As if fans of the Edmonton Oilers don’t already know how bad things are, how poorly their team is built and how overmatched it is, they got another reminder late in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders when Colby Cave and Alex Petrovic got a shift on Ken Hitchcock’s second power play unit. That capped a three-game road trip that produced 116 shots, four goals and no points.
With the horse that is playoff contention now long out of the barn thanks to a 1-8-2 record over the last 11 games, we already know the Oilers aren’t skilled enough up front, deep enough on the blue line and consistent enough in goal. From where I sit, the obvious question now is how long it might take interim GM Keith Gretzky, or whoever inherits the mess left by fired Peter Chiarelli, to undo all of that and build a team capable of contention.
The Oilers are 24-29-5 for 53 points in 58 games and they’ve won just 15 of the 38 games they’ve played under Hitchcock since he took over from Todd McLellan. With no drama left in the stretch drive, other than who the Oilers might try to unload between now and the trade deadline, Gretzky has gone to work. He shipped out Cam Talbot for Anthony Stolarz to create cap room for the return of Andrej Sekera – a deft move — and brought back Sam Gagner for an encore by sending out spare part Ryan Spooner.
Next up, navigating the Jesse Puljujarvi situation with rumors flying that he and his agent might have been jerked around by this organization enough that a fresh start might be the best option for both sides. Early on, it’s been a full plate for somebody who has only been on the job a few weeks and has that interim tag attached to his name, but that’s what Gretzky has had to work with. Now, we wait to see what happens leading into the trade deadline.
The reality, to borrow from Captain Obvious, is re-shaping this team into contender status isn’t a matter of days, weeks or even months – although avoiding the kind of miss-steps Chiarelli made a habit of through this off-season would be a start – it’s a longer road than that for Gretzky or whoever has the gig. It’s a road Oilers’ fans have been asked to travel without getting where they want to go too often.
THE WAY I SEE IT
- I like the move to bring Gagner back. He’s not going to be a difference-maker by any stretch, but he’s a solid team guy, and while frustrated fans might roll their eyes, good teams never have too many players who register on the give-a-crap meter. Sam gives you what he’s got, and that’s never a negative. Gagner’s return after five seasons also brings into focus how this organization has been turned upside down without any real results, save for the two-round playoff run the Oilers had two years ago. Just two players, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom (17 games), remain from the team Gagner was traded from in the summer of 2014.
- Given the cap corner Chiarelli painted the Oilers into, punctuated by a three-year deal for Mikko Koskinen on his way to the unemployment line, I understand why Gretzky opted to move Talbot for Stolarz, but the Oilers lost one of the best team guys and wonderful human beings who has graced their dressing room in a long time. Again, some fans might place little value in that, and that’s fair because results matter most, but having had dealings with Talbot away from the rink, I can tell you he’s a damn good man.
- I’m hoping owner Daryl Katz and Bob Nicholson resist the urge to over-value Gretzky’s early work based on his first couple of moves. I like both deals he made, actually, but nothing he does in the coming months should prompt the team to remove the interim label until a proper search for candidates has been done. Might Gretzky do enough to deserve a place on a short-list of those in the running for the job? Sure, but naming him GM before that is done is poison.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet on Hitchcock: “He’s certainly made a lot of noise in terms of the way he’s challenged his players. I think it’s been noted within the organization and my understanding is they’ve addressed it and they’d like him to be a lot more positive, not only publicly but behind closed doors in the dressing room if he’s to remain behind the bench the next 24 games . . . if not, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a guy like Glen Gulutzan in the rest of the season.” I wrote about this a few days ago. Stay tuned.
- I’ve got a lot of respect for Don Cherry. Back when I first got on the hockey/Oiler beat under Jim Matheson at The Journal, Cherry became a go-to guy for me for all kinds of features I was asked to write. Grapes always took my calls and always gave me more than I could use, even though he didn’t know who I was at the time. That said, I cringe at his takes on the post-game celebrations the Carolina Hurricanes and their fans are having so much fun with. Calling them “jerks” is simply out of touch with what’s happening today.