Slumping Oilers can’t find answers to the same old questions

Slumping Oilers can't find answers to the same old questions
Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Don’t blame Connor McDavid for not definitively knowing if Saturday’s Oilers collapse against the Senators was the worst loss of his regular season career.

Much like picking the most exciting McDavid goal, choosing the worst Oilers loss is daunting because of the staggeringly large selection. It would be like leafing through every book at The Library of Congress.

With the Oilers on a six-game losing streak (and a 2-10-2 slump), McDavid, Zack Kassian, and others appeared at a loss for answers.

Yet, when you note quotes from McDavid and Kassian (via The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman), it’s striking how well they can apply to the Oilers’ eternal struggles, rather than these recent ones.

“We’ve talked about it over and over and over again in that room and obviously we haven’t found an answer yet,” McDavid said.

“We’re sitting here talking about the same (expletive) we were talking about before the break,” Kassian said.

Over the years, some details change. Broadly speaking, the Oilers have failed even more to support Connor McDavid (and Leon Draisaitl) during other seasons. But in the grand scheme of things, the Oilers still can’t answer the same plaguing questions.

Extreme highs and lows this season

If you seek a cautionary tale about how a hot start can mislead people about an NHL team, you could do worse than the 2021-22 Edmonton Oilers. (The Maple Leafs going from hot to cold in “The Corsi Hockey League” may be the best, though.)

During their 16-5-0 start (and especially at 9-1-0), the Oilers were simply playing over their heads.

  • Sure, Draisaitl, McDavid, and others form a deadly Oilers power play, but a 35.9% success rate was unsustainable. (Since the full season lockout, no one’s reached 30% for a full season.)
  • A proficient penalty kill probably ranked as a bigger red flag. Their 87.7% success rate (tied for third-best at that time), would easily beat Edmonton’s best PK percentage since 2005-06 (84.7%).
  • PDO is an imperfect measure, but still shorthand for a team riding luck. The Oilers’ 1.033 PDO (save percentage + shooting percentage) topped all teams at even strength.
  • More simply, they were outscoring opponents (80 goals for, 61 against) despite giving up almost two more shots on goal than they created each game.

[Check out where the Oilers stand in PHT’s Power Rankings]

Now, the pendulum is swinging a bit wildly out of Edmonton’s favor.

You know how people sometimes say “the truth is in between the two extremes?” That rings somewhat true of these troubled Oilers.

Entering Sunday, Money Puck gave the Oilers a 58.9% chance to make the playoffs, while other projections hover between a coin flip or slightly less.

So far, they are a mediocre even-strength team with a dynamite power play and a vulnerable penalty kill. They’ve scored 115 goals and allowed 117.

Can Tippett, Holland get McDavid, Draisaitl enough help to redeem Oilers?

In the scheme of this season, the Oilers maybe aren’t as bad as things sometimes seem.

However, that’s mainly a reaction to feelings of panic. The bottom line is that the Oilers still haven’t found answers to essential questions revolving around supporting Draisaitl and McDavid.

[A look at how the NHL’s best and worst teams support their stars]

Not every move has been a forehead-slapping groaner. While the term of Zach Hyman‘s contract radiates with risk, he’s at least a nice player, one who could either supplement Draisaitl/McDavid on a line, or perhaps provide greater depth.

Yet, when it comes to building a supporting cast, the bad outweighs the good. Unfortunately, Ken Holland’s recent track record speaks to serious lapses in identifying value in supporting cast pieces. This thread tells much of that story:

It’s possible Dave Tippett compounds some of those issues. At least, if it’s true that (like plenty of coaches) Tippett might fixate on mistakes younger players make, even as veterans suffer many of the same issues.

Consider this multi-season even strength RAPM comparison (via Evolving Hockey) between Ethan Bear (traded to Carolina) and Tyson Barrie:

Slumping Oilers can't find answers to the same old questions Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

On paper, Ethan Bear is exactly the type of player the Oilers need, considering their salary cap challenges. He’s young (24), currently cheap ($2M), and could remain that way for a while. Barrie, meanwhile, is 30, and carries a fairly expensive contract ($4.5M) that runs through 2023-24.

Making the occasional bad bet is one thing, especially with defensemen (who are generally tougher to gauge and forecast than forwards).

But it feels like the Oilers make these mistakes often enough that the errors eat away at their cap space and flexibility. As those mistakes pile up, you get less leeway to, say, invest in goaltending with a better chance to succeed than the Mike Smith + Mikko Koskinen duo.

(Injury excuses only go so far with Mike Smith, a 39-year-old goalie who dealt with issues in the past.)

Seemingly, the Oilers’ aims to improve their depth are undermined by a deadly combination: 1) a GM who’s struggled to gauge value and 2) a coach who might sour on the sort of younger, cheaper players you need when two players eat up $21M in cap space.

Few obvious solutions

In reading this post, maybe you disagree with causes, but can you argue with the symptoms? Again, year after year, the Oilers fail to find answers around Draisaitl and McDavid.

This past week, Ken Holland mostly shot down the idea of the Oilers making bigger changes, such as firing Dave Tippett.

To some extent, those comments feel out of touch. Unfortunately, there’s a darker way to view them. Maybe Holland simply believes he’s out of ideas — and running out of get out of jail free cards.

This team remains loaded with long-term contracts, and Darnell Nurse‘s cap hit balloons to $9.25M next season.

So, most of Holland and the Oilers’ options boil down to quick fixes.

  • Firing Dave Tippett. Maybe a new coach can breathe some life into this stodgy team, but how much can a Claude Julien (or, gulp, Mike Babcock) fix?
  • Hope for the best with a goalie like Marc-Andre FleuryIt’s unclear how much a goalie would cost at or around the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. We haven’t seen noteworthy goalies move that often in-season lately. But what if the Blackhawks were willing to take, say, a second-rounder instead of the first-rounder Holland wants to keep?
  • Some other rentals. That’s a topic for another post, down the line.

If I were running the Oilers, I’d consider both a coaching change and a desperate swipe at goaltending. Of course, that would be after I wiped away the tears, and muffled a few expletives at the mountain of mistakes left behind by Holland and Peter Chiarelli.

What do you think the Oilers need to do to turn things around. (Note: you may be judged if your answer is “Change Connor McDavid.”)

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.

Scroll Down For:

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    austonmatthews
    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.