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Time For A Change

It is amazing how quickly things have changed for the Edmonton Oilers. After defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 1st the Oilers were 16-5 and leading the NHL with the best points% at .762. They weren’t perfect, and not the best team in the NHL, but they had significantly more positives than negatives.

Since December 2nd, however, the Oilers have struggled mightily. In every facet of the game.

Here is a quick summary of how different they’ve been in their first 21 games and now their last 12.

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Oilers First 21 games Last 12 games
Record 16-5-0 2-8-2
GF/GP 3.81 (2nd) 2.42 (28th)
GA/GP 2.90 (16th) 3.83 (27th)
PP% 35.9% (1st) 19.4% (20th)
PK% 87.7% (3rd) 69.4% (27th)

Every facet of their game has struggled. Even their star players aren’t immune. Leon Draisaitl had 41 points (1.95 pts/game) and Connor McDavid had 40 points (1.90 P/GP) in the first 21 games. They sat first and second in NHL scoring. They weren’t going to score over 1.90 points/game all season, so seeing them going down was expected, but by their lofty standards, they’ve struggled offensively the past 12 games. McDavid had 13 points and Draisaitl has 11. They are 17th and 37th respectively amongst NHL scorers since December 2nd.

However, if there are two players I expect to return to their standard of play, it is those two. But I felt it necessary to point out that even the best players haven’t been immune to a struggle during the Oilers 34-day slide down the standings.

CHANGE MUST HAPPEN TODAY…

Dec 16, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner (74) makes a save on a shot by Columbus Blue Jackets forward Eric Robinson (50) during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers can’t fix all their problems in one day. It will take all the players and coaches to get back on track, but for me there is one clear change they should make before they play Toronto tomorrow.

Recall goaltender Stuart Skinner. Let’s be clear: I don’t expect him to be 2019 Jordan Binnington, who was recalled and backstopped the St. Louis Blues on an incredible run down the stretch and all the way to a Stanley Cup Championship. Binnington started a game on January 7th and proceeded to go 24-5-1 in 30 starts with a .930Sv% and 1.83 GAA. Prior to these 30 starts, he’d had a total of three NHL appearances that totalled 81:07 of playing time. He’d allowed five goals on 29 shots in those three appearances. Him becoming the Blues starter, and saviour in goal, was one of the most unexpected stories in NHL history.

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I don’t expect Skinner to have similar numbers, but the reason I’m recalling Skinner is that I know exactly what to expect from Mikko Koskinen. He isn’t capable of being a regular starter, and expecting him to suddenly become one is unrealistic. In 20 games this season he has a .900sv% and 3.05 GAA. In his last six starts he is 0-5-1 with a .866sv% and 3.99 GAA. He continues to allow a soft goal on a regular basis.

Last night his puckhandling blunder led to the Rangers’ first goal.

“It’s a brutal mistake,” Dave Tippett said. “Call it what it is.”

The Rangers made it 3-1 early in the third period, when Chris Kreider’s deflection moved about two inches, hit Koskinen in the stomach as he was in the butterfly position, and then proceeded to somehow slide down between his legs and trickle across the goal line. But it was mainly the first goal that crushed the Oilers. They are 0-13-1 when trailing after 20 minutes. And they’ve allowed the first goal of the game in 20 of their past 24 games. That isn’t solely on the goaltending, far from it, but Koskinen has proven during his entire time in Edmonton he allows too many weak goals.

I believe Koskinen’s struggles with allowing weak goals are more mental than physical. Watching him on those goals immediately reminds me of this Ken Dryden quote.

“Because the demands on the goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots. His body quickly follows.”

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Koskinen has made many excellent saves and he’s had stretches where he is quite good, but he can’t shed the weak goal. I see zero reason to start him tomorrow against Toronto. And Mike Smith’s inability to stay healthy this year had made him unreliable as well. Maybe he will get healthy, but at this point starting Skinner makes the most sense for me. Koskinen has a limited no-trade clause, but not a no movement clause, so he can be put on waivers.

He’s the only goalie to win a game during this rough stretch. Here are the Oilers goalie numbers over the past 12 games.

