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.

NHL players in favor of ‘international flavor’ All-Star idea

Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon enjoyed when the NHL All-Star Game featured North America against the World in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Something similar could be coming back next year, but with a twist.

The league is in talks with players to bring what Commissioner Gary Bettman called a ”distinct international flavor” to 2021 All-Star Weekend in South Florida. Not quite North America versus the World but more like a miniature 3-on-3 tournament with players representing the U.S., Canada and other top hockey countries.

It’s not a replacement for the Olympics, but players are largely in favor of spicing up All-Star festivities and playing for more than divisional pride.

”Ooh, that would be cool,” Canada-born Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin said. ”I wonder if that would get it even more competitive. I’m not sure. It would be interesting.”

Think about MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby playing for Canada against Americans Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel, or Sweden’s Victor Hedman, Elias Pettersson and Filip Forsberg facing off against Finland’s Patrik Laine, Aleksander Barkov and Mikko Rantanen.

”I think any time you get some country rivalries going, there’ll be a little more aggressiveness,” U.S.-born Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”It would be cool.”

The NHL is five years into holding a 3-on-3 All-Star tournament by division. The winning team gets to split $1 million, and the wide-open ice has proven more entertaining than the old format.

”I like the 3-on-3 the most,” said Seguin, who has made six All-Star appearances. ”I played in a couple of the 5-on-5 games and they were fun, but I think the 3-on-3 is the best.”

Given the success of the 3-on-3, it would be silly to abandon it now. But after the league and players couldn’t come to an agreement on holding a World Cup of Hockey in the winter of 2021, an international All-Star tournament would be a consolation prize.

”I don’t think anything really means as much as the Olympics, to be honest with you,” Kane said. ”But I think it’s always an honor to play for your country.”

After the International Olympic Committee didn’t give the NHL the same insurance, travel and accommodations benefits in 2018 as the previous five games, the league ended its streak of participating. And despite significant investment in and fascination with the Chinese market, there’s no guarantee NHL players go to Beijing in 2022.

”I can’t say that with certainty – not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. ”From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season.”

Because the 2016 World Cup of Hockey featured a Team North American with the best age 23 and under players from the U.S. and Canada, Crosby, McDavid and MacKinnon have never played together, and neither have Matthews, Kane and Eichel. Doing so at All-Star Weekend would provide some entertainment, but Kane is still holding out hope that it can happen for real in Beijing.

”I think sometimes (NHL executives) portray that view on the Olympics and then there’s always I think some room to maybe try and figure it out,” he said. ”It’s becoming pretty close to that date where you probably need to decide if we’re going or not. It would be fun. I think we could put a pretty good American team together. Obviously some other teams would have some good young players, as well, but it would be fun to play with some of those guys.”

The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

NHL Playoffs
Getty
Leave a comment

With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

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.

The 6 coaches and general managers that will impact NHL playoff race

NHL Playoffs
Getty
Leave a comment

With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams make the postseason.

Here, we focus on six general managers and coaches that could stand out.

For 10 players that could impact the Stanley Cup Playoff races, click here.

1. Ken Holland (General manager), Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are outstanding. They are the best offensive duo in hockey and there probably isn’t anyone even all that close to them. For the second year in a row they are on track to finish among the top-four scorers in the league (literally top-two at the moment) while they carry an overwhelming majority of the Oilers’ offense. But two players on their own can only take an NHL team so far.

They need help, and it’s going to be up to Holland to provide it. He has some big decisions to make over the next few weeks and months, not only when it comes to the tricky situation regarding a new contract for Zack Kassian (this seems like an overpay waiting to happen) but also adding more depth to a team that can not continue to waste two superstars in the prime years of their careers.

2. Stan Bowman (General manager), Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks’ roster moves this past summer were the actions of a team and general manager that still believed it had a window to compete with its veteran core. So far, it’s hard to argue that it’s really worked. For as hot as they have been over the past few weeks they are still only on pace for 87 points this season and are currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Hardly an insurmountable deficit, but probably not as easy as it may seem.

The first problem: The defense is still lousy and a lot of their improvement has simply been from the goaltending performances of Robin Lehner (mostly him) and Corey Crawford. The second problem: Both goalies are UFA’s after this season, and Lehner in particular wants to be paid his fair market value. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is also a UFA.

