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Theories why the Oilers are losing

As the Oilers’ struggles continue, everyone is looking for answers. Men naturally like to be problem solvers. Most wise married men have learned when your wife discusses her frustration, it is best to just say, “I understand how that could upset you,” instead of beginning with, “Why don’t you try this,” or “I think you should do this.”

Men naturally want to solve the problem, and thankfully sports isn’t like a relationship. I’m sure for many fans cheering for your team can cause much more frustration and angst than any relationship you’ve been in, especially when your team is underachieving.

The Oilers sit in 29th place. They are eight points out of a playoff spot on December 8th. Without question they are the most disappointing team in the NHL.

So what is the problem?

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There are many, and as the losses mount I’ve read and heard many theories as to why the Oilers are back in Suckville.

1. The Oilers are too slow and they lost too much skill up front.

It has been talked about all season. They definitely aren’t the fastest team in the NHL. Are they slower than last season? Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Eberle and David Desharnais are gone. They’ve been replaced by Ryan Strome, Jujhar Khaira and Mike Cammalleri. Speed-wise, I’d say Khaira versus Pouliot, Strome versus Eberle and Cammalleri versus Desharnais are pretty close. On defence, Andrej Sekera is out and he’s been replaced by Eric Gryba. For sure a downgrade in speed.

The thing is, however, the Oilers are scoring goals 5×5 at the exact same rate as last year. The Oilers scored 2.02 5×5 goals/game last year. This year they have 2.03 per game. Their lack of speed isn’t hindering them from scoring goals. However, the biggest difference is their ability to defend at 5×5. Last year they allowed 1.70 goals/game at 5×5. This season it is at 2.59 — a massive swing.

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Sekera’s absence plays a part, without question, but their inability to defend has killed them. Also, they’ve reinserted the “five-star” giveaway back into their play. The Oilers didn’t give up many “easy” goals last year, but this year bad decisions at the offensive blueline have led to transition goals and bad decisions defensively have led to easy goals. I’d argue those are mental errors more than lack of speed.

I don’t think the Oilers are much slower than last year, but it is accurate to say they aren’t any quicker. Speed could be a factor, especially if we believe the league overall is quicker. How come they can score at the same rate, but are getting crushed defensively at even strength? I don’t know the exact answer, but I’m certain goaltending and bad decision making has cost them. Also the fact Peter Chiarelli admitted in May he would give more opportunities to his young D-men hasn’t helped. Darnell Nurse has been very good, but Oscar Klefbom and Matt Benning, and even Adam Larsson to a smaller extent, have struggled. It would have helped to add another veteran defender (not Yohann Auvitu) as a security blanket to help in case not all the young D-men took a step forward.

2. The coach has lost the room.

This gets tossed out when a team is losing. The team loved the coach in May, and if after 28 games, during which they’ve dealt with adversity, the team suddenly is tuning out the coach, then I’d be concerned with the level of competitiveness inside the dressing room. It is hard to prove or disprove this theory, since none of us are in the room when the coach addresses the players. When teams start to tune out a coach, it is usually when the best players aren’t on the same page as the coach. I’d be shocked if McDavid feels this way. I think this theory is often tossed out, hoping a coaching change can solve all the woes, but often there isn’t much to it.

3. The Oilers room is dysfunctional.

Again, extremely difficult to say when we are not a player on the team. I see the players interact on a small scale, but that is only a glimpse. They aren’t a very vocal group, but they weren’t last year, either. They have a few personalities, and while they might miss the Rah-rah chats of Matt Hendricks, it is difficult to say what has changed.

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We can go off what we see on the ice, and the Oilers have too often come out flat. They have been outscored 31-23 in the first period. Only Montreal has allowed more first period goals. Last year the Oilers outscored teams 71-66 in the first period. They were +14 (88-74) in the second period and +15 (78-63) in the third. They didn’t crush teams in the first period, but they weren’t down early like they have been this year.The Oilers have allowed a goal on the first shot of the game four times, the second shot four time and shots three-five another four times. Would lack of focus or preparation be an issue?

