Getty Images

We’re about to find out what Oilers are capable of

5 Comments

There is probably no team in the NHL under more pressure for a fast start this season than the Edmonton Oilers.

They were the biggest disappointment in the league a season ago, their coach is the odds-on favorite to be the first one fired this season, and their season-opening game nearly one week ago — a 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, in Sweden — was about as ugly and one-sided as any game they played a year ago.

After a five-day break and a trip halfway around the world, they are finally back in action again on Thursday night in Boston.

[Related: Which NHL coaches are on the hot seat?]

Even though it is only the second game of the season coach Todd McLellan is already putting some players on the roster “on notice” to turn their games around.

“There could be a lineup change or two,” McLellan said before Thursdays’ game when talking about bouncing back from the tough season opener.

“There has been a lot of meetings, or discussions, with different players, pairs of players, lines, that type of stuff. There are a number of players that are on notice that may be given an opportunity to turn their performances around from what we saw in Sweden, and tonight would be a good night to establish yourself in the lineup as a consistent player, rather than being a bit of an anchor if you will.”

Reminder, again, that this is only game two.

Among the changes that we know are getting made for Thursday is that Kyle Brodziak, one of the offseason depth additions by the front office, will be a healthy scratch after playing just 9:35 in the opener.

Increasing the pressure on McLellan and the Oilers is that their early season schedule is as nightmarish as it could possibly be. After taking a trip overseas to open their season against a fairly good Devils team, the rest of the month is filled with a who’s who of the NHL’s best teams on an almost nightly basis as they travel their way back to Edmonton from Sweden.

After facing the Bruins on Thursday, they have a weekend trip to New York to face the still-winless Rangers.

Things get infinitely tougher after that as their next 10 games on the schedule include Winnipeg, Boston again, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Nashville again, at Chicago, and then home for Minnesota and another matchup with Chicago. All of that before heading out on a four-game road trip that takes them to Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida.

That is … harsh.

That means over the next three weeks their schedule features games against all four of the top teams in the standings from a year ago (Nashville, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Boston — with two games against both Nashville and Boston), two games against the defending Stanley Cup champions, a high-powered Pittsburgh team, another top-10 team from a year ago in Minnesota, and two games again a Chicago team that, while not quite what it used to be, still has enough good players to make it a challenge.

Brutal. Just brutal.

While no one clinches a playoff spot in October, the first month of the season still goes a long way toward determining what sort of season your team is in for. Points are so difficult to make up in the NHL that a slow start this early in the season can pretty much ruin a season before it even begins.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Aw, we have 81 (games) left,’” said Milan Lucic earlier this week, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. “But we kept doing that last year. ‘It’s OK, we have 60 games left.’ ‘It’s all right, we have 55 left.’ Then, all of the sudden it was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got 40 games left and we’re completely out of the mix here…’”

The Oilers won just three of their first 11.

They were far from the only team that never recovered from a bad start. The Florida Panthers, for example, were the hottest team in the NHL in the second half of the season and had the second best record in the league after Feb. 1 (going 24-8-3 over their final 35 games). They still missed the playoffs because of the early hole they put themselves in. The Arizona Coyotes were an extremely competitive team in the second half of the season, going 16-9-2 over their final 27 games and still finished with one of the league’s worst records after starting the season with just one win in 14 games.

Basically, these early season games do not get the same attention that regular season games in March tend to get during the playoff push, but they are still extremely important when it comes to the success or failure of every team in the league.

Everyone needs to start fast, but given the circumstances around the roster, the expectations, and where the team placed a year ago there is probably no team that needs more than the Oilers. They did not get much of a favor from the schedule makers, either. We are about to find out what this team is made of very, very quickly.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

 

More of the same for Oilers in season debut

AP Images
6 Comments

If the Edmonton Oilers were looking to dispel fears that last season was a fluke and they weren’t as bad as they showed, Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils didn’t help their cause.

