When you are out of the playoff race players look for different things to motivate them. I don’t buy into the play-without-pressure theory and how it is easier to play games when there is nothing on the line. Opposing players and coaches have said this for years, only because they don’t want to say the truth the morning of a game when asked about facing a bottom-feeder.
“They aren’t that good,” would be the truth, however, “they have no pressure and can relax,” is easier. Don’t buy into it.
Every player I’ve spoken with over the years admits playing out the string sucks. You try to be a professional and give your best, but like we saw in St.Louis on Tuesday, it is hard to manufacture emotion when you know the end is near.
1. Players still have things to play for. Some are playing for their next contract, or a personal best season. Often they play for pride and trying to avoid falling further down the standings. Whatever the motivation is, it is still more difficult to muster the same energy as a team like the Blue Jackets who are battling for their playoff lives. The Blue Jackets would love nothing more than to get an early goal this evening, and plant doubt in the minds of the Oilers.
2. Columbus is one point ahead of Montreal. Both have nine games remaining. They play the Oilers tonight, then Vancouver before home games against the Islanders and the Canadiens. They finish with road games against Nashville, Buffalo, Ottawa, New York Rangers and a home game in the middle against Boston. Six of their remaining nine games are against teams out of the playoffs. The Habs have a much tougher schedule. They have home games against the Islanders, Sabres, Panthers, Lightning and Maple Leafs and road games in Carolina, Columbus, Winnipeg and Washington. If the Blue Jackets miss the playoffs they will have choked down the stretch. They have a much easier road than the Canadiens.
3. My co-host on TSN 1260 and former NHLer Jason Strudwick was on the Oilers when they played out the string in 2010 and 2011. It wasn’t fun. “In 2010 we had so many injuries,” he said. “I remember the first game after the trade deadline. We played in Chicago. Before the game they honoured those who played in the Olympics. They had Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa. I watched those stars get recognition and we had five D-men to start the game and only Tom Gilbert and I were veterans. The rest were Theo Peckham, Taylor Chorney, Johan Motin and Dean Arsene showed up in the second period. I’m thinking we have no chance. Somehow at the end of the second period the score was 2-2, but Pat Quinn came in and said we needed to find another level. It was an odd stance from the coach (laughs). We had no other level. We weren’t good enough. They took over in the third and won 5-2. Dubnyk stood on his head to keep it close.” The Oilers were outshot 47-14 that game.
4. Strudwick continued to talk about it. “In 2011 we were out of the race in January. It was a long few months. You try your best, but we didn’t have a lot of skill, and when you toss in other teams were battling for a playoff spot it is hard to match that emotion. You talk about being professional and showing up, and you do. You prepare the same, but you also know where you are in the standings. You start every game ready, but if you get down early those teams can push you out of games. People might not want to hear it, but it’s true.”
4. I asked 400-goal scorer Ray Ferraro about playing out the string on a bad team. “I never really had too much trouble getting motivated to play,” said Ferraro. “The part I found hard was you sit there before the game and there is no tension. Everyone knows the season has nine games left. Heck in Atlanta we knew we had 40 games left.
“The one thing people might not realize is you get discouraged, and you might not be as sharp. But what you (players) miss is you are actually auditioning, not just for the team you are on, but for everybody else. The lineup of other teams to acquire players on teams who are the the bottom of the league is very small. It’s not like other general managers are saying ‘we got to get that guy, because he’s made such a difference on that team.’ The players who make the difference on the bad teams likely aren’t going anywhere.
“It is the other guys who are the interchangeable parts, and they should understand they are fighting for their position in the league. I think a lot of times you kind of lose the plot. You go game-to-game and you are looking ahead, like everybody else, to April to whenever the season is over and you are kind of happy to get there. But in reality this is a time you should be really digging in.”
5. I also asked Ferraro about Strudwick’s thoughts on teams who are out of it late in the season not having the same fight or belief once something goes wrong.
“Struddy is 100% right. When I was playing on good teams we would often talk about all we have to do is break their spirit. Don’t let them hang around, because what they’ve effectively done is shorten the game. A 60-minute game becomes 40, becomes 30 or 20 and they collectively think, ‘why can’t we win tonight?’
“But if you get out early three nothing or three-to-one, like we saw with Edmonton and St.Louis, the tent is down. What did they (Oilers) have, five shots in the first 31 minutes? It doesn’t even matter what happens after that the tent was folded. It could have been for a number of reasons, but one of them, without being in that room, is you get discouraged, you lose your energy and it is impossible to compete like that,” said Ferraro.
6. The Oilers are in that mode now. Again. It sucks for the players. It is equally bad for fans. You aren’t oblivious to the situation and the fact it is the 12th time in 13 years only makes it worse. The Blue Jackets lost in Calgary on Tuesday and have a one point lead on Montreal for the final wildcard spot. They naturally will have more desperation in their game. The Oilers will have pride as their motivating factor, but even then, they are still not as good as the Blue Jackets. So a win would be an upset.