When you are down that quickly, that often, it is safe to say it is a concern. Many former NHL players have told me the coach’s job is to provide you with enough information so you aren’t surprised by how a team attacks or defends. That is the preparation a coach can do, but the mental and physical preparation falls on the players. The movies show coaches having the great motivational speeches prior to games, but that isn’t reality 82 games a year. Players, past and present, from many different teams, tell me a big rah-rah speech from a coach is rare.

So why are the Oilers such slow starters? I’ve asked them and they all respond with a similar, “If I knew the answer, I’d get us to change.”We’ve seen major errors in the first five minutes of the game occur too often this year. Are they trying too hard? Thinking too much? I don’t know, but they definitely don’t have the same swagger they had last season.

4. The GM misused the cap.

I believe he did. I recognize it is hard to sign players to one-year deals in free agency, especially early on, but sitting with over $7 million in cap space doesn’t make much sense to me. When McDavid’s contract kicks in next season, I understand it will impact the cap, but that is next year. Sure, it might be difficult to manage the cap this year, but that is one of the main jobs of the GM. Saying it is difficult is accurate, but it doesn’t excuse the GM from finding ways to better the team, or insulate them in case all the young players weren’t ready to take a step. The managing of this year’s cap has not been good. I believe it has played a factor in the team’s struggles. How much is almost impossible to determine, but I believe it has.

PERPLEXING TEAM

Nov 9, 2017; Newark, NJ, USA; The Edmonton Oilers celebrate a goal by left wing Milan Lucic (27) during the third period against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

For me the biggest weakness has been their special teams. They are absolutely killing them. I’ve written many times how the PK issue has been a problem dating back to November, 2016. And since it is has been that long, I believe it is fair to question how Jim Johnson is teaching it. Something is being lost in translation. Too many easy seam passes keep victimizing the Oilers. Of course, the players wear some of the responsibility — they are on the ice — but the messaging or the system isn’t working and it hasn’t for 13 months.

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Cam Talbot has a .918sv% at even strength this year. He’s stopped 487 of 530 shots. Last year he was at .926 (1630 saves on 1759 shots). He is down slightly. If he had made four more saves this year he’d be at .926. However, his PK sv% is down significantly. Last year he had a .876sv% on the PK, 39 goals on 317 shots. This season he surrendered 17 goals on 85 shots, .800sv%. That is a massive difference. To match last year he would have needed to allow seven fewer goals.

Laurent Brossoit’s numbers are very similar to Talbot’s. He has a .917sv% at EV and a .795 on the PK. Both goalies have been crushed on the PK, but much of that is due to terrible coverage in front of them. The goalies haven’t helped the players, and the players haven’t helped the goalies. The group has been a disaster on the PK. The fact the PK has struggled mightily for over a year makes me look more at the system and how it is being taught.

With the PP, on the other hand, I look more at the players. The Oilers’ most skilled players are on the man advantage. There is more flow and creativity on any team’s powerplay. Coaching devises a few set plays, but much of the success or failure falls on the players’ ability to adapt, react and execute. If anything, I think the coaches have stuck too long with the same players — almost being too loyal. It is a fine balance, because offensive players thirst for PP time. I find it hard to point the finger at the coach when Leon Draisaitl has zero PP points. I don’t believe he has lost his skills from last year, but he has lost his confidence on the powerplay. He and Milan Lucic have combined for zero goals. They had 21 last year.

CAN IT BE FIXED?

Mar 30, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) and left winger Patrick Maroon (19) and defenseman Oscar Klefbom (77) and defenseman Adam Larsson(6) and center Leon Draisaitl (29) celebrate a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Adam Larsson and Andrej Sekera will undoubtedly help, but they might not be back for another two or three weeks respectively. It might be too late then, if it isn’t already. Cam Talbot could be skating again next week, but skating and being ready to play are very different. I truly have no idea what Brossoit is capable of. Last year he had a .928 sv%, granted in only eight appearances, but he should be better than the .876sv% he has this season in nine appearances. The uncertainty in goal is far from ideal.