How does Bowman play this? His offseason makes it look like he’s not ready to punt on the remaining prime years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But the team also still has flaws and has a couple of pending UFA’s that might have some value. Trading Lehner and/or Gustafsson would be putting up the white flag on the season. But is the team as currently constructed good enough to truly add to for a run? The middle-ground between Stanley Cup contender and rebuilding lottery team is a terrible place to be for an NHL team.

3. John Hynes (Head coach), Nashville Predators. This might be a long-shot, but the Predators are not totally out of this yet. Yes, they still have a six-point gap between them and a wild card spot, but they also have multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing, including FIVE on the second wild card team as of Sunday. Games in hand are not wins in hand, but it helps. The two biggest things holding Nashville back this season have been goaltending and special teams. The goaltending might be out of his hands, but special teams are one area where a coach can make a noticeable impact and special teams were the one area his recent Devils teams had the most success. Let’s see what he can do here.

4. Lou Lamoriello (General manager), New York Islanders. Lamoriello hasn’t been very active since taking over as the Islanders’ general manager, with his only noteworthy trade being the acquisition of Matt Martin before the start of the 2018-19 season. The time might be here for him to do something because this team just looks like it could use something different. They are closer to the playoff bubble than you might realize, they are still a bottom-10 team offensively, and they are just 13-12-3 in the 28 games since their 17-game point streak ended. They need another scorer (maybe two?) if they are going to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

5. Peter DeBoer (Head coach), Vegas Golden Knights. Based on what we have seen over the first half of the season the goaltending will probably be the biggest factor in Vegas’ second half, but all eyes are going to be on DeBoer given the circumstances around his hiring. Not only did he change sides in what has quickly become one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries, but he is replacing a coach in Gerard Gallant that had taken an expansion team to the playoffs in each of its first two seasons and was only point out of a playoff spot in year three when he was fired. Gallant helped set a high bar already in Vegas, and now Golden Knights’ management is betting that DeBoer is the person to get them a Stanley Cup.

6. Joe Sakic (General manager), Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is worth a mention here because he has one of the league’s most talented teams, plenty of trade chips to deal from, and more salary cap space to play with than every team but Columbus. He could add pretty much anyone he wants to a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Blues All-Stars proud to represent franchise on home ice

Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS — After the cheers died down and the puck dropped, the Blues All-Stars wanted to give their fans inside Enterprise Center more reasons to make noise on Saturday night. But while they offered some hope coming back late in the first period of their semifinal with the Pacific Division, the Central Division team would ultimately fall 10-5 and see their All-Star Weekend come to a close earlier than desired.

“It’s not the result we wanted, but it was fun to be out there,” said Jordan Binnington, who was playing in his first All-Star Game. “I think the boys had fun and it was overall a fun weekend. But now it’s time to get back to business.”

Between Binnington, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, and head coach Craig Berube, the hosts were well represented. That was on display during the opening face off when Berube put out a starting lineup featuring all four of his players.

“He asked me before the game [about the lineup],” Pietrangelo said afterward. “I said, you really have one job — it’s to start us. Don’t mess it up.”

That moment was just one of many on the night that highlighted the team, their fans and the organization. Celebrity fans Jenna Fischer and Jon Hamm, along with Blues alums Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull served as honorary coaches. Anthem singer Charles Glenn, who retired after last season as he battles multiple sclerosis, returned to a roaring ovation from the sold out crowd as he belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The energy would jump up a notch a little later when Laila Anderson, the team’s inspiring young fan, introduced the four Blues players.

“She was really good,” said Perron. “She had a good voice and was pretty loud. She had fun doing it, so it certainly was special for all of us.”

Hosting All-Star Weekend was another unforgettable moment in a year filled with them for the Blues. From the rollercoaster ride of last season ending with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title, to the team getting off to a strong start in the 2019-20 season, there’s a lot of good momentum with the franchise.

“It’s pretty special,” Pietrangelo said. “Pretty fun to put on a show for our home crowd. We have good fans and we put on a show this weekend. Everybody saw that.”

MORE ALL-STAR COVERAGE:
Pacific wins close All-Star Game final
Best moments from 2020 NHL All-Star Game

————

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.