Koskinen is 0-5-1 with a .866Sv% and 3.99 GAA.
Smith is 0-1-1 with a .865Sv% and 5.00 GAA.|
Skinner is 2-2- with a .899Sv% and 3.05 GAA.

Skinner’s numbers aren’t spectacular, but they are better than the other two and on the season overall he has a .916Sv%, while Koskinen is at .900Sv% and Smith is at .897. When Smith returned from injury, I understood why they sent Skinner to the AHL. They wanted him to play and they expected Smith to be solid. He was rusty, and then he injured himself late in the New Jersey game. It must not be too serious, or they’d have recalled Skinner right away. But things change quickly, and while last week sending Skinner down made sense, today it makes just as much sense to recall him.

Edmonton can’t play Toronto hoping Koskinen avoids his “softgoalitis” for a game. Even if they play Smith, I’d have Skinner as the backup. Based on Smith’s first two games since returning there is no guarantee he’ll be solid all night. He might be, but why not have the best possible backup dressed? At some point the Oilers need to send a strong message that they won’t accept average play. They don’t have enough healthy forwards or D-men to bench any main players, but just starting Smith and continuing with the status quo among the goaltenders shouldn’t be acceptable.

I don’t expect Skinner to be the saviour, but he at least can avoid being a main contributor to losing games.

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OTHER CHANGES…

Oct 22, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett looks on in the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Skinner is just one change. Clearly, the Oilers need other moves to get back on track. Goaltending is just one issue.

How about the forwards try actually going to the net and staying there? Draisaitl’s goal against the Islanders came from putting the puck into the crease and getting a lucky bounce. Ryan McLeod scored yesterday going hard to the net. How often do we see Edmonton forwards doing this? Not nearly as much as the opposition. Edmonton has become way too comfortable playing on the perimeter.

The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge but rather a lack of will.”

Right now the Oilers need to increase their will and desire. Scoring is rarely easy, and the vast majority of goals come from within eight feet of the net. Edmonton needs to start going to the tough areas to score. As Ryan Smyth once joked, “There are bags of money around the crease.” He was saying go there often enough and you’ll get rewarded, not only with goals, but with a big contract. He was bang on.

Dave Tippett needs to send a message to all of his top players as well. If they don’t play how he wants, then they can take a seat. It doesn’t have to be long term, but he needs to demand more accountability.

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Timo Meier has 34 points in 28 games for the San Jose Sharks. He is 12th in league scoring. But last Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers he didn’t play in overtime because his play with the puck led to the Flyers tying the game with just over four minutes remaining.

At the end of last season, Boughner said this about how he’d change his coaching approach this season.

“You want to hold everybody to the same standard, which we do, but that has to go for your best players as well. There can’t be any blurred lines. I think at times, because of the situation we were in, fighting for every point, some of the guys might have gotten away with more than we wished for.”

He followed up with that this year, despite Meier being their leading scorer.

“Timo’s been one of our best players all year and you’ve got to hold everyone to the same standard and hold everybody accountable,” Boughner said. “Especially after the last game and what we talked about — mismanaging pucks and not getting them deep, managing the clock and the score of the game. I just thought it was an opportunity where we were going to make sure that we set a standard.”

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The Sharks won in OT, which always makes the decision look a bit easier, but regardless of the win, the coach needed to set a standard for how the team plays. Even his best forward.

Tippett and Playfair need to do the same with their top forwards and defenceman. This doesn’t mean when they make one mistake they are benched. If the focus in practice or the pre-game meeting was get pucks to the net, go to the net, or for D-men to defend a certain way, and then your top players aren’t doing that, they need to be held accountable. It might only be for five minutes, like Meier, but the standard needs to be set by the coaches, and then they have to hold all players accountable.

Sitting fourth line players or your #6 D-man doesn’t get the team’s attention. So either Tippett and Playfair need to increase their standards of accountability or start holding more players accountable to the current standards.

When you are 28th in goals for and 27th in goals against, the standards are either too low or not being achieved.

And the players need to hold each other more accountable. Their level of desire, commitment, and competitiveness has not been high enough the past month. That must change if they hope to start winning regularly again.

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