Look, one game isn’t enough to sound the alarm, but given last season in Edmonton, and the fact they didn’t do that much to improve the team in the offseason, is it enough to put one hand on the alarm’s handle?

Edmonton looked sloppy defensively and, outside of a decent stretch in the third period, appeared largely lethargic.

Search #Oilers on Twitter and you’ll see the tire fire that is well-involved. Game 1 has already started talk of Jack Hughes’ arrival in Northern Alberta. There are 81 games to go and talk of the Oilers winning the lottery for the hundredth time is already surfacing.

It comes with the territory, I suppose.

Last season was a huge disappointment considering the promise Edmonton showed in 2016-17. Edmonton was supposed to compete for the Cup, not the No. 1 pick. Last year brought all that optimism back to earth.

And any good feelings that were produced in the offseason this year — the whole hope springs eternal thing that time away brings — was yanked away early in Saturday’s game in Sweden.

Edmonton’s defense was a big question mark coming to the season and remained that way after the 5-2 loss.

The Oilers gave up 10 high-danger scoring chances in the game and were easily beaten in terms of shot share. They produced just four shots in a woeful second period.

And you’re not going to win many games allowing stuff like this:

Exhibit 1: Kyle Palmieri was allowed to walk in on the first goal of the game.

Exhibit 2: Travis Zajac with enough time to eat a five-course dinner in front of the net.

People are going to fault Cam Talbot, the hero from 2016-17 who had a down year last season. Sure, he didn’t have his best outing, but the man needs some help there in front. Those above goals are almost gimmes when players are allowed that much time and space.

There weren’t a lot of people expecting the Oilers to be world beaters this season, but there we many hoping to see marked improvements. It’s not like Edmonton could really go out and fix this problem with money. They have no cap room to spare and some regrettable contracts that no one wants any part of.

Todd McLellan jumbled his lines in the third to put Milan Lucic, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together. The goal it produced was pretty from Draisaitl and Lucic scored earlier in the game, which is a good sign after a dreadful year last season. Lucic needed to get off to a good start and he did with a two-point night.

But overall, it’s hard to think Oiler fans are thinking positive at the moment.

This team is, and will remain, under the microscope all season. Both McLellan and general manager Peter Chiarelli are on the hot seat.

Maybe getting back to North America will help spark something better.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Maple Leafs hoping core players will take less money

Getty
15 Comments

As of Wednesday evening there were still two restricted free agents sitting at home away from their teams in need of a new contract.

In Anaheim, the Ducks have yet to come to terms on a new deal with forward Nick Ritchie, while the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the same position with star forward William Nylander.

With all due respect to Ritchie, who is a decent enough young player with a solid future in the league, Nylander is the player that everyone is watching. Not only because he is the superior talent, but because he is one of the game’s brightest young stars that also happens to be a cornerstone piece for a team that is supposed to be one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That team is also based in Toronto.

The issue between the two sides seems to be the same one that always exists between team and player when these situations (a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights) arise: Bridge deal vs. Long-term deal, and the team’s willingness to invest in a young player.

Toronto is in a complicated position right now because it enters the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space — even after signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract over the summer — and is going to have to pay all of its young core players significant raises over the next year.

Nylander is a restricted free agent this season, while Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will find themselves in the exact same position after the season.

None of them will be cheap, and all of that extra salary cap space will quickly start to disappear.

On Wednesday, just hours before the start of their season opening game against the Montreal Canadiens, team president Brendan Shanahan talked about the program the Maple Leafs have going on right now and how he hopes their core players might be willing to take somewhat of a hometown discount to stay in Toronto.

He referenced his experiences from his playing days in Detroit where the team was able to build an annual powerhouse around the same core of players.

“I can speak from personal experience, that when I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit we talk about winning together and growing together and that’s what we remember looking back,” said Shanahan on Wednesday.

