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.

Together Again: Red Wings add Bylsma to Blashill’s staff

Getty
Leave a comment

The Detroit Red Wings have added a Stanley Cup-winning head coach to their staff, as they announced the hiring of Dan Bylsma as an assistant coach.

The obvious connection here is that Bylsma was part of Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill’s staff with Team USA at the 2018 World Hockey Championship. They helped lead the U.S. to a bronze medal in the tournament.

“I know that Dan will make a great impact on our team, and we’re excited to add him to the bench,” Blashill said in a team release. “His resume speaks for itself, including the Stanley Cup championship and Jack Adams Award. I also had the unique opportunity to work with Dan at this year’s World Championship, and that experience leaves no doubt that Dan will bring innovative ideas and tremendous attention to detail to our coaching staff.”

Bylsma was out of the NHL last season after being let go by the Buffalo Sabres after the 2016-17 campaign. The 47-year-old failed to make the postseason in both seasons in Buffalo. He has a career record of 320-190-55 over eight seasons as a head coach.

This is a homecoming of sorts for Bylsma, who was born in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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.

Time for Sabres to upgrade in goal

Getty
Leave a comment

Reports have suggested that the Buffalo Sabres will not give starting netminder Robin Lehner a qualifying offer, which means he’ll be a free agent on July 1st. That means there’s an opening for a new number one goalie in Buffalo.

Lehner hasn’t had much to work with since he joined the Sabres, but he’s had plenty of issues with consistency and staying healthy. Again, the inconsistency isn’t all on him because the players in front of him haven’t been good enough. Still, his tenure in Buffalo didn’t go as planned.

The Sabres have a franchise center in Jack Eichel and they’re about to land a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, so it’s time they land a goalie that can help push them in the right direction. What are their options?

Last season, the team gave 24-year-old Linus Ullmark a look between the pipes, and he did relatively well over five games. Ullmark will likely be one of the two goaltenders in Buffalo in 2018-19.

For those hoping Botterill will dip his toe in the free-agent pool, you may be disappointed. There’s no number one goalie available this year. Top options include: Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton.

Could one of those veterans be paired with Ullmark? Sure, but how much confidence would that give this Buffalo team. Hutton has been one of the better backup goalies in the league over the last couple of years. That would likely be the best free-agent fit for the Sabres. Management might be able to land him if they can sell the idea of him playing quite a bit more than he’s used to.

Hutton could be an option.

The only other way to land a goalie right now is by trading for one.

There’s Philipp Grubauer, who’s currently a Washington Capital. Acquiring Grubauer would cost the Sabres an asset, but he could still be worth looking into if they believe he’s capable of playing at the same level he did in the second half of the season. The 26-year-old has never played more than 35 games in a season, so making him a starter won’t come without risk. At this point though, there are no slam-dunk number one goalies available, so GM Jason Botterill will have to roll the dice on somebody.

If they want someone a little more proven, they have to think outside the box. Would they be willing to take a risk on Cam Talbot in Edmonton? There have been rumblings that he’s available. Sure, he’s coming off a down year, but he was outstanding two seasons ago. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2019 and the Oilers might not be willing to pay a 30-year-old netminder the type of money he may command.

Now this is a really “outside the box” kind of idea, but would the Predators be willing to move one of their goalies? Pekka Rinne, who just won the Vezina Trophy, has one year left on his contract and he struggled pretty badly in the playoffs. Juuse Saros, who’s the goalie of the future, is an RFA and he’ll be getting a raise this summer. Nashville doesn’t have to do anything with their goaltenders this year, so this is very unlikely, but it’s just something to think about.

Another veteran option could Sens netminder Craig Anderson, who is available, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

No matter how they do it, the Sabres have to find a way to upgrade the roster as a whole, but specifically in goal. They don’t have to find a franchise netminder like a Braden Holtby or a Carey Price, but they need to get better at that position if they’re going to come close to making the playoffs one of these days.

It’s up to Botterill to figure out how he wants to do that.

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.

Gaudreau buys stake in his former USHL team in Dubuque, Iowa

Getty Images
2 Comments

”Johnny Hockey” is getting an additional title: part owner.

Calgary Flames star forward Johnny Gaudreau is a member of an NHL-laden ownership group that purchased an equity stake in the U.S. Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints on Thursday. The group includes Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons, former Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, and Florida Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko.

Gaudreau and Girgensons were teammates on the Dubuque team that won the USHL championship in 2011. Luukko’s son Nick was also on the team. Their ownership group is titled Saints4Life Acquisitions.

”The first day I stepped into Dubuque, I knew it was a special place,” Gaudreau said in a statement issued by the league. ”I have a lot of special memories in Dubuque, including winning it all in 2011. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Gaudreau was the USHL’s rookie of the year in 2011, when he was also drafted by Calgary. He eventually went on to win college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award at Boston College.

Girgensons described being part of the ownership group as a way to pay back the team for playing a key role in his development. A year after moving to North America from his native Latvia, Girgensons spent two seasons with the Fighting Saints and was preparing to play college hockey at Vermont before being selected by Buffalo in the first round of the 2012 draft.

”It’s a team that really got me to where I am today,” Girgensons told The Associated Press by phone.

Never envisioning the opportunity to be an owner, Girgensons joked he might need to contact Sabres owner Terry Pegula for a few pointers.

Edmonton Oilers president and general manager Peter Chiarelli will remain a part owner of the team. Philip Falcone, who previously was a part owner of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, is departing as the Fighting Saints’ principal owner.

The Fighting Saints have won two championships since returning to the USHL in 2010 following a nine-year absence.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Morning Skate: 8 big questions heading into draft; First buyout of 2018

Getty
2 Comments
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.

• Sportsnet tackles the eight biggest questions heading into tonight’s NHL Entry Draft. What will the Habs do with the third overall pick? Will anything happen with Columbus’ Artemi Panarin? (Sportsnet)

• Former NHL defenseman Nick Boynton has decided to join the NHL concussion lawsuit. He’ll also be donating his brain to science. Boynton has been battling substance abuse and depression. (TSN)

• There’s no denying that Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds could be on the move in the next hours/days, but will the team actually pull the trigger on a deal involving their talented forward? (Philly.com)

• The Canadiens will have an early selection in tonight’s draft, but will they hit a home run or swing-and-miss again? The Montreal Gazette looks at the Habs’ inability to develop their first-rounders over the last 33 years. (Montreal Gazette)

• Over the course of their history, the Sabres have done pretty well when they’ve selected defensemen in the first round. That run of success should continue on Friday night with Rasmus Dahlin. (WGR550)

• Stars GM Jim Nill confirmed that he expects to sign forward Valeri Nichushkin on July 1st. He’s been in the KHL for the last two years. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has been one of the best bargains in the NHL over the last few years (he’s been making $4.5 million per year). Now that he’s in the final year of his contract, expect him not to leave any money on the table even if it means changing addresses. (Sportsnet)

• You can now check out each PHWA voter’s ballot from this year’s NHL Awards. There’s some head-scratchers on there. (PHWA)

• Speaking of ballots, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Matthew DeFranks explains why he voted for Sean Couturier as his Selke winner instead of Aleksander Barkov. (Sun-Sentinel)

• And we have our first buyout of 2018, as the Edmonton Oilers decided to put an end to their relationship with Eric Gryba. That means that the Oilers will be carrying almost $2 million in dead money next season. (Edmonton Sun)

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.