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Let’s fix the Edmonton Oilers

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You know things are bad for the Edmonton Oilers when even the media is questioning management.

Sportsnet’s Mark Spector chides players for a “sense of entitlement” after last night’s embarrassing loss to the Sabres, yet he also critiques the team’s special teams gameplan. “For the first time ever,” the Taylor HallAdam Larsson trade bewilders the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples.

Even Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr believes that their PK is a mess.

By just about every measure, the Oilers are an absolute mess. And, yes, that PK is insanely ugly.

Is there any hope for them to turn things around? Yes, but they must admit this season is a lost cause, and big changes are needed.

Change in vision

There might come a point where it makes sense to trade one of the Oilers’ few remaining, arguably-not-quite-core assets in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. In a vacuum, it would make sense to move him during a “sell-high” time, which could be this season if he heals up before the trade deadline expires.

Let’s be honest, though; would anyone in their right mind trust GM Peter Chiarelli to extract anywhere near optimal value for RNH, not to mention guys like Oscar Klefbom?

And really, it’s not just on Chiarelli. Todd McLellan deserves some blame for the team’s systemic struggles. Scroll through the Oilers’ last decade-or-so of drafting and you’ll see that the franchise rarely finds talent outside of the first round, a serious indictment of their scouting staff, not to mention their ability to develop. Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish have their fingerprints all over these failures, too.

Management had a vision for what works in the NHL, but it looks ugly unless you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

Liquidate

This season and coming summer both stand as opportunities to cut the fat.

It’s tough to imagine another team taking on Milan Lucic‘s odious deal and Kris Russell‘s contract, but let’s not forget that seemingly immovable deals have been traded away before. David Clarkson, Nathan Horton, Dave Bolland, and even Chris Pronger have received paychecks from teams willing to warehouse bad contracts for a price. Maybe Edmonton could bribe teams to take some mistakes off their hands?

Sometimes it’s not even that high of a price, but that’s why you need to find a GM who can … you know, at least break even in trades.

In the case of Patrick Maroon and maybe a few other expiring pieces, Chiarelli could even redeem himself a bit by getting decent returns.

Draft capital can help in multiple ways

The bright side of this disastrous season is that the Oilers are likely to get a healthy first-rounder for their troubles. As of this writing, Edmonton’s the sixth-worst team in the NHL, and games played could push them down a bit more.

We all know they enjoy inanely good luck in the lottery, so consider how this could help them out:

  • Landing a key prospect – This is the simplest path, and a reasonable one in that. With cap concerns looming, they may very well need another decent player on a rookie contract.
  • Packaging to get rid of a bad contract – That said, the Oilers might not want to wait out that development process. To embrace more of a “win now” mode, they could clear up space by combining that pick (and maybe more) with a contract they’d otherwise struggle to remove.
  • Landing a big fish – On a similar note, what if the pick could help them grab a key soon-to-be-free-agent defenseman? Imagine how much better the Oilers would look with someone like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Ryan Ellis, not to mention even bigger names in Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty. If their teams realize they’re going to lose those players, a high-end pick could get things moving.

Target goalies

Cam Talbot might get back on track, but either way, he’s already 30 and his $4.167 million cap hit expires after 2018-19. Again, the Oilers aren’t the greatest at learning from their mistakes, yet this season should send a blaring signal that they shouldn’t put all of their eggs in one basket.

The Oilers could consider a reclamation project in Petr Mrazek, echoing what the Wild accomplished with their former goalie Devan Dubnyk. They could see if Aaron Dell is the next Talbot: a backup capable of being something more.

We’ve seen plenty of instances where teams need two goalies, so Edmonton should be proactive, even if Talbot ends up ultimately being “the guy.”

They still have Connor

Before Oilers fans get too depressed, don’t forget there are still great pieces in place, including Connor McDavid, who’s somehow barely 21 years old. Believe it or not, locking him up for eight years at $12.5M per is actually an astounding bargain. In fact, it’s such a deal that they can probably relax about paying Draisaitl too much.

The Oilers have made their mistakes, but new management could change things in a hurry. Just look at how dim things looked for the Penguins during the ill-fated Mike Johnston era. They turned things around with a coaching change and some courageous trades, while the Maple Leafs are another example of a team “seeing the light” and enjoying significant returns.

It doesn’t seem like Chiarelli was really taking notes, but if he gets replaced, hopefully the next GM has been paying attention. Things can turn around quickly in the NHL, at least if you push the right buttons.

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.

Penguins will be without Malkin, Hagelin for Game 1 vs. Capitals

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night they will be doing so without two of their top forwards.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Wednesday that even though both players skated on their own before practice, neither player will be available for the series opener. It is possible that Malkin will be ready for Game 2, but Hagelin will not even travel with the team to Washington.

Malkin was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers when he was involved in a collision with Jakub Voracek. He returned to the game but did not play in the team’s Game 6 series-clinching win.

It was in that game that Hagelin was injured when he was hit by Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with the two injuries the Penguins were still able to score six goals over the final 25 minutes of regulation, including four from Jake Guentzel, to leave Philadelphia with an 8-5 win, winning the series in six games.

Still, this is not a great way for the Penguins to be starting the second round against a better team. One of the big advantages the Penguins have had over the Capitals in the past two years has been their depth as the second-and third-lines did a lot of the damage in each series. Without Malkin and Hagelin, even if it is just for one or two games, they lose a lot of that advantage.

In Malkin’s absence on Sunday the Penguins elevated Riley Sheahan to the second line so they could keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together. That line has been excellent for them since it was put together.

Based on their practice lines from Wednesday that seems to be the way the Penguins will be approaching Game 1 as Sheahan and Dominik Simon skated on the second line next to Phil Kessel, while the Brassard-Rust-Sheary line remained together. Sidney Crosby will continue to center the top line between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist, while Zach Aston-Reese, Carter Rowney, and Tom Kuhnhackl made up the fourth line.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games.

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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.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

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The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Tavares to Avs realistic?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruce Cassidy has a few important lineup decisions to make heading into Game 7 against the Leafs tonight. Does Danton Heinen come back into the lineup? Should Ryan Donato suit up? (Boston.com)

• It’s no secret that the Canadiens are lacking quality bodies on defense. Winning this weekend’s draft lottery and drafting Rasmus Dahlin would fix a lot of problems. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for Braden Holtby, but he managed to come through at the most crucial time of the season. (Washington Post)

• Bill Peters opting out of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes was a good thing for his former team because they badly needed a change behind the bench. (Cardiac Cane)

Leo Komarov is healthy, but it seems unlikely that Mike Babcock will play him in Game 7 against the Bruins tonight. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Two Denver Post writers debate whether or not it’s realistic to think that John Tavares could end up in Colorado. (Denver Post)

Shea Theodore has played some good hockey for the Golden Knights this postseason, which isn’t surprising when you look at his body of work in last year’s playoffs. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe is going to be honored by the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. They’ll be retiring his number ahead of a game against Switzerland. (The Province)

• College basketball has a problem with their “one-and-done” rule. To fix it, they should take a page out of the NHL’s book when it comes to college prospects. (Raleigh News & Observer)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.