Getty

How the Oilers became the NHL’s biggest disappointment

16 Comments

At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers were one of the top Stanley Cup favorites.

They were one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals and they have the reigning league MVP and scoring champion (and arguably the game’s best player). All of that seemed to indicate a team that was on the verge of taking another major step and breaking through as one of the league’s elite teams. Their preseason Stanley Cup odds from Bovada were second best in the league to only the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The bandwagon was filling up.

Here we are not just a quarter of the way through the season and there is no debating that the Oilers have not only failed to reach those sky-high expectations, they are clearly the league’s biggest disappointment.

Entering play on Wednesday — and following an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night — the Oilers have the third worst points percentage in the league, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres. Their minus-19 goal differential is fourth-worst. They have managed to win just four games in regulation with only two of them coming over the past month.

So, how did they get here? Let us try to figure it out.

It starts with the people upstairs

Three years ago the Oilers were given a gift from the hockey draft gods when they won the lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid. It was the fourth time in six years they won the top pick and this time were able to pick a player that would quickly become the best offensive player in the league. Since McDavid entered the league he has more than lived up to the hype with a 1.18 points per game average that is tops among all players (minimum 100 games played) during that stretch.

As great as McDavid has been, he can not do it all on his own. This is not the NBA where one or two great players can carry a team deep into the playoffs (or even into the playoffs at all). There has to be a supporting cast around them, and the Oilers have quickly sabotaged their chances to do that through some brutal roster and asset management.

Let’s just examine some of the moves made by Peter Chiarelli since taking over as the Oilers’ general manager.

His first move was to trade two top-33 picks (No. 16 overall and No. 33 overall) to the New York Islanders for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders used that pick to select Matthew Barzal, currently one of the top rookies in the NHL this season. Reinhart played 30 forgettable games with the Oilers before moving on to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights this season.

[On fire vs. fireable: Blues humiliate Oilers]

Then came the one-for-one trades: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and then Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome.

Both trades have played a significant role in reducing the team’s scoring depth.

Since being traded Hall’s 26 goals and 74 points would make him the third most productive player on the Oilers. His point total this season alone would make him the team’s second-leading scorer behind McDavid. Eberle’s 14 points would make him the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

The return for the Oilers has not come close to matching that production. Larsson is a solid, if unspectacular defenseman, while Strome’s offense has been non-existent. Even at his best Strome was never quite on par with what Eberle has shown to be capable of on a regular basis. Those trades have devastated the Oilers’ scoring depth and are now left with a team that is 27th in the league in goals scored and seems to be unable to generate any offense when McDavid is not on the ice.

In three years Chiarelli has traded two picks in the top-33 of a draft, a top-line forward and gave Kris Russell, a borderline second-to third-pairing defenseman to help improve the defense and the team is still desperate for defensive help.

That is a lot of bad roster management, and it is wasting what might be some of McDavid’s best years in the league.

Cam Talbot can’t get a break

Literally, he can not get a night off.

The Oilers’ goals against numbers improved dramatically a season ago and a lot of credit for that improvement was directed toward the additions of Larsson and Russel. The reality is that a lot of it had to do with Talbot helping to solidify the goaltending position.

His save percentage wasn’t anything spectacular and at .917 was fairly close to the league average. But Talbot played 72 games and if you can get average to slightly above league average goaltending for 72 games that is going to be a positive value to your team, especially with where the Oilers were coming from in recent seasons. His performance, combined with his durability to play that many games, probably shaved 15 goals off the Oilers’ goals against totals.

Talbot has not been as strong so far this season, and given that he has already played a league-high 19 games you have to wonder if maybe that workload is starting to catch up with him.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season Talbot has played in 93 regular season games. Only three other goalies have played in more than 80 and only one (Frederik Andersen, 85) has played in more than 83. He has faced 2,688 shots.

That does not include the 13 playoff games and 437 shots he faced in the playoffs. That is a ton of work for a goalie over a season-and-a-quarter.

The Oilers have no adequate backup that can give him any sort of a break.

Lucky or unlucky?

There does seem to be an element of some bad luck to the Oilers’ struggles this season. Their possession and shot attempt numbers are among the best in the league, and they do seem to be struggling with some poor percentages on the offensive end.

When it comes to the save percentage numbers and Talbot’s struggles it is worth wondering if that extensive workload over the past two seasons has started to wear him down.

It is also worth wondering if they had a lot of players play over their heads a season ago, specifically when it came to players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu. That duo combined for 43 goals a season ago. They have combined for 8 so far this season. That puts them on pace for about 15 over 82 games. Combine that with the offense they are losing going from Eberle to Strome, as well as the absence of Hall and that is a big chunk of offense going away and helps explain how a team with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkings all averaging close to a point-per-game is 26th in the league in goals scored.

You might be reading all of this and thinking to yourself, relax, Gretz, it’s only Thanksgiving. Still a lot of hockey left to be played. Sure, there is a lot of hockey remaining in the season. The problem for teams like the Oilers is NHL history tells us the standings do not tend to change much once the calendar rolls over to December. Currently the Oilers are already seven points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and eight points out of one of the three playoff spots in the Pacific Division.

Points are difficult to make up as the season goes on and teams that are already this far out do not tend to make them up.

Perhaps the Stanley Cup for this Oilers team was a little too premature, mainly because they have managed to squander any chance of building a competitive team around the best player in the world through some terrible roster management.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators still on fire with addition of Kyle Turris

Getty
Leave a comment

In hockey, a great idea on paper doesn’t always work out on the ice.

Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky didn’t set the NHL on fire during their brief run together with the Blues. The days of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in Colorado are best forgotten (and many people have done just that). Peter Forsberg and the Predators mixed like water and oil.

So, there was always the risk that the Kyle Turris trade wouldn’t work out for Nashville. Instead, it’s been a smash success beyond just about anyone’s expectations. Even GM David Poile would probably admit that he didn’t expect this sort of boost.

As The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan notes, Nashville sports a 13-2-2 record with Turris in the lineup, the best mark in the NHL since Nov. 11.

In one’s mind, you could picture Turris blending well with two forwards who’ve shown promise but hadn’t yet broken through in young forward Kevin Fiala and veteran sniper Craig Smith. Their production really has been a sight to behold.

Turris in 17 games: four goals, 13 assists for 17 points. He’s currently on a seven-game point streak (two goals, eight assists).

Fiala in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points. Fiala is on a seven-game point streak, and it’s goal-heavy with six tallies and three helpers.

Smith in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points.

It’s a line that’s checking off just about every box you can ask for when it comes to driving play and dominating opponents.

While Fiala’s getting over that hideous leg injury in an inspiring way (note: it doesn’t seem like that derailed the promising forward, a real concern considering his speed), Smith’s evolution might be the most enticing part of this line’s rise.

As The Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode reports, Turris has been impressed with Smith, and not just by his skill.

“One thing I didn’t realize was how strong he is,” Turris said. “Like, he’s a really strong guy. He has a great shot and I knew he was fast, but the way he competes and battles along the walls, he’s a force.”

Smith, 28, showed some great efforts at times during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, including generating nine shots on goal in Games 2 and 3. Still, he was limited to a goal and an assist during that series, another missed opportunity for him to gain more mainstream attention.

It all sets the stage for the Predators to be a frightening matchup.

If you’re coaching the opposing team, do you key on Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson, or Turris’ line? When everything’s running on all cylinders, Nashville could conceivably boast two lines that are first-line-caliber and top four defensemen who could be featured blueliners on most other NHL teams.

Now, it’s still December, and one can almost guarantee that Turris, Smith, and Fiala will see their struggles. There might even be enough cold streaks to break up this trio from time to time.

Generally speaking, Peter Laviolette’s bright enough not to mess with something that works, and so far this trio has passed every test with flying colors.

The Predators currently lead the Central Division and Western Conference considering the games in hand edge they have on the Blues, but it’s all in service of trying to win the Stanley Cup after finishing two wins short last time. The Turris trade clearly puts them in a better position to do just that.

It might just make them a favorite.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

Getty Images
1 Comment

PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Job of the Hutton

Getty
3 Comments

Players of the Night

  • Carter Hutton has quietly been playing well when used (sparingly) by the St. Louis Blues, but he stepped into the spotlight on Saturday, guiding his team to a 2-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The high-powered Jets fired 48 shots on goal in this one, yet none beat Hutton, who nabbed the ninth shutout of his solid career. The 31-year-old bumped his save percentage up to a whopping .949 so far in 2017-18. He set a Blues record in doing so.

  • On Friday, Jack Eichel collected a hat trick and an assist in a losing effort. Gabriel Landeskog upped the ante one night later – literally – by scoring three goals and two assists in a game his Avalanche managed to lose anyway.

As much attention as Nathan MacKinnon is grabbing (rightfully, as he added two goals to his impressive season so far), this marks the second hat trick of the season for Landeskog. Not bad with it still being 2017, and all.

This was a pretty nasty game between the Avalanche and Lightning, at least at times.

Some key highlights

Technically, you can spell overtime without Alex Ovechkin

(Ovechkin’s already in select GWG company.)

Shayne Gostisbehere scored both of Philly’s goals, but the antics between Wayne Simmonds and Ben Bishop were the real highlight here:

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, this is something else:

Mathew Barzal to Jordan Eberle a combination that torments Darcy Kuemper in overtime and Peter Chiarelli, always:

Finally, Jonathan Gibson flashes the glove in defeat:

Factoids

The Lightning keep piling up different milestones and accomplishments, with Mikhail Sergachev ranking among those today (as Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row):

The cold weather didn’t slow Erik Karlsson down (more on that outdoor game here):

Pekka Rinne‘s really been rattling off some milestones lately.

Scores

Oilers 3, Wild 2
Rangers 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Blues 2, Jets 0
Islanders 4, Kings 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 2, Blue Jackets 1
Flyers 2, Stars 1 (OT)
Senators 3, Canadiens 0
Capitals 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Penguins 4, Coyotes 2
Lightning 6, Avalanche 5
Predators 2, Flames 0

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fight video: Brouwer makes Watson pay for Hathaway hit

9 Comments

Austin Watson nodded with recognition after landing a questionable hit on Garnet Hathaway on Saturday, as he understood why Troy Brouwer demanded immediate retribution.

And, as you can see from the video above the headline, Brouwer got that bloody payback after beating Watson in a fight.

Watson (who isn’t that far removed from a two-game suspension) was ejected for his hit. It wasn’t the only nasty moment between the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames, either, as the toxic exchanges included Anthony Bitetto‘s ugly cross-check on Sam Bennett.

(Video or a GIF of Bitetto’s hit will be added if it becomes available.)

Some other penalties reduced some of the advantage for the Flames, but they ultimately still received serious man-advantage opportunities amid all of the violence, and they weren’t able to convert.

The best news is that Hathaway might end up being OK after a scary-looking check. He returned to the game during the third period.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.