse, 26th place, than they did his rookie season. They hired Phil Housley as their head coach and while the Oilers were expected to contend for a division title, many felt the Sabres were poised to take a serious run at the playoffs.
So far neither team has performed up to expectations. The Oilers are in 29th place with 18 points, while the Sabres sit 30th with 14 points.
1. Eichel isn’t as good as McDavid, but he is still a solid young player. However, he isn’t a miracle worker. The Sabres have allowed 3.55 goals/game (30th in the NHL) thus far and both goalies have struggled. Robin Lehner has a .902sv% and 3.08 GAA in 14 starts, while Chad Johnson is worse at .885sv% and a 3.59 GAA. They’ve allowed too many goals and they don’t score enough, again sitting 30th at 2.36 goals/game. It is Eichel’s third season and the Sabres are seemingly going backwards. They had 81 points his first year, 78 this season and are on pace for a dreadful 52 this season.
2. The Sabres have been hit hard with injuries, especially on the blueline. They’ve been without their best defenceman, Rasmus Ristolainen since November 2nd, although he is very close to returning. Zack Bogosian has yet to play a game after getting injured in the third period of the Sabres last preseason game. He skated with his teammates for the first time on Tuesday. The Sabres have used 10 D-men already and only Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe have played every game. Bogosian has missed 22 games, Ristolainen nine, Matt Tennyson eight and Nathan Beulieu seven. The first three are still on injured reserve. Former Oilers Taylor Fedun is also on the IR. The Oilers need to attack the Sabres defence like they did Detroit on Wednesday.
3. I don’t think the Oilers are much slower than they were last season. Is Ryan Strome any slower than Jordan Eberle? I don’t think so. I don’t buy the theory the Oilers are suddenly slow, and I strongly disagree with Craig Button suggesting McDavid is the only Oilers play who threatens with speed. Draisaitl is just as quick as Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has speed. Jesse Puljujarvi, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira and Drake Caggiula are good skaters. Yes, Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic and Mark Letestu aren’t burners, but they were on the Oilers last season and I don’t buy this group is suddenly slow. Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell and Oscar Klefbom are very good skaters.
4. Look at Vegas. Are they full of burners? David Perron and James Neal are on their top line and neither kills you on the rush. There are different ways to attack, and while adding another quick player definitely wouldn’t hurt, I don’t see the Oilers speed as their main issue right now. The Oilers lack of consistent goaltending, smart defensive play and inability to bury their quality scoring chances has hurt them more than a supposed lack of speed. Have they looked slow in games they won? I don’t think so, and often when they lose it is more due to major gaffes mentally, not consistently getting beat to pucks.
5. The Oilers responded well in Detroit after their worst performance in three years in St.Louis. Good for them, but it was just one game. They need to repeat that effort tonight and then again in Boston before anyone should think they are going in the right direction. If they don’t bring the same effort tonight then Wednesday was just another empty promise in a disappointing season.
6. They haven’t been able to build on a good effort so far this season. Dominate Calgary on opening night, but lose in Vancouver. Defeat New Jersey 6-3 and finally get the offence going, only to lay an egg two days later against Detroit. Crush Vegas 8-2, but then get steamrolled by the Blues 48 hours later. The one-step-forward-one-step-back routine needs to end if they want to avoid being out of the playoff race by month’s end.
7. I didn’t agree with the timing of buying out Benoit Pouliot. I didn’t like that the Oilers would have two extra years (after his existing contract) of dead cap space. I would have waited and bought him out this summer and then only had one extra year of dead cap space. But I also disagree with the narrative the Oilers really miss him, especially on the PK. Remember that from November 9th to the end of the season last year the Oilers PK clicked along at 78%. The Oilers woes are not due to missing Pouliot. His biggest flaw was inconsistency and that has plagued the Oilers all year. They haven’t lost games due to a lack of speed. They’ve lost from a combination of lacking effort, shoddy goaltending and glaring mental defensive mistakes. When the Oilers play smart and with emotion they’ve proven to be a formidable foe.
8. Kris Russell leads the Oilers defenders with eight points. For all the complaining about Russell he has contributed quite nicely offensively and done so with very little powerplay time. His contract is too long, no question, but I still see him a solid defender. He, like Nugent-Hopkins have responded to the challenge from the coach to be more offensive. Russell has more offence than he has shown the past few seasons, and while many Oilers are struggling to find some consistency offensively, Russell has been quite good in that area.
9. Evander Kane is having a very good season with 12 goals and 21 points. He leads the Sabres in both categories and he is a UFA at the end of the season. He is an excellent skater and he will be highly sought after leading up to the deadline if the Sabres can’t agree on a contract extension. He scored 30 goals in 2012, and had 17 in 48 games of the lockout shortened 2013 season, which prorates to 29 goals. Then he was injured and battled inconsistency on the ice and maturity off of it. But last season he scored 28 goals and has 12 already this season. A scout told me, “He seems more focused, and while some wonder if it is due to a contract year, I saw a more composed game last year also. He doesn’t turn the puck over as much and he is back to using his size and speed to his advantage. He could really help a team down the stretch.”
10. The Sabres PP is 30th at 14.3%. The Oilers PP is 20.7% and Connor McDavid has three powerplay goals, matching his total from last season. He is starting to shoot more and that will make the powerplay even more dangerous, because now they have to respect his willingness to shoot.
11. Our second annual Oilers/Flames road trip extravaganza goes Saturday, December 2nd. We only have 10 seats remaining. Jason Strudwick and I will be hosting the bus. It was a blast last year. Oilers fans were loving it, especially when the Oilers crushed the Phlegms 7-4. All the details for the trip are here. Call Heather to reserve your seat. Get on before it is sold out. You deserve a good time, plus your chances of seeing a victory are much higher on the road than at home.
GAME NOTES BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE PINT
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Source: Jason Gregor, Verified Twitter Account, 11/24/2017, 9:00am MST