If it doesn’t turn around, then there needs to be changes. This team should not be in 29th place. The GM, coaches and players share that responsibility and if they don’t rebound then the organization has to re-evaluate all three of those positions and decide if a change is necessary.

Something is amiss with this team, and right now I’m not sure the organization knows exactly what is the biggest problem is, because they are many.

What is your theory?

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  • Cool jay

    It is sad, unbelievable, unacceptable, ridiculous the season is done!!!!!! No hope for postseason with these all OT games.

    The best thing to do would be stay the course and do not make any rush decisions that will hamstring this team next season (look at Tampa).

    PC must must win on his next trade and keep the coach however release the special team coaches asap!!

  • Mr. Gregor. Good article. Enjoyed the read, however the Oilers don’t have 7 mil in cap space. A majority of that is taken or will be taken up by cap bonuses. GMs must account for this or it will come off next year. This is my understanding.

    • ed from edmonton

      I agree, the real number will be something closer to 4M depending on when Sekera comes off IR and how much bonus JP gets. However Gregor is correct that the unused cap space in on PC. Where would the Oil be is they had acquired a competent back up? 4 Points better?

  • Anton CP

    It is so simple but so many choose to ignore.

    Don’t forget that the team was near the bottom only 2 seasons ago for many seasons, the team was not even projected anywhere to make playoffs. They were overachieved and this year they are underachieved, so it looks bad as the record shows but the team is not a real contender despite how Vegas odds reflecting it.

    Here’s the thing, who is the current top prospect from the farms? As for now that pool has Yamamoto, Benson, Jones, Bear, and some others that are clearly far from ready. The prospects from previous years were Draisaitl and Nurse, when you look at it that is a very shallow pool. The previous managements rushed almost every prospects they have and due to the poor amateur scouts that very few thrived (also, traded Tobias Rieder too of course) and almost none of the prospects drafted by Chiarelli are ready (it is the only third season).

    Chiarelli has made some mistakes on trades and when you look at his trades (the intended targets) are clear to fill the need of the team. He traded for Talbot for a starting goalie, he traded for Larsson for a first pairing right shot D, he traded for Reinhart for a defensive prospect that can be ready for big league (that gamble failed badly), he traded for Kassian to have a tougher line up. Chiarelli will have some bad decisions when he has been very active on trades and signings because with that many transfers that some of them will be bad, however that he is at least have a vision about what kind of team that he is trying to build unlike the previous managements.

    The team is just simply not good enough yet.

  • ed from edmonton

    Generally agree with Gregor’s assessment. It has been pointed out by others as well that the major difference between this year and last is goals against and a terrible PP. Poor goaltending and historically bad PK (also impacted by goal tending) biggest contributors to goal against.

  • BigglesMcHaggis

    The Oilers have never really recovered since the Chris Pronger trade. They have not been difficult to play against since then, no team fears playing in Edmonton.

  • Dave in LA

    Gregor
    The Oil have a few areas of major concern and the main issue is between the pipes. Talbot may well have been playing hurt all year then goes out of the lineup and we are forced to ride an unproven Broissiot so that ones on Chiarelli going back a year or better.
    The special teams have been in disarray all season with or without Sekera but the PK has not been this bad for a few years. The powerplay is so predictable and defendable. Same guys playing pretty but ineffective hockey who won’t shoot the puck. This ones on the coaching staff. For gods sake go get Perry Pearn as your special teams coach and change it up.
    Lastly leave the Finn on Macdavids right side and get rid of the slow poke Lucic on the left and replace him with even Zac Kassian. Can’t keep shortening the bench and going with MacD and Draisaitl. Maclelland did the same thing in San Jose with Thornton and Marleau and it took Peter Deboer to show up in town and stick with a 4 line team tgat went to the cup final his first year.
    Not a whole bunch of depth in the organization either.