The Edmonton Oilers got a point that they wouldn’t have got on a lot of nights in recent seasons with Thursday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets. That’s a big positive, but it’s going to take more than having Ken Hitchcock behind the bench for them to get many more like that unless they get some help on the blueline.
The Oilers are on an 8-2-2 stretch with Hitchcock. They appear to be tighter and more cohesive than they’ve been in a long time, as they showed again by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead against the Jets. All good. That said, I’m not convinced they can ride the positives of Hitch Hockey for however long Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell are out with injuries without doing something about their defence.
No matter what else they do right, I can’t see the Oilers sustaining the bump they’ve had by playing the wheels off Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson and hoping that some combination of Kevin Gravel, Chris Wideman, Jason Garrison and Matt Benning can get the job done behind them. The Jets absolutely swamped them in the final 20 minutes Thursday – shot attempts were 41-5 for the Jets — and the Philadelphia Flyers come calling at Rogers Place tonight.
With Klefbom and Russell out, everybody is playing elevated minutes. Nurse logged 31:04 and Larsson played 28:45 against the Jets. How long can they sustain that? The bigger problem from where I sit is having Gravel playing 20:38 and Benning on the ice for 18:05. That’s way above the career averages for both. They didn’t lean on Wideman (11:07) and Garrison (8:59) that much but the bottom line is this group isn’t good enough over a prolonged stretch of games. What to do?
THE DEEP END
The Oilers have already recalled 21-year-old Caleb Jones from Bakersfield and he’ll play against the Flyers tonight alongside Gravel. Jones is a great skater and has been terrific in the AHL, but how much can you reasonably expect him to add to the mix at this point? We’ll see soon enough. I imagine Hitchcock will protect Jones as much as he can, but there’s not a whole lot of cover behind Nurse and Larsson. Wideman is out tonight.
Making any moves beyond looking within, as in a trade or free agent pick-up, will depend how long Klefbom and Russell are out. Yes, Winnipeg has a terrific group of forwards and can make a lot of bluelines look ordinary, but what we saw late against the Jets was less-than-ordinary. It’s going to take a helluva lot of scoring or miraculous goaltending to make up for that. Possible? Sure. Likely with a month or more of what’s here now? No.
“We’re lucky we’ve got NHL players,” Hitchcock said. “But, when you have to play outside your comfort zone or outside your limits minutes-wise, that’s when things get troubling and that’s what happened tonight. We had people who played more minutes and in more situations than they’d played with. We had guys killing penalties who haven’t killed penalties all year. Those are adjustments we’re going to have to make moving forward.
“We’re going to be in this situation for a little while. We’ve just got to find ways. Our hope is that Caleb can come in in the next game or two and help us. We’ll see what he’s got and absorb some minutes, but we’ve got people right now that are going to have to learn to play outside their comfort zone and that’s going to be a challenge. There’s going to be times when everybody’s going to be disappointed.
“Slotting players, especially on the back end, allows you to maintain a certain competitive level, but when you get slotted too high up the ladder, you get tired and you get tired mistakes and pucks come back at you, which is what happened in the third.” Hitchcock’s entire post-game interview is here.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Getting nine out of 10 points in their last five games is nothing to sneeze at. The Oilers are right in the middle of the playoff mix in the Western Conference as they face the Flyers. The thing is, though, the Oilers put together a run under Todd McLellan before things went south. Having that happen again and undoing all the gains made since then because the blueline isn’t good enough as we move toward the halfway mark of the season looks like a possibility to me.
Maybe the Oilers get the best possible news about Klefbom and Russell. Maybe, in the short term, Mikko Koskinen and Cam Talbot can get the Oilers through this stretch. Maybe Nurse and Larsson can carry this much ice time. Maybe Gravel and Benning don’t look as overwhelmed as they did in Winnipeg. Maybe the Oilers can win games 5-4. Maybe not.
I’m not saying GM Peter Chiarelli needs to be kicking tires on Colton Parayko – although I must admit I’d like to know what that ask would be – but I’d rather not have a playoff push hinging on so many maybes. The way I see it, the Oilers need another proven D-man to get them to the New Year and beyond. That’s probably a conversation that Hitchcock and Chiarelli should have, assuming they haven’t done so already.