He continued: “At the end of the day we all found a way to fit with each other so we could keep adding to the group. That’s obviously what we are asking some of our young leaders to do. There is a lot of other voices, and understandably so … it’s not for everyone, we’re not for everyone, but we think the players we currently have, while it’s not going to be easy, we have great confidence that they have bought into being a part of this program, and being a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and representing Toronto in a way that they understand what is going to be most important. What I hope they can look back on 20 years, 30 years down the road and is going to be most important to them, is whether or not they maxed out as an individual and as a team and have championships to look back on and remember fondly.”

He also made reference to Tavares turning down less money from other teams (San Jose reportedly offered more money than the $11 million per year Toronto offered) and how, “he is still doing very, very well financially,” and that  “it wasn’t his responsibility to set a new bar or please other people with other interests. He’s a hockey player. He wanted to come here and win hockey games.”

The message there seems to be very clear to Nylander, Matthews, and Marner: Take less money for the betterment of the team so the team can win.

Obviously, this is the approach one might expect from management in professional sports. They are aways going to try and get their players for a cheaper price, especially in a salary capped league where they only have a set amount of money to spend when building the roster.

Still, there are some issues here, especially with Shanahan’s memories about his playing days in Detroit. While it may be true that he and his teammates played for less money than some other stars around the league, the Red Wings were routinely one of the highest salaried teams in the league. It was also a non-capped era so it really didn’t matter what they made to anyone except for the people signing the checks. They could have — and probably should have — gotten even more.

Also: Tavares is from Toronto which gave the Maple Leafs a unique advantage when it came to luring him there for less than what he could have had elsewhere. That is not always going to work in free agency.

But even when taking into account the difference in era, why does the onus fall on the star players to take less money in this situation to help the team? Players in all professional sports have an extremely short window for maximum earning potential, and you should not blame them for wanting to take advantage of that and cash in when they can.

There is also this point from TSN analyst and former NHL player Ray Ferraro that should not be overlooked:

It reminds me of how Connor McDavid took a little less money annually to allow the Oilers to have some “wiggle room” under the salary cap.

The Oilers rewarded him by trading Jordan Eberle, the team’s best right winger, after giving a few extra million and a few more years to the likes of Kris Russell and Milan Lucic.

So … thanks, Connor?

The belief from my corner has always been that even in a salary capped league like the NHL you have to keep your stars and you have to keep them happy, even if it means dedicating significant salary cap resources to a small number of players. The idea that you can not win with that sort of roster construction is completely unfounded because almost every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era has been built in such a manner.

If that means constantly trimming around the edges and always retooling your depth, the so be it. It is a heck of a lot easier to find third-and fourth-liners and second-and third-pairing defenders than it is to find another Auston Matthews or William Nylander.

There is no doubt that a lot of star players around the league have taken below market contracts, and if that is what they want to do, they are well within their rights to do that if they so choose. But it should not be the expectation, and their commitment to being part of a winning team should not be judged for not being willing to do it (especially when recent history shows it will not negatively impact the team’s chances of winning — if it knows what it is doing). If you’re a star, get paid like one, because as Ferraro pointed out your team may not correctly use that money you left them on the table, and they will not look out for you when they feel it is time to move on for any reason.

If the team can treat it like a business, so can the player.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Oilers putting a lot of faith in unproven backup goalie

Getty
11 Comments

No goalie in the NHL has played more games and more minutes over the past two seasons than Edmonton Oilers starter Cam Talbot. It has been a hellacious workload behind a suspect defense that has had to have worn him down during that stretch. Is that the only reason his production regressed significantly in 2017-18, a development that played a big role in the team’s disappointing season? Probably not the only reason, but it probably didn’t help him much, either.

Finding another goalie that could give Talbot an occasional break — and maybe even push him a little bit for playing time — was obviously a pretty big priority for the Oilers’ front office over the summer.

