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.

4 U.S. women’s team members play in ECHL All-Star Classic

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The visor on Annie Pankowski’s helmet gave her significant pause before the ECHL All-Star Classic.

“That is the first time me and the other women have worn visors,” said the three-time wold champion who has always worn a full cage. “When I saw that, it was the first time I got nervous. I started telling some of the guys like, you know, I’m not going to play defense.”

Not to worry, no one else was playing much defense, either.

Pankowski was one of four members of the U.S women’s team taking part in the event played in collaboration with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

Dani Cameranesi, Kali Flanagan and Gigi Marvin also played on the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal team.

The ECHL event featured four teams playing short games against each other. There was one female player on each team in the nationally televised showcase.

“It’s an opportunity for our league to celebrate our players but also to highlight hockey everywhere for our fans to enjoy,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said.

But while the women were competing with some of the better players in minor-league hockey, the games barely resembled normal competition. It was 3 on 3 with no stoppages – and almost no defense other than an occasional stick in the passing lane.

“I was really nervous about how it would go, how the guys would accept us,” Flanagan said. “But they made us feel like one of them.”

Flanagan played for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, who won the event. She scored a goal in the final, though it went into a wide open net after the puck went off a referee’s skate. That earned her some good-natured teasing in the hallways.

“Got lucky there,” she said, laughing, “but you could tell by the time we got to the final, the guys wanted to win.”

Wichita Thunder forward Stefan Fournier said the women were a welcome addition for the all-star festivities.

“They integrated right in,” he said. “I think, for us, it was about respecting all hockey players. Sure, the size of the players might be different between men and women, but mentally, we are all just hockey players.”

For Flanagan, the event was particularly special as her uncle, Joe Flanagan, played in the ECHL All-Star Game more than 20 years ago.

“I was thrilled to be part of that,” she said. “And I’m really happy the ECHL is fighting for women’s hockey.”

Pankowski, playing with a team comprised of host Wichita Thunder players, scored a backhanded goal in the night’s third matchup, getting a big cheer from the crowd.

Cameranesi and Marvin also scored goals during the round-robin portion of the tournament.

Pankowski was thrilled to see each of the women score, but she said one of her favorite moments came after the sharp-shooting competition when she was just yapping with other players.

“I told them I was worried about taking too long, that they might just turn the lights out on me if it took too long to hit the targets,” she said. “And they were all like no, you did fine, look at what this guy did or whatever. It was nice to be so relaxed like that, just joking player to player.”

The Buzzer: Blue Jackets hold on for six wins in a row

Blue Jackets six wins in a row the buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets continue their run of resiliency by fighting back from three deficits (1-0, 2-1, and 3-2) to win in regulation. Their narrow victory against the Jets pushes the Blue Jackets to six wins in a row. With that, they tie the Panthers for the hottest streak entering the All-Star break.

Dubois ended up as Wednesday’s only three-point player, collecting them all on assists. That outburst leaves Dubois with 38 points in 51 games this season.

While those aren’t astronomical numbers, his strong all-around play confirms to me that PLD isn’t just a product of Artemi Panarin.

Now, does Panarin boost the numbers of about everyone he plays with, though? Sure, but Dubois is proving that he can stand on his own.

2. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand merits an argument as the top star of the day. If nothing else, the winger is hotter than PLD — and plenty of others — if you zoom out.

Bjorkstrand scored two goals for Columbus for the third game in a row. In all three cases, Bjorkstrand collected the game-winning goal. Hmm … maybe Bjorkstrand really deserves that top star nod?

Watch out for a possible strong finish to 2019-20. Last season, Bjorkstrand scored more goals (16) and points (22) in 34 games after the 2019 All-Star break than he did in 43 games before it (seven goals, 14 points). While I’d chalk quite a bit of that up to linemates — wait for it, Bjorkstrand enjoyed some nice Panarin reps, and some Matt Duchene ones too — Bjorkstrand is also one of those snipers who can get on a hot streak. If he repeats history, it could be a big difference-maker for a Blue Jackets team forced to scratch and claw.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Flip Zadina might deserve the nod more than Staal. Zadina, like Bjorkstrand, generated his two points by way of goals. The rookie also affected the game in other ways, firing seven shots on goal and drawing a late penalty that gave Detroit a slight chance for a comeback.

The Wild won, however, and that strikes me as a tiebreaker. That said, even choosing the best Wild skater is tough. I’m giving Staal the edge because both of his points (1G, 1A) were of the primary variety. (Mats Zuccarello‘s 1G, 1A includes a secondary helper). Mathew Dumba makes a strong argument with his two assists and +3 rating, so really, it’s a matter of taste.

Either way, it’s surreal that Staal recently reached 1,000 points. It might even make some of us feel old.

