For Islanders’ Eberle, pucks are going in during these playoffs

6 Comments

Not that long ago, Jordan Eberle was a guy who just couldn’t buy a goal in the postseason. During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it almost feels like the New York Islanders should challenge him to score the toughest goals possible.

Eberle fit a puck into an almost impossibly small window during the Islanders’ 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins to take a 3-0 series lead in Game 3. As you can see from that goal (in the clip above this post’s headline), Eberle is combining a dangerous mix of swagger and luck to a red-hot start.

That goal was his third goal in as many games during Round 1, while Eberle’s also managed two assists to give him an impressive five points in three contests. We’ll see if Eberle can carry that into the Islanders’ attempt to sweep the Penguins in Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), but either way, he’s off to a blazing start.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

From a sheer production standpoint, Eberle’s totals (three goals, two assists for five points in three games) during this run are night-and-day from a rather disastrous first (and final) postseason with the Edmonton Oilers, when he failed to score a goal on 22 SOG in 13 playoff games back in 2016-17, settling for only two assists.

From an effort standpoint, though? After coming through in Game 1 against the Penguins, Eberle explained something many believed: that he really wasn’t playing that poorly during that fateful final run with Edmonton.

“I didn’t think I was playing that bad,” Eberle said, via NHL.com’s Brian Compton on April 11. “Pucks didn’t go in. I seemed to be the blame of a lot of things. It was a big part probably of why I got traded from Edmonton.”

“It’s nice to get another chance and another rip at it. Try to take advantage of this one.”

Eberle sure has taken advantage of this one, and those pucks sure have been going in.

Of course, Eberle would risk a trip to Barry Trotz’s doghouse if his offense came at too much of a detriment to his overall game. By looking at the numbers, that doesn’t seem to be the case; Eberle looks fantastic across the board according to Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, including the fact that the Islanders have generated 72.09 percent of the scoring chances at even-strength with Eberle on the ice. That’s impressive considering how often Eberle is drawing the likes of Kris Letang and Phil Kessel, and also shows that Trotz is getting the matchups he likes, as there hasn’t been too much exposure to Sidney Crosby.

Can Eberle keep this up?

Over the long haul, definitely not. While Eberle’s generally been one of the skilled shooters you’ll see (watch that goal again if you need a reminder), no one’s comfortably shooting at 25 percent, which is Eberle’s current rate of three goals on 12 SOG.

The truth is somewhere in between that ice-cold run with the Oilers and this scorching-hot stretch with the Islanders, and that’s a point that is worth mentioning, both to fans and to front office members. Scorers, particularly snipers, are prone to slumps and lucky stretches. It’s wiser to zoom out to the whole, rather than fixating on the too-good-to-be-true or, say, trading Eberle away after his worst slump.

Really, though, Islanders fans and Eberle (and Eberle’s accountants) should just enjoy this ride, for however long it lasts. It must be almost as sweet for Eberle to silence his critics as it’s been to score big, “dagger” goals against Pittsburgh and win some huge games.

The Islanders will go for the sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Live stream)

MORE: Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders; Isles have all the answers so far

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.

Oilers face much bigger questions than what to do with Hitchcock

3 Comments

When the Edmonton Oilers hired Ken Hitchcock, they were essentially hoping he could be the firefighter who could save the day as the franchise was surrounded by flames like a meme dog with a cute hat and a cup of coffee.

Now that it’s clear that the Oilers’ 2018-19 season is very-much-not-fine, it’s now time to ask a question that seemed almost beside the point at the moment of Hitch’s hiring: should Edmonton bring him back? Sportsnet’s Mark Spector posits such a point in a Tuesday article about Hitch’s “old-school style being just what the young Oilers need.”

For his part, Hitchcock wants to be back. As the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones reports, Hitchcock described coaching the Oilers as “the best experience of my life” and added the great line that “the way I feel, I can coach until I’m 99.”

But should the Oilers bring him back? And, really, how much does it matter compared to the real front office choice that will truly shape the future of this franchise? Let’s dive in.

Minimal impact

The Spector piece revolves around Hitchcock getting in the “face” of players, relying on emotion rather than “Xs and Os.”

And, no doubt, Hitch has a reputation for barking at players. One can debate all day about whether that approach is effective, and if it’s appropriate for the Oilers.

But what about his actual work behind the bench? When the Oilers fired Todd McLellan, they were a mediocre 9-10-1. With Hitchcock … they’ve been a mediocre 24-24-7.

