January 18 2014 11:24AM
In 50 games of NHL action, these teams haven't moved past the problems apparent on opening night. That game was a goaltender's dual straight from the professional Beach Ball Association, and sloppy defensive play at both ends made for a wild contest of turnovers and odd opportunities.
Back of the CBC, there's no rhyme or reason to how this game will turn out between old rivals. The Oilers have changed both their goaltenders, added a host of bottom six players - from the developing in Roman Horak to the aging in Matt Hendricks - and are still at risk of falling to 30th. In all my years following the Oilers, I'm not sure things have ever been darker.
One of their few recent evenings of joy came December 23rd against the Claude Noel Jets. That 6-2 win was part of back-to-back losses and moved the needle significantly on the decision to make a coaching change. It also moved the needle on fan patience, and we've heard boo's at the MTS Centre and read the twitter rage of fans who want the whole team traded. Maybe they just needed to think out side the box and add lasers and hot tubs to the arena, like any self-respecting city would.
At this point for both clubs, it's about feeling better about the direction of things. Forget the content of the game - we'll all be watching the side show of Bryzgalov and Scrivens and Hendricks vs Paul Maurice for best new era. Susan Thompson gets it. Lasers before urban renewal, people. I want to see the future before it arrives!
- Ladd - Little - Frolik
- Thorburn - Scheifele - Wheeler
- Setoguchi - Jokinen - Byfuglien
- Wright - O'Dell - Peluso
I have to admit, these forward lines are not working. It's never popular to be that guy to warn of trouble after two convincing wins with a 10-3 combined score. But facing the struggling Coyotes, the offensively incapable Flames, and now the psychologically fragile Oilers is not the ultimate test for this team.
What Maurice said would start as an evaluation period for this team is starting to turn into 'the lines.' Setoguchi was -2 last game, and continues to look awkward on his off-wing. Byfuglien is scoring - 3 points in Maurice's 2 games, 4 points in his 3 games as a forward - but half of those points have come on the PP where he plays defence and his absence was felt on the back end against the Blue Jackets. Thorburn remains out of place when played up the roster.
Meanwhile, Tangradi remains both the team's best possession forward in the bottom six and the most frequent popcorn eater from the press box. O'Dell is missing the AHL All-Star weekend (Jason Jaffray took his place) to play limited minutes for a struggling club. In his 13 minutes against the Jackets, he had his first goal. In 9 minutes against Phoenix, he had another. But somehow he was back down to 6:35 against Calgary.
My greatest hope for this coach is that we end up at the 'common sense' lines. That Kane is kept away from Jokinen, Setoguchi kept away from the press box, and Thorburn kept away from the ice. I suspect that the first real challenge for this team will force Maurice to shuffle the group. We can only hope.
- Enstrom - Bogosian
- Stuart - Trouba
- Pardy - Ellerby
A lot of debate has started to centre around Pavelec. A few have argued that this coach is in place to save his season and thus his place in the organization. Maurice keeps telling us we need a defensive structure first before we evaluate the goalie.
The problem of course, is that Pavelec is having his worst season in a Jets uniform in the same year his backup is posting the best numbers of his career. We've seen Montoya play behind the same blunderous errors of the defense group and the Chris Thorburn experiment in which the Jets run a two-man breakout and let him just skate away from his defensive and transition assignments. We're at a loss to explain the massive gap in performance if we use the lens of team breakdowns.
One thing we can explain on this defence group is that Mark Stuart is a black hole. Trouba has struggled since joining the Prince of Gravity again. He played the role of rookie extremely well in the Columbus game especially. He still has his moments, and his edge move to get the inside lane for a clean wrister from the slot in Calgary was slick. We continue to wait for the team's experiments in cloning Tobias Enstrom.
In the vein, we heard news yesteray that Grant Clitsome is being shut down for the season with back surgery. He seems like a terrific person from the limited fan perspective, and it was nice to see Jets fans tweeting their well wishes at him. For the team, it's a loss. He was having a tough season, both in terms of injury and effectiveness, and I think it's fair to wonder whether he was playing through some ailments. His mistake quotient was higher than normal, and his pairing with Byfuglien nothing like what we remembered from the lockout season. The team doesn't have a replacement for his puck moving skills, and certainly not on the left side.
As it is with the forwards, we can hope that Zach Redmond, the healing Paul Postma, or Dustin Byfuglien can pull in for Stuart and Ellerby can return to his natural side. Still, the Pardy and Ellerby pairing has been terrific all season against lesser opponents