Something in the water: Oilers’ issues go beyond Chiarelli

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The Edmonton Oilers have been sending a lot of mixed signals before and after the firing of Peter Chiarelli, but it’s difficult not to make this read from Bob Nicholson’s press conference on Wednesday: “We still don’t get it. We still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Of course, that’s not what Nicholson said while addressing the media.

No quick fix

On one hand, it’s promising that Nicholson emphasized that the team doesn’t want to make the type of panic moves that many (PHT included) feared that Chiarelli might make at the trade deadline with his job on the line.

“We’re not going to trade away any of our assets for a quick fix,” Nicholson said. “We’ll make some trades at the deadline, if they’re the right trades to get us in the playoffs, but not giving away the future.”

Hey, that’s good. Nicholson later stated that he wants prospects to be developed until they’re “over-ripe.” There are pitfalls to waiting too long to develop young players, yet when you realize how many times Edmonton’s bungled rookie contracts and otherwise struggled to bring talent along, the slow-and-steady approach sure beats one step forward, two steps back.

But, again, there’s this tug-of-war between acknowledging reality, while also emphasizing that this front office sees things differently than many others in the hockey world.

While high-end organizations tend to weather storms and stick with plans, the Oilers often feel all over the place. After all, Nicholson himself indicated that the Oilers would allow Chiarelli to sink or swim based on whether or not Edmonton made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then he reversed course and fired Chiarelli soon after stating his preferences.

While Nicholson doesn’t seem to have his finger on the pulse of the actual problem, it’s at least a small victory that he recognizes that something’s wrong.

” … There’s something in the water here that’s not right,” Nicholson said. “And we got to get that figured out …”

Yet, moments later, Nicholson railed on about finding “chemistry” and “character” in the locker room, not exactly taking a much more scientific approach than Chiarelli, who hammered the old-school hockey term “heavy” 23 times during his introductory news conference.

Look, it’s great to have strong chemistry and hearty, gregarious folks in your locker room, but it would have been far more promising if Nicholson lamented, say, the lack of skill around Connor McDavid and a select few other useful players.

Don’t ask the old boys’ club about the old boys’ club

Then again, how much can anyone cope when exact problems are placed under a magnifying glass?

Nicholson bristled at the (very reasonable) criticisms of the Oilers organization being an “old boys’ club,” one that’s still dominated by relics from their past glories in the ’80s. While Nicholson said that such talk is “not true at all,” the bottom line is that Keith and Wayne Gretzky are both prominent in the organization – with Keith serving as interim GM – and maybe most troublingly, Kevin Lowe remains a high-ranking figure. Lowe’s titles have changed over the years since becoming GM in 2000, but either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message of front office accountability when failed executives merely seem to be shuffled off to different positions.

It says a lot that Craig MacTavish remains with the Oilers, while they also employ Scott Howson, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Blue Jackets GM.

Chiarelli’s history shows that he’s had a terrible knack for trading away high-end talent for dubious returns, with mistakes stretching back to giving up the likes of Tyler Seguin and Blake Wheeler during his Bruins days. So Chiarelli wasn’t just a scapegoat; he made some big, forehead-slapping blunders. The punchlines were justified over the years.

Yet he’s not the only problem in Edmonton, and what evidence is there that this team is really learning from its mistakes? Do they even think they’re making any mistakes?

On one hand, it was nice that Nicholson said:

  • This isn’t a rebuild. (Oilers fans can’t be expected to endure another stitled reboot.)
  • That there are some good elements to this team. That’s not untrue.

But it would have been nice if Nicholson mixed in:

  • That the Oilers fundamentally failed to embrace both Connor McDavid and the larger trends in the NHL by emphasizing speed and skill. It was frustrating not to hear much of that, but a lot about the “real good” elements of the team and front office. (Warning: do not take a shot every time Nicholson says “real good.” If you do, you will not feel real good.)
  • At this point, it would be refreshing for the Oilers to explicitly state a greater interest in analytics, rather than merely saying that this isn’t an old boys’ club, and that they’ll listen to other voices. Maybe there’s a soft subtext there, but in desperate times, sometime you want people like Nicholson to flat-out state “we’re going to get fancy with our stats.”

Nicholson’s press conference wasn’t all doom and gloom, but only a few comments inspire confidence that this organization is learning from its mistakes. After all, things were messy long before Chiarelli became GM, and there’s an unsightly mess to clean up now that he’s gone.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, people are running with that “something’s in the water” line.

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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.