Their underlying stats are actually worse, too. Through 20 games, Edmonton was basically middle-of-the-pack at even-strength under McLellan. They actually slipped even further under Hitchcock by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics.

Much of the same?

In a lot of ways, it shouldn’t be that surprising that there wasn’t a night-and-day difference. Back in October, I pointed to the Oilers’ system relying far too heavily on defensemen shooting pucks —  defensemen who, really, weren’t even the type of blueliners who seem to be especially adept at that practice.

Once you get by the usual suspects in the top three of shots on goal (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), there are a lot of pucks being fired by blueliners overall in 2018-19. Edmonton has eight players with 100+ SOG, and of that group, three are defensemen. Four of the top nine are blueliners, too. You might explain that away as Edmonton simply being top-heavy, yet look at another top-heavy offense – like, say, the Avalanche – and you’ll see the top shooters far more populated by forwards.

None of this is to say that Hitchcock is totally out of touch. As this great bit from The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis discusses (sub.  required), Hitchcock has a firm grasp on why successful teams are able to transition the puck in ways that are more successful than the Oilers.

Hitchcock hasn’t been able to transfer “using the middle of the ice” onto the current makeup of the Oilers, but maybe – just maybe – he’d be able to cook better meals with better ingredients. The true key, then, is for the Oilers to find a better grocery shopper.

The GM question matters far more than to keep or replace Hitch

Ultimately, hiring the right GM is enormously important. It’s key for any team, but especially for an aimless franchise like the Oilers, whose executive have made blunder after blunder.

Peter Chiarelli isn’t the only person to blunder far too often in Edmonton, yet looking at the salary structure at Cap Friendly, it’s clear that he’s “accomplished” the unlikely feats of leaving the Oilers with limited skill around their star players and limited cap space to fill in the gaps.

The Oilers slogan might as well be low skill, high bills.

Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell (also of The Athletic) went deep on the Oilers’ future in a multitude of ways lately, coming to two conclusions I share: 1) the Oilers need to emphasize speed and skill in future acquisitions and 2) fixing their problems might be more than a “one summer” job.

It won’t always be easy, and it probably won’t be a seamless transition, but the Oilers need more of the types of players who could move the puck the way Hitchcock described here:

“If you look at any teams that are quick transition, they find the middle of the ice and they’re not afraid to,” Hitchcock said, via Willis. “There’s a risk and a dynamic to play that way, but any of the successful teams use the middle of the ice way more than they use the boards. You can’t be a good transition team if you just keep putting it on the boards. You end up chipping it out and chasing it, you don’t end up with possession metrics at all. You can’t be afraid to use the middle of the ice on your exits.”

The Oilers have been “chipping it out and chasing it” for far too long, valuing brawn and over-emphasizing buzzwords about “character” instead of searching for the sort of swift, slick players who would supplement superhuman speed genius Connor McDavid.

Would Hitchcock truly optimize a roster that had more skill and speed? It’s not clear one way or another, but what is clear is that the current plan isn’t working.

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.

Draisaitl’s season shows Oilers’ hope goes beyond McDavid

Getty Images
1 Comment

If you scan a list of the NHL’s leading scorers, one name might surprise you: Leon Draisaitl.

Heading into Friday’s games, the Edmonton Oilers forward ranks sixth with 89 points, and his 42 goals leave him second only to Alex Ovechkin.

When you hear people express disbelief that the Oilers can fail this hard with Connor McDavid on their roster, perhaps that shock should be adapted to also include Draisaitl.

To some extent, that only makes the Oilers’ mismanagement more damning. They’ve landed a superstar in McDavid, someone between a star and a superstar in Draisaitl (depending upon your taste), and oodles and noodles of draft lottery luck, yet they find themselves in this profoundly sad state.

That’s grim in the present, yet the “they have McDavid and Draisaitl” talking point should at least provide Oilers fans with at least some faint hope for the future.

Now, no doubt, Oilers fans are probably jaded. They’ve heard one too many times about an alleged light at the end of the tunnel.

Well … sorry. Let’s try to squint to see some light.

More on Draisaitl’s year

Before I delve a little deeper, it’s fair to provide some qualifiers regarding Draisaitl’s 42 goals and 89 points in just 70 games.

For one thing, there’s no denying that Draisaitl’s numbers are buoyed by the time he’s spent with McDavid. Anyone with a pulse would see their production improve alongside number 97, and Draisaitl is no different.

