So, the Edmonton Oilers begin their post all-star break schedule after 10 days off against the Philadelphia Flyers, winners of six straight games, Saturday. They’re three points out of a wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference with 32 games to play. They have five teams between them and a post-season berth after staggering into the break with three straight losses at home.
The Oilers’ goaltending has been a roller-coaster ride, everything from ghastly to great, but overall, it hasn’t been good enough. Of that there can be no debate. Cam Talbot, who will get the start in Philadelphia, and Mikko Koskinen, who gets the crease against the Montreal Canadiens Sunday after getting a three-year contract extension from Peter Chiarelli before he was shown the door, are a combined .895 after 50 games.
Coach Ken Hitchcock still doesn’t have an answer to the question of who, beyond captain Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson, will score goals in front of his sketchy goaltending, so he’s been blending bodies and line combos more frenetically than a barista working the counter during the morning rush at Starbucks.
And, while Oscar Klefbom will be a big add on a blueline that has been overmatched during his 19 games out with a broken finger that required surgery (the Oilers went 6-12-1), the big Swede has got rust to knock off. Plus, the busted digit that’s kept him out since Dec. 11 is still tender – that was obvious during the team’s return to the ice for practice. He’ll need time to get up to speed. We don’t even know yet if he’ll be ready for Philly.
Playoffs? That’s a big ask, no?
“We’re here to play and this is 32 playoff games,” Hitchcock said after the Oilers returned to the ice Thursday. “There’s going to be some real highs and some real lows. Somewhere in this 32-game stretch, we have got to tread water and then when we get on a run, we’ve got to run it all the way and go as far as we can with it because that’s what’s going to happen.
“A couple of teams are going to get on a run here — we want it to be us. We’ve been on two of these runs before already and we need to get on one more to get right in the middle of the race here,” said Hitchcock of a couple of 8-2-1 stretches that were diminished by some losing streaks, including that pre-break skid.
With the Oilers longshots at best, even with none of the teams in the pack of wildcard contenders managing to gain much traction of late, Hitchcock has to squeeze as much as he can from the players he’s got until interim GM Keith Gretzky and the rest of the front office finds some help – or at least attempts to. Today, Hitchcock ran McDavid between Milan Lucic and Ty Rattie, Draisaitl with Tobias Rieder and Chiasson, RNH between Jujhar Khaira and Zack Kassian and Kyle Brodziak with Jesse Puljujarvi and Colby Cave.
“Chemistry looks good on paper, and you want to stay with it, but we’re on a game-by-game basis,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got to adjust accordingly. These are lines that we like, (but) depending on the score clock, we’ll condense things. We’d like to be able to stay with this. We’d like to take this as long as we can into every game, and not have to force our hand, but we’re prepared to make the changes necessary to get the wins.”
Make changes? Bet on it. Rattie is going from clearing waivers to playing on the first line with McDavid. Draisaitl gets saddled with Rieder, who doesn’t have a goal this season. Chiasson has cooled right off after a torrid start. What’s the over/under on how fast we see Draisaitl back with McDavid against the Flyers?
THE BOTTOM LINE
The line-up aside, Hitchcock and his staff met with players Thursday to discuss what’s next. “Hopefully, we look quicker and hopefully we look like we’re playing on our toes more,” he said. “A lot of this is technical stuff that would bore the heck out of you but it makes sense to the players. It made sense to them today in the meetings. It made sense to the coaches, so we’re going to put them in place. The overall projection is we want to look quicker, we want to play on our toes and we want to be more aggressive.”
Yes, the Oilers are going to need more than “hopefully” to take a run at this, starting against the Flyers. They’ll need more balanced scoring. They’ll need Talbot and Koskinen to climb well into the .900’s. They’ll need Klefbom up to speed in a big hurry alongside Adam Larsson. They’ll need the kind of run that Hitchcock talked about. Head-to-head, they’re going to have to beat the other teams in the wildcard race.
It’s a big ask. Buckle up.