If I bought everything my family wants or needs for Christmas, I’d be tapped out. If Edmonton Oilers’ coach Ken Hitchcock managed to get everything he wants and needs, GM Pete Chiarelli would be capped out. The problem is, Hitchcock’s boss is pretty much there already, so that’s simply not going to happen.
Sixteen games into his tenure behind the Oilers’ bench, Hitchcock pretty much laid out what his team is lacking in the wake of a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Rogers Place Saturday — shortcomings that only get magnified against a team as deep and as balanced as actual Stanley Cup contenders like the Lightning.
The Oilers have absolutely no scoring depth. Outside of captain Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and red-hot Alex Chiasson, who have combined for 64 goals, the Oilers don’t have enough scoring up front. The other 10 forwards on the roster have combined for 22 goals and, outside of Drake Caggiula, who has seven goals, nobody else has more than three.
Add that to a blueline group missing Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell, and there are some holes to fill. We’re 36 games into the season, and it’s a wonder that Hitchcock has squeezed a record of 9-5-2 out of the roster he’s got to work with in pushing the team to a mark of 18-15-3 going into the Christmas break. There’s a limit, though, to how much Hitchcock can coax from this bunch.
“We’re just talking about that right now,” Hitchcock said when asked about his lack of scoring depth up front. “We’re leaning on people pretty heavy, and other people have to seize opportunities. You’re right. We’ve got to get more. That’s why I’m trying to do what I’m doing – trying to include more participants to try to get more people to try to help.
“Unless it changes, it’s looking a lot like, you know, we don’t have enough support for the major push up front with our group. We’ve got to find people that can give us that support because we’re going to end up running on fumes if we don’t . . . we’ve found some people who can help us, but we’re going to need more participants. More people helping us. Whether it’s here or in the AHL, whatever, we aren’t getting enough support players.” You can listen to Hitchcock’s entire post-game availability here.
Hitchcock singled out Jesse Puljujarvi, who played the first two periods Saturday alongside McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins, and Jujhar Khaira as players who have stepped up. After them, though, who else on the roster right now is there? Milan Lucic has one goal. Khaira, Ty Rattie, Zack Kassian and Ryan Spooner have two each. Kyle Brodziak and Puljujarvi have three each. Tobias Rieder and Valentin Zykov don’t have a goal. Anybody in Bakersfield who can make a significant difference here and now?
Puljujarvi started Saturday’s game by stealing a puck a puck and feeding it to Nugent-Hopkins, who got it to McDavid to put the Oilers ahead 1-0. His inability to handle a grenade of a pass from Darnell Nurse resulted in the 2-2 goal by Nikita Kucherov. Plays like that happen. The problem is that mistakes like that are daggers when you’re scrapping for every point like the Oilers are.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Add the lack of depth up front to the injuries to Klefbom and Russell, and you get what we have here. The Oilers are leaning far too heavily on McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Chiasson to produce. They’re putting elevated minutes on Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson and they need productive, almost mistake-free hockey from still-developing players like Puljujarvi and Khaira, which simply isn’t a realistic expectation at this time.
While the Oilers are in the middle of the Western Conference playoff mix through 36 games, is it realistic to expect them to hang in there with so many non-producers on the third and fourth lines, Klefbom still a month or so away and players being forced into the line-up higher than they should be? I think not. When a coach as seasoned as Hitchcock says the team will be running on fumes if something doesn’t change, it’s probably a good idea to listen.
The problem is, while Chiarelli can’t be the only person on the planet who doesn’t know what the Oilers need, what Hitchcock’s wish-list is, he’s pretty much maxed-out his cap credit card already building the team we have now. Unless Lucic and several others wake up to new pairs of hands under the tree Tuesday, the GM will have to spend far more wisely in the New Year than he has in the past to give his coach any chance to stay in contention.