That said, it’s not like Draisaitl is wholly tethered to McDavid in the way that, say, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon barely ever play a shift without each other. As Natural Stat Trick’s listings show, McDavid is Draisaitl’s most common even-strength partner (648:10 with), yet Draisaitl’s also spent 435:24 without him.

The Oilers can wrestle with the loading up versus spreading the wealth question for years, but either way, it seems pretty clear that Draistail is for real.

This season’s numbers won’t be easy to match, though. Before 2018-19, Draisaitl showed some goal scoring ability, generating 29 in 2016-17 and 25 last season. His 42 goals come on an inflated 21.4 shooting percentage, much higher than his-already-fairly high career percentage of 15.7.

That number’s almost certain to go down, although maybe not catastrophically so if Draisaitl sticks with McDavid more often than not. (McDavid’s really that special.)

The best other pieces

Whether Draisaitl slides in on McDavid’s wing or serves as the 2C, the Oilers have two pieces just about anyone would clamor for at forward. So, what else?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Somehow, he’s only 25; it feels like he’s been suffering in Edmonton for our natural-born lives.

Maybe RNH won’t ever dazzle quite at the level that you’d want from a top overall pick, but he’s a steady scorer, generating 22 goals already this season (two short of his career-high), and already set a new career-high with 58 points.

Nugent-Hopkins seems like a perennial trade rumor target, but Edmonton would be smart just to keep him. Much like with Draisaitl, RNH gives Edmonton some versatility. He can be a center, or also give McDavid a more talented winger than the Oilers have normally been able to furnish. At this prime-age and at an affordable $6M cap hit through 2020-21, RNH is a nice asset.

(You could argue that maybe there could be actual value in trading RNH but … *gets interrupted by Oilers fans shrieking at the mention of another risky trade*)

Oscar Klefbom – A very good, very affordable, defenseman in his prime at 25. Even more than RNH, thank goodness the Oilers didn’t recklessly trade Klefbom for peanuts.

Varied value

Jesse Puljujärvi – Look, for all we know, he really might be a lost cause.

But even if he is, and the Oilers decide to part ways with Puljujärvi, they likely wouldn’t have sold lower than if they moved him during this fraught, lost season.

And there’s a possibility that things could go very right. Maybe a new coach would give the 20-year-old a clean slate? Perhaps he’s just a guy, but one who might sign a team-friendly contract as an RFA this summer?

His development could be key in the Oilers giving their top guys crucial support. There’s plenty of room for growth, and it’s not that outrageous to picture Puljujärvi actually figuring things out.

Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard – For Peter Chiarelli’s many many many foibles, he seemed to fall in line with conventional wisdom in recent drafts, which feels like a good thing. That can always change, as prospects are tough to project, but players like Yamamoto and Bouchard might be able to provide future boosts. That’s important if the Oilers remain cap-crunched thanks to lousy contracts like those of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse – We can go back and forth about how valuable these two defensemen are. Opinions likely range based on the ups and downs of their seasons. But, really, both have reasonable-enough contracts, and can probably help a team win. They sure beat many of the Oilers’ other options, whether they are in the system or free agency.

(Maybe a trade would actually make sen—*interrupted by another shriek*)

Andrej Sekera – It’s been a lost season for the veteran defenseman, but maybe he’s not as “done” as he seemed?

The 32-year-old’s been limited to 12 games played so far, and hasn’t scored much (two assists) or logged big minutes (16:33 TOI average), yet Sekera’s possession numbers are strong enough to prompt some positive thinking. If nothing else, maybe Sekera could take minutes from lesser defensemen, like Russell?

***

The Oilers have some fantastic pieces (McDavid, Draisaitl), and some undeniable problems (bad contracts, executive who still might not “get it”).

Ultimately, there’s no downplaying how important it is to hire the right GM, and to make sure that no one gets in the way, bungling things like always. It would be convenient if this was just a matter of Chiarelli messing things up, but Edmonton’s issues extend well beyond Chiarelli’s era of errors.

The thing is, if a new GM hit the right notes, the Oilers could actually become a team worthy of McDavid’s and Draisatil’s time — and maybe turn things around pretty quickly.

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.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

26 Comments

(UPDATE: It’s now official. No replacement has been named with Keith Gretzky taking over in an interim basis.)

It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from being a win away from reaching the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


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

Stage set for Oilers to make panic trade

8 Comments

If you want to make an Edmonton Oilers fan wince in pain, utter this line: “Peter Chiarelli isn’t done yet.”