Their solution: Mikko Koskinen, a 30-year-old goalie with four games of NHL experience under his belt that has spent the past seven seasons playing overseas. When it comes to an NHL track record his resume is pretty much the definition of unproven.

Still, despite that lack of NHL experience (all of which came during the 2010-11 season) the Oilers not only liked his potential, but liked his potential so much that they felt he was worthy of a $2.5 million contract for this season in the hopes that he could help solidify the position behind Talbot.

So far in the preseason things have not gone well for Koskinen, entering the weekend with an .855 save percentage, allowing 10 goals on only 69 shots. They are only preseason numbers, of course, but it is still a concerning performance for a goalie that, again, has no NHL track record to speak of.

It also seems that his status on the team is set, especially after the news on Friday that Al Montoya — a veteran backup that does have an NHL track record, and at times a pretty solid one — was placed on waivers with the intention of sending him to the American Hockey League, leaving Koskinen as the backup behind Talbot.

It seems the biggest reason for that development is that along with a $2.5 million contract for the season Koskinen also has a no-movement clause in his contract that no one really knew about until Friday, when it was confirmed by general manager Peter Chiarelli to TSN’s Jason Gregor. That means the only way he gets sent down to the minors is if he agrees to it.

That seems … surprising.

Chiarelli also told Gregor (read more of his comments over at the Edmonton Journal) that he does not foresee it being a problem if it is determined that Koskinen does need to be sent to the AHL, but the fact he could still say “no” is a very real possibility.

It is obviously only a short-term contract for a backup goalie, and if he flops this season the Oilers shrug their shoulders, move on, and find themselves in the same position next summer (when both goalies will be eligible for unrestricted free agency). But it is still remarkable that the Oilers felt the need to give a goalie that has not played in North America in seven years (and the NHL in eight years) that level of guarantee.

Maybe that is the only way the Oilers get him to agree to sign with them? He had other suitors both in the NHL and in Europe. But if that is the case do you really have a reason to believe in him that much that you have to go to that dollar amount and all but guarantee him spot on the roster?

This is also a smaller symptom to a larger problem with the Oilers and their current roster.

If it does not work out it might only turn out to be a little mistake. But little mistakes can add up into big mistakes if you keep making a bunch of little mistakes over and over again. And the Oilers keep making these little mistakes (with too many big mistakes thrown in, too). An extra million or two for Kris Russell here. A guaranteed $2.5 million for Mikko Koskinen there. An extra million and a couple of extra years for Milan Lucic over there. Suddenly you are running out of salary cap space and low-balling your restricted free agents in contract talks and unable to build a contender around the best player in the world. It is tough.

Koskinen could make all of this meaningless if he ends up playing well, but it is still a surprising amount of faith to put in a goalie that is, for all intents and purposes, a total mystery.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk quickly getting up to speed with Kings

Getty Images
1 Comment

We’ll see how the skills we witnessed over 11 NHL seasons are following five years home in the KHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is off to a good start after his first two preseason games with the Los Angeles Kings.

After picking up an assist in their first game, the 35-year-old Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year contract over the summer, scored a highlight-reel tally in a split-squad loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

“That’s the type of player he is,” said Kings assistant Dave Lowry via LA Kings Insider. “He’s a very dynamic guy, he has the ability to break open games, he’s a very highly skilled guy.”

Is the NHL faster than what Kovalchuk remembers? “I’ll tell you after the [season opener],” he said. Playing on a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Kings captain said they’re still working on developing chemistry as he gets used to going from Milan Lucic‘s “north-south” game to the Russian winger’s “east-west” style.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Kovalchuk’s goal scoring abilities didn’t dry up during his time in the KHL, so he’ll be relied upon to play a big role in increasing the team’s offensive output in 2018-19. That will come. After two preseason games, he wasn’t ready to declare himself up to speed with the NHL’s pace just yet.

“Actually today, I felt much better than the first game, so a few more games will be more than enough,” he said.

MORE: Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.