Things could get even worse for Oilers

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If you’ve spent some time around Hockey Twitter lately, you’ve likely noticed that Edmonton Oilers fans are especially dour these days.

Can you really blame them? As splendid as it must be to watch Connor McDavid be some next-level hockey superhuman, someone with his alien-like talents can only overcome so much. The Oilers ended 2018 with a deafening thud, and the hits could keep coming in this new year.

Even the Oilers’ six-game losing streak is uglier than most.

In an NHL where “three-point games” run rampant, the Oilers remarkably failed to generate a single “charity point” from their current skid, losing all six contests in regulation. To rub a shaker full of salt in their wounds, only one of those losses came on the road, as they flubbed a five-game homestand to end 2018.

Now they begin the year with a four-game road trip, so a team that currently sits five points out of a playoff spot might only dig that hole deeper. Woof.

Chiarelli’s blunders continue

In all honesty, it’s still surprising that Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli kept his job through the disappointing 2017-18 season, when one of his few successful trades ended up looking less successful (Cam Talbot), while one of his most embarrassing moves was highlighted by Taylor Hall winning the Hart Trophy. It’s truly difficult to imagine a team flushing a winning lottery ticket down the toilet like Edmonton has mostly done with McDavid.

It’s painful to ponder the notion that, while Chiarelli’s big trades are lampooned to the point of becoming memes, his smaller moves also draw plenty of criticism.

On paper, it’s not that big of a deal that the Oilers acquired two marginal defensemen in Brandon Manning and Alex Petrovic, even if giving up assets like Drake Caggiula still makes the end result seem like a disquieting loss. But when you dig deeper, it’s almost comical how head-scratching it is.

McDavid said all the right things about Manning, but there’s no getting around their past:

At best, McDavid and Manning can keep things professional. Then you remember that Caggiula isn’t just a rare depth Oilers scorer who can help; he’s also close with McDavid.

“I’m going to miss him a lot. I’ve known Drake a long time … he’s a good player, a guy I really like,” McDavid said, via the Edmonton Sun. “We trained together in the summers but it’s part of the business and it’s happened enough to know that these things happen.”

As a reminder, The Athletic’s Scott Powers reported on Dec. 30 (sub required) that Manning was considered “untradeable” by many in the league.

So, the Oilers traded McDavid’s valuable, cheap friend for a (former?) foe, with the end result most likely making Edmonton worse. It’s all very on-brand for Chiarelli, who’s developed a reputation as the opposite of a trading maestro.

And the scary part is that Chiarelli might not be done yet.

Ominous music plays

Even a soggy, inertia-laden franchise like the Oilers must acknowledge that another failed season is unacceptable, and this team is in very tough spot to make a playoff push.

Money Puck gives the Oilers a 23.65-percent chance of making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Corsica and other sites don’t get a whole lot rosier.

It’s foolish to count out any team with McDavid, but the point is that Chiarelli likely knows that they need to beat the odds. Even a GM with a history of genius trades would be vulnerable to foolish maneuvers in a situation like this, so there are very real worries that Chiarelli’s last stand will be a Quixotic disaster.

If you’re an Oilers fan, a simple line from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts” is downright chilling:

Jesse Puljujarvi’s future is uncertain.

Look, it’s quite reasonable to wonder if Puljujarvi needs a change of scenery, yet would anyone wager that Chiarelli’s the person to get the most out of such a trade?

Botching a Puljujarvi trade could tie a fitting bow on the Chiarelli era of errors, but such a neat narrative would likely only deepen the suffering for Edmonton’s fans. And it’s far from the only scary scenario for the Oilers. Would Chiarelli throw away prospects or picks in the hopes of chasing a short-term fix? Would he misidentify the wrong type of player as an upgrade, only to lose another move? After dying down in recent years, would a terrible Nugent-Hopkins trade dig the knife deeper?

(Hey, is it me or is the “Jaws” theme playing?)

***

With the Ken Hitchcock honeymoon phase over, and the threat of more mistakes looming, the situation seems pretty grim for Edmonton. You can make a very real argument that, in the big picture, it would be better if the Oilers did very little during the trade deadline, missed the playoffs, and then moved on to a totally new outlook in the front office.

Of all the scenarios that could play out, it’s uncomfortable to admit that Chiarelli might once again repeat his history of lousy trades. The NHL’s other 30 teams might be licking their chops, but it’s a scary situation for the Oilers and their fans.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.