/makes old man noise just from shifting in seat

Highlights

Wednesday provided us with a scant two games, so why not just enjoy clips from both? If you want a standout moment, I’d argue Seth Jones‘ goal was the pick:

Here are the highlights for Minnesota dominating the second period to beat Detroit:

Factoids

  • Again, the Blue Jackets extended their winning streak to six by coming back. It’s apparently their 15th comeback win of 2019-20, second only to the Capitals’ 16 for the most in the league, according to NHL PR.
  • Bjorkstrand became the first Blue Jackets player to score multiple goals in three games or more, via NHL PR. I’m a little surprised Rick Nash never managed that when he was their go-to guy and a premiere power forward.
  • Wednesday marked the first multi-goal game of Zadina’s career. The 20-year-old joins select Red Wings company.
  • Kyle Connor collected his 15th goal since Dec. 1. Auston Matthews is the only player with more (18) during that span, according to NHL PR. Connor has 25 goals overall in 2019-20.
  • Sportsnet stats notes the Jets are 1-6-0 in their last seven, and other numbers are disturbing.

Scores

CBJ 4 – WIN 3
MIN 4 – DET 2

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.

Wild avoid Red Wings upset, now five points from playoff spot

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If the Wild want to make a playoff push, they can’t afford being upset by a team like the Red Wings. Detroit gave Minnesota a scare by going up 2-1 in the first period, but the Wild ultimately won 4-2 on Wednesday.

Wild move within five points from playoff spot

Losing against dreadful Detroit would have been brutal for Minnesota. Instead, the Wild improved to 23-21-6 on the season, or 52 points in 50 games played.

Wild fans searching for optimism will find a mixed bag. The Wild hold an advantage over the two wild-card teams in games in hand, yet the Predators have a bigger advantage in that regard (Nashville: 47 GP) while sitting at 51 points. Take a look at the races for the wild-card spots:

Wild playoff wild card race

Not great, but it could be worse, too.

The larger plus is that, so far, the Wild have mostly taken advantage of a long stretch of home games, as originally discussed here.

Jan. 16: vs. Tampa Bay (3-2 win)
Jan. 18: vs. Dallas (7-0 win)
Jan. 20: vs. Florida (5-4 loss)
Jan. 22: vs. Detroit (4-2 win)
Feb. 1: vs. Boston
Feb. 4: vs. Chicago
Feb. 6: vs. Vancouver
Feb. 7: at Dallas
Feb. 9: vs. Colorado
Feb. 11: vs. Vegas
Feb. 13: vs. Rangers
Feb. 15: vs. San Jose

Three out of four wins is a pretty good start (but a bad “Meatloaf” cover). Once the Wild get back into the groove on Feb. 1, it’s key to exploit that stretch of seven of eight in Minnesota.

Minnesota gutted Wednesday out, dominating the second period in goals (3-0) and shots on goal (14-4). Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, Mathew Dumba, and Mats Zuccarello triggered the rally:

Wild need Dubnyk to rebound

Bruce Boudreau deserves credit for molding the Wild into a dominant defensive team. While their scorers won’t terrify opponents, they’ve generally been competent enough.

But if the Wild are going to complete a difficult push into the playoffs, they need Devan Dubnyk to rebound.

Dubnyk came into Wednesday with a troubling .892 save percentage, versus a .915 mark for his career. Just about every metric points to the Wild providing a nurturing atmosphere for their goalies, so the results need to start rolling in.

Granted, sometimes luck just isn’t on your side:

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.

Brady Tkachuk replaces Auston Matthews at 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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Due to what the Toronto Maple Leafs are calling a lingering wrist injury, Auston Matthews will not participate in the 2020 NHL All-Star game this weekend in St. Louis, the league announced on Wednesday.

He will be replaced on the roster and in the skills competition by Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk.

Even though he will not participate in any of the events or the game itself, Matthews will still travel to St. Louis for the weekend.

Matthews is in the middle of a career year for the Maple Leafs and has already scored 34 goals and 57 points in his first 49 games of the season. He has scored at least 34 goals every year he has been in the league and is already just six goals away from matching his career high. The only thing that has kept him from hitting the 40-goal mark every season is injuries. It is not yet known if this injury will sideline him for any games when the Maple Leafs return from the break, but he has not missed any games as of yet this season. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Matthews’ agent said the injury has been bothering Matthews for the past three weeks. The Maple Leafs have not played since Jan. 18 when they lost at home, 6-2, to the Chicago Blackhawks. Their next game is on Jan. 27 against the Nashville Predators.

The Maple Leafs will still be represented by forward Mitch Marner and goalie Frederik Andersen.

As for Tkachuk, the 2018 No. 4 overall pick is in his second year with the Senators. In 48 games he has 15 goals and 27 points.

He will join teammate Anthony Duclair at the game, as well as his older brother, Matthew Tkachuk, who will be there representing the Calgary Flames.

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.