When the Edmonton Oilers said this season was “Cup or bust,” a lot of us just assumed they were leaning toward Cup.
It seemed like the better of the two options. Harder, yes, but worth it in the end. And the players sure sounded convincing when they spoke in training camp about being the most determined version of themselves that we’ve ever seen.
Looks like we guessed wrong.
Ten games into this Twighlight Zone of a season they are grabbing bust with both hands.
At a bottom-feeding 2-7-1, the second-worst team in the NHL still can’t find the fortitude and hockey sense needed to crawl out of this mess before it’s too late.
That their effort is being questioned this deep in the crisis is fairly alarming because 10 games into a season is when the ‘it’s early’ excuse melts away and it’s fair to evaluate a team’s body of work. We should be seeing improvement in the Oilers but in a pair of urgent, must-win games they looked worse on Saturday than they did on Thursday.
As the Oilers gear up for Monday’s road game against a hard-charging Vancouver team that pistol-whipped them 8-1 last time they visited, here are five things (mostly bad) to ponder:
IT’S HALF A TEAM
Ryan McLeod, Dylan Holloway, Derek Ryan, Connor Brown, Mattias Janmark, and Adam Erne have combined for 52 man games this season and have a grand total of two assists, one of them coming on an empty net goal in a 5-2 win.
It’s like they melted six guys down and poured the goo into a Jesse Puljujarvi mold. To make matters worse, it sometimes seems like they are trying to compensate for a lack of production by not being physical.
The tough part is that Jay Woodcroft’s hands are tied. Holloway or McLeod or any member of the Slumbering Six should have been healthy scratched by now, but the team doesn’t have enough cap space to afford subs. And when there is no competition for jobs, a player can lose his edge very quickly.
This can’t go on. There needs to be some movement on this front — trades, demotions, anything to shake some life into the third and fourth lines.
It’s already starting. Once again, another coach of the Edmonton Oilers has to wonder if he’s on the hot seat because the team is underachieving.
Woodcroft could stand to be harder on this group, but given this team’s tepid goaltending, complete lack of depth, perennial lack of defensive awareness and struggling superstars (Leon Draisaitl hasn’t scored in seven games, Connor McDavid hasn’t scored in five), coaching is well down on the list of things that need to be fixed.
But that’s not always the way it works, at least not in Edmonton where they are on their fourth coach in nine seasons (Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchcock, Dave Tippett and Woodcroft).
GM Ken Holland never canned a coach in mid-season in a quarter century and now this crew is playing like it might happen twice in three years?
That’s the dictionary definition of a coach killers.
If it’s me in charge, I’m leaning on somebody to waive a no movement clause and trading a core piece before I fire another coach. But if it has to be the coaching route, then I bring in the baddest cop I can find. A John Tortorella, only more abrasive. A cross between Darryl Sutter and Mike Babcock.
If the situation deteriorates to the point where somebody else gets fired, then this team needs the whip more than it needs another excuse.
STILL WITH THE DEFENCE
If you’ve ever seen drunk teenagers trying to escape a corn maze you have some idea of the Oilers ability to make quick, smart decisions in the heat of battle lately.
Not saying defensive awareness goes against this team’s natural instinct, but it’s been a lot like trying to teach a cat how to fetch.
Forwards have been gliding to the bench for line changes during neutral zone turnovers, coasting home on the back check and forcing dangerous passes across the offensive zone. Defenceman left at the mercy of the ensuing problems are pinching when they shouldn’t, puck-watching in their own end and not being nearly physical enough around their own net.
It’s all the same stuff critics and coaches in this town have been harping on for years.
This is at the heart of all that is ailing them. This team can score all the power play goals it wants, but until they get it through their heads that protecting their own half of the ice is priority one, they’re never winning a championship.
THAT’S A FINE MESS
The deepest cut of the last week came from none other than former captain Mark Messier, who gave an honest and scathing opinion of his former team in an interview with Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos.
“The expectations are going to be great when you have two of the world’s greatest players on the team, but unfortunately the two greatest players in the world can’t win alone,” he said, citing the team’s lack of depth and commitment.
“If you’re not completely immersed in the journey of what it takes to win, you’re going to have zero chance. I just don’t see the Oilers, at this point, playing with the kind of urgency defensively that you would need or expect from a team that talked all summer about how they’ve learned all their lessons.
“The (lack of) compete and battle in front of the net, the defence being pushed off pucks and getting out of position, I just don’t see it.
“They have a lot of work to do in Edmonton to be able to take on a team like Vegas over seven games. I don’t see it right now, but maybe they’ll make some changes as we go along and the attitude will change.”
THE MATH CHECKS OUT
First place in the Pacific Division is already out of reach. And if the Vancouver Canucks are anything close to real, second is gone, too. The Oilers are playing to just make the playoffs and avoid Vegas in the first round.
It took 95 points to make it last year. The Oilers currently have five points with 72 games left. That means 45 wins and 27 losses (a 62.5 winning percentage) from here on in.
It’s doable. The St. Louis Blues were dead last in the NHL on Jan. 2, 2019, and won a Cup that year. The L.A. Kings won a Cup from eighth place.
If they get it together, they’ll be fine, but it has to start happening very, very soon.
“There is tons of hockey left, but every team is so good that it’s not easy to start racking up eight wins in a row or something,” said defenceman Brett Kulak. “So time is definitely a factor.”
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