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Oilers lose Cam Talbot, can’t catch a break

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Just when you thought the Edmonton Oilers might be getting the band back together…

Cam Talbot was placed on injured reserve on Thursday with an upper-body ailment that will keep him out for the next couple of weeks (and perhaps longer):

It comes at a time when the Oilers were starting to string a couple wins together, having won two straight and three of their past four. Connor McDavid had gotten over the flu, Zack Kassian finally scored and Talbot was starting a mini-revival in the crease.

And then someone angered the hockey gods.

Perhaps Talbot injured his back from him having to carry the Oilers all last season. Maybe this year, the load has just become too much to bear.

It’s a joke, of course, but Talbot has played a lot of hockey, with ‘a lot’ being a severe understatement.

The 30-year-old played 73 games last season, a whopping 89 percent of Edmonton’s schedule and held down a .919 save percentage to go along with his 42 wins.

And that load hasn’t lessened at all this season, with Talbot having played in 22 of Edmonton’s 25 games.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all if Edmonton’s over-exertion of Talbot is somewhat to blame, but what choice have they had?

They’ve needed to lean on Talbot because they’ve needed to win games. And backup Laurent Brossoit’s .881 save percentage and 0-3-1 record isn’t doing Talbot, or the basement-dwelling Oilers, any favors.

Now that load shifts to Brossoit, who will immediately need to get better if the Oilers are to overcome Auston Matthews (who has the sniffles) and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.

Perhaps the rest will do Talbot some good. He’s received very little.

Meanwhile, McDavid vs. Matthews offers a salivating matchup for all hockey fans, even if both teams are polar opposites at the moment.

The Leafs are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games and are tied for second in the Eastern Conference with 33 points. As mentioned above, the Oilers are second last in the West and losers of six of their past 10.

Perhaps Matthews will be slowed down a little by the cold he is nursing. He failed to record a shot in his last game (which nearly led to Canada declaring several days of mourning), the first time in his career he’s done so. He also hasn’t scored in five games.

McDavid knows that pain. He hasn’t found the back of the net in his past five games either, but has offered up five apples in that time.

Matthews and McDavid have met twice last season and both times Matthews’ Leafs came out on top.

It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if something gave tonight for one (or both) of the superstars. Neither starves for that long.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How the Oilers became the NHL’s biggest disappointment

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Blues expect to get Bouwmeester back for clash with Oilers

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The NHL on NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Edmonton Oilers at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The St. Louis Blues have been hit hard by injuries so far this season, but that hasn’t stopped them from having some success in 2017-18.

Finally, they’ll be getting some good news, as Jay Bouwmeester is expected to play for the first time this season. Bouwmeester hasn’t suited up for the Blues since suffering a fractured ankle early on in training camp.

“It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp,” Bouwmeester told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.”

The 34-year-old’s return gives the Blues’ top four defense some balance. He skated on a pairing with Colton Parayko, while Alex Pietrangelo was with Joel Edmundson during Monday’s practice.

“He’s a veteran guy, his skating ability, defensive game, I don’t expect him to step in and his game to be exactly where it’s going to be five, 10 games from now,” head coach Mike Yeo said. “We have to understand he’s missed a lot of time but his experience will make the transition. It will come along quickly.”

The Blues have been just fine without Bouwmeester, so they should be even better now that he’s back. They’ll head into tonight’s game with the best record in the Central Division at 15-5-1.

Things haven’t been going as well for the Oilers, who are alarming close to the basement of the Western Conference through 20 games.

Surprisingly, only two teams (Buffalo and San Jose) have scored less goals than Edmonton’s 50 this season. When you look at the individual numbers on the team, you understand why they’re struggling so much.

Only two players (Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) have scored eight goals or more this season. Nobody else on the team has more than five.

Another big issue has been the play of Cam Talbot, who went from one of the top goalies in the NHL to being pretty average this season. Talbot owns a 7-10-1 record with a 3.10 goals-against-average and a .903 save percentage this season.

“He’s part of the team … the goalies have to be better, the defense, the forwards, the coaches have to be better,” said head coach Todd McLellan, per the Edmonton Journal. “None of us have lived up to where we need to be and that’s why we’re where we are in the standings.

“I’m not going to single out the goaltender. It’s team-wide.”

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

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.

Edmonton Oilers GM not panicking over team’s slow start

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As most teams hit the 20-game mark you have to do some extra scrolling to find the Edmonton Oilers while looking at the overall NHL standings.

A Stanley Cup favorite after a nice run last spring, the Oilers have only 16 points in 19 games. Only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes currently have fewer points. A number of things have gone against Edmonton so far. There’s that negative-11 goal differential and the 73.4 percent penalty kill. There’s also the lack of secondary scoring, or scoring in general with their average down to 2.47 goals per game. Meanwhile, Jordan Eberle is enjoying his time in Brooklyn.

Speaking from the general manager’s meetings in Montreal on Friday, Peter Chiarelli described his thoughts on the slow start as “general disappointment.”

Via Michael Traikos of the National Post:

“For me, it goes back to where our mindset was in terms of managing expectations,” Chiarelli said. “We fell behind the eight ball at the start for a number of reasons. Execution was one of them, and now you’re in that recovery mode and you lose runway. So that’s where we are right now.

“I’m not putting blame for our record on (the pressure of meeting expectations), but I think it’s something that we needed to address and we did. And maybe we didn’t do a good enough job of it.”

There are a few things in Edmonton’s favor as they attempt to dig themselves out of this whole. First, they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Second, their possession numbers are good as shown by a league-best 55 percent Fenwick, via Corsica. Then there’s their 98.12 PDO, which tells you they’ve been a bit unlucky at times. And despite their slide, the Oilers are only four points out of both a Western Conference wild card spot and third place in the Pacific Division.

Chiarelli already made one move to try and help their scoring woes by acquiring Mike Cammalleri, who’s enjoyed a nice start to the season. If things don’t improve, you can bet more trade attempts will be made by the GM because if you take a look at their salary cap picture over at CapFriendly, it won’t get any easier to build a contender.

This is the cheapest the Oilers will ever have McDavid, who will see his cap hit go from $925,000 to $12.5 million for 2018-19. Then you have the numbers of restricted and unrestricted free agents after this season. If initial reports of NHL revenues hold, we could see the salary cap ceiling rise a decent amount in the off-season, which could be beneficial.

Of course, other GMs aren’t going to bail Chiarelli out without helping themselves first, so the Oilers can’t rely solely on trades in order for their season to turnaround.

“All of the teams in the league need more help,” Chiarelli said. “But at this point, these guys have to figure it out also.”

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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.