There is plenty of blame being thrown around and almost all of it is deserved. Fans are mad at Chiarelli, they want McLellan fired, and Cam Talbot’s play has been a constant headache. Those are legitimate reasons to be mad at this organization. Right now, I want to focus on a different part of the team: the bottom six.
These guys have the easiest jobs on the team because their effectiveness and impact on the game is almost 100% related to their effort and ability to just not make stupid plays. They aren’t being relied on to score a goal a game, or anything like that. The players I’m talking about are the guys who need to simply not bleed chances at even strength and get the puck into the other teams end. They don’t have to score when they get there, they just have to keep it as far away from the Oilers net as possible then get off the ice and let the top-six do the difficult part: putting the puck in the net.
Milan Lucic will never be a $6 million player, we should all have come to terms with that by now. What the Oilers need is for Lucic to be a solid third-line player. He doesn’t need to score at a 40-50 point pace. What he needs to do is simply break even at ‘5v5’ on most nights, lay a couple of bit hits, and put pucks on net to force offensive zone faceoffs. That’s the recipe to effectiveness for Milan Lucic.
Today on The Lowdown with Lowetide, Jason Gregor dropped a quote that was along the lines of “If he didn’t have a stick in his hands would his game be any different?”. That’s a sad statement, and obviously a bit of a hyperbole, but damn, there’s a little bit of truth to it.
If Milan Lucic throws two big body checks a game and doesn’t turn over the puck at his own blueline, the complaints would be minimal from Oilers fans. It’s sad that those are the expectations for a $6 million player, but that’s the reality. He can be an effective third liner, I know it’s in him somewhere, he just needs to skate hard and have the puck on his stick for very short periods of time.
Zack Kassian falls into this category as well. He turned a pair of really good playoff games and two huge (probably illegal) hits against San Jose in 2016-17 into a $2 million deal with term. He’s the type of player that Oilers fans fall in love with, but the way he’s playing right now is unacceptable.
Similar to Lucic, I don’t think Zack Kassian will ever be worth his $2 million price tag. That doesn’t mean he can’t be effective though, he just needs to skate hard and use his brain a little bit better.
When he’s focusing on playing a hard, physical game and keeping things simple, he creates energy and his presence benefits the Oilers. The problem comes when he starts to complicate his game and overthink things. When Kassian starts trying to make “skilled plays” or when he starts to try too hard to aggravate the other team, he starts turning over pucks and taking bad penalties. That hurts the Oilers.
The issues in Zack Kassian’s game are completely mental and effort related. Fans will love him, and the team will benefit, if he keeps things simple. He isn’t doing that right now.
The last name I will drop into this is Jujhar Khaira. He doesn’t have the hefty price tag that the previous two names do, but given the Oilers cap situation, they need solid, meaningful minutes from their inexpensive bottom six minutes.
Last season, we saw Khaira take some very positive strides. He was starting to contribute some offense and even when the goals weren’t coming, he was effective at establishing a cycle. He could give them meaningful, effective minutes, even when he wasn’t scoring.
This season, he’s been quiet. Is he costing them games? Not necessarily, but he isn’t doing anything to help them win.
A lot of people describe the NHL as being a “3-2 league” in the sense that when you consider the parity and low scoring era we’re in, you usually don’t need more than three goals to win.
The Oilers have Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in their top six. On a lot of nights, those three will supply the offense. The bottom six simply has to not get dominated at even-strength and force the puck into the other teams end. If they do all the heavy lifting that involves playing physical, getting offensive zone faceoffs, and just creating some energy, they’ll help the Oilers win games even if they aren’t showing up on the scoresheet.
The things that players like Lucic, Kassian, Khaira, and even Kyle Brodziak need to do are more-or-less dependant on their effort level and ability to avoid mental mistakes. In a sense, they have the easiest jobs on the team, and thus far, they’ve been failing to do their jobs.