It’s gotten to the point where a lot of hockey people wouldn’t trust Chiarelli to make a lunchroom snack trade with grade-school children, yet a bunch of factors point in the direction of another bold move … and in almost every case, bold trades have been unmitigated disasters for the Oilers.

Let’s consider the rumblings at hand.

  • On Monday, TSN’s Ryan Rishaug reported that the Oilers are in a “full-court press” to land some help at forward. They’re shopping three possible components according to Rishaug, with the two scariest components bolded to express my horror for Oilers fans: goaltender, first-round pickand “a young developing forward” are in play.

Now, it’s not necessarily guaranteed that the “young developing forward” could be Jesse Puljujarvi, but that brings us to an additional, well-sourced report that should make Oilers fans pour out flop-sweat, and any number of opportunistic opposing GMs lick their chops.

  • In the latest edition of 31 Thoughts on Wednesday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman also confirms that the first-round pick is “definitely in play,” while depicting an internal tug-of-war regarding whether Puljujarvi should be dangled, as well.

Friedman also notes a crucial facet of this, and something that could really increase the chances of Chiarelli throwing up a Hail Mary pass, only to be intercepted by a waiting defender/happy GM:

It sounds like people above Chiarelli are taking a “playoff or bust” mentality.

This would be a concern with your run-of-the-mill, good-to-average GM. But with a GM who’s shot himself in the foot with trades so often, you’d think he didn’t have any toes left, it’s terrifying with Chiarelli.

(I mean, unless you’re rooting for one of the NHL’s other 30 teams. Then you’re calling for someone’s head if they aren’t calling Chiarelli every 15 minutes.)

Last week, Friedman noted in a 31 Thoughts podcast that executive suites and other ticket packages will be up for the Oilers after 2018-19, so the team has some very bottom-line-related reasons to chase a playoff spot, even if it means giving up dangerous value.

History repeating

In a more immediate sense, it feels like Chiarelli’s been more likely to make a one-for-one-type “hockey trade,” then moving a pick or prospect for a rental. After all, his most famous (Oilers) blunders involve Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome, and then somehow losing another Strome trade with Ryan Spooner (who the Oilers are – pause for laughter – already trying to shop).

Chiarelli’s history is really just a buffet of bad trades, though.

After all, one of his most notorious trades meant paying up Edmonton’s 2015 first and second-rounders for Griffin Reinhart, who’s currently playing in the AHL and hasn’t made an NHL appearance since 2015-16.

Dig deeper and you open old wounds, including to Chiarelli’s trades with Boston.

Looking at those days, it’s even scarier to trust Chiarelli’s speculative abilities when it comes to a young player’s future, whether it means making the right move with Puljujarvi (not easy for anyone right now, frankly) or determining if a rental is worth a first or even second-rounder.

After all, Chiarelli traded Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. The disastrous Tyler Seguin trade has Chiarelli’s fingerprints all over it.

It’s not fair to lay the Nail Yakupov era at Chiarelli’s feet, yet that name brings up uncomfortable parallels for Puljujarvi. Edmonton faces a crisis here: is there potential that some other team might unlock in Puljujarvi once they trade for him, or could it be that he’ll continue to be exposed as a potential bust, ultimately leading to the Oilers getting very little for him if they trade him later?

(That agonizing groan you just heard came from Edmonton.)

One minor salve

This all seems like a disaster waiting to happen for Edmonton, and an opportunity for another team to sucker a desperate GM and franchise, right?

Probably, and that’s where things get worse once again: if Chiarelli believes – reasonably – that his job security is on the line, wouldn’t he be more likely to make reckless, short-sighted moves that hurt the franchise in the long run?

With that in mind, there might be one way for the Oilers to mitigate a larger-scale disaster, even if it might mean a lower ceiling for this season. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis makes a very even-keeled suggestion (sub required): the Oilers should determine Chiarelli’s future in the next week, whether that means firing him or keeping him around.

Now, sure, more Chiarelli could open the door for more mistakes. In the grand scheme of things, he doesn’t seem to be learning from those mistakes.

Yet, making that decision now instead of later would at least help the Oilers avoid digging a hole even deeper for the would-be next GM, if they part ways with Chiarelli anyway.

After all, as Chiarelli said, other teams aren’t looking to help you come trade time, and the Oilers might just experience that sensation one last time under their much-maligned GM.

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.