7. I will disagree with Tyler Yaremchuk on the Oilers biggest need being wingers. I agree they need them, but their biggest weakness is still in their own end. Not just the D-men, but overall as a team. If you can’t limit the goals against you won’t make the playoffs. The bottom ten teams in goals against will all miss the playoffs this season, but three teams currently in the bottom ten of goals scored are in a playoff spot — the New York Islanders, Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes. The Minnesota Wild are also in the bottom third offensively and one point out of a playoff spot. The Oilers have to improve their defensive play, and sadly they still have the same glaring weakness today as they’ve had for the past decade: they need to move the puck quicker. They don’t have a top-end blueliner. Dougie Hamilton, Seth Jones, Erik Karlsson, PK Subban and Shea Weber have all been traded in the past three years. It is difficult to acquire one, but it isn’t impossible. The next GM, and his management team, need to be capable of finding that trade.
8. I look at the Carolina/Calgary trade from last summer as a template. Four solid players were traded. It has worked out for both teams. Dougie Hamilton is playing a lot for the Hurricanes while Michael Ferland is fourth in scoring despite missing 11 games. Meanwhile, Elias Lindholm is having a career year with the Flames and Noah Hanafin has been steady on the blueline. The Oilers need to upgrade their puck moving ability in their top-four. It is a must.
9. Ferraro chimed in about improving the blueline. “Of course everyone would like to have a top guy, but the problem becomes the cost and what is the vision for the team. Do the Oilers want to go down that path? Well, it depends on who it is. Depends on their age, their injury history, depends on their production. A healthy Oscar Klefbom changes things a lot. Darnell Nurse has taken a gigantic step forward this season. They have some young guys who are really intriguing on the backend. I wouldn’t say they have many of those up front. I would be hesitant to trade something up front for something on the back, so you get stuck a little bit.
“I’m sure the new GM’s overall plan includes a top defenceman and a couple of wingers. I think the chase for productive wingers… you might look at older guys on one year deals. Players who could get you 20 goals. I don’t know what his status is going to be, but I would look at Brett Connolly. A player who is just coming into the best years of his career. I’d look for players like that who might not be a knock-it-out of the park names, but are consistent. He scored 15 goals each of the previous two seasons and now 20 this season. He is a consistent producer.
10. Spitballing trade ideas can be fun. Just because you mention a player’s name doesn’t mean they are a bad player. The Carolina/Calgary trade involved four competent players. You can make hockey trades, and just because Peter Chiarelli lost many of them, because he downgraded in talent, doesn’t mean the new GM will automatically lose trades in a similar fashion. He can’t be scared to make a move because of previous missteps. For fun I asked Ferraro if the Oilers would look at a deal similar to the Flames/Hurricanes involving moving a forward and a D-man. A package with RNH and a defenceman where the return would be a puck moving defender and a winger.
“You could do really well moving Nugent-Hopkins,” said Ferraro. “I think he has a pretty high profile around general managers in how he can play a versatile role and different spots in the lineup. But I don’t want to make any deal if I’m going backwards on skill. They don’t have enough of it to be giving away any of it. If they are trading skill out, they need to get skill back. It might be different skill. It might look different or different positionally, but they can’t downgrade in skill.”
11. I got one final thought from Ferraro about the Oilers lack of puck-moving ability on the backend. It is the Oilers major weakness in my eyes.
“Skill, skill, skill. It is the way the game is now. If you don’t have it, you are behind and you can’t win,” he said. “I was in Nashville watching the way the Predators blueliners move the puck from the back to the front. It is no wonder they don’t give up very few goals. They are never in their end. Even when Toronto outshot them 11-2 in the second, they never looked like they were in trouble. You can’t pin them in. When you look at Edmonton’s defence — now, we are comparing them to one of the elite defensive groups in the league — but when you look at Edmonton’s defence and you see where they get pinned in. They just can’t move the puck quick enough.”
12. That last statement is exactly why I focus on getting a puck mover. Getting better wingers will help, but they won’t get to use their skill as much because the puck won’t be moving up to them quick enough. If the new GM doesn’t change his blueline this summer I don’t see how they will suddenly improve, especially on the right side. Adam Larsson and Kris Russell are not suddenly going to become puck movers. Even Nurse and Klefbom can improve in moving it quicker. Russel and Larsson are solid NHL defenceman, but they play very similar styles.
I’d argue the Oilers need two players who move the puck quicker in their top four. I also realize this is not an easy fix, but the new GM, and hopefully new pro scouts, need to get at least one puck moving defender. That is where they improve in skill, and that’s why I see potential for a package deal involving a D-man and forward going out, and a D-man and forward coming in. Those are more difficult because it means more cap space is involved, but that shouldn’t stop the new GM from exhausting all options trying to find a deal to improve the puck moving ability on the Oilers backend.
Recently by Jason Gregor:
- GDB 73.0: Reduce the Risk
- Koskinen is not Bad
- Monday Musings…
- Marody Having Great Rookie Season
- Oilers Top PK Players Must be Better
From peewee to the pros, Albertans loves the atmosphere, energy, and life lessons that take place at rinks across the province. And where there’s an arena, you’ll find an ATB branch nearby—with our team members cheering and fundraising along with you. See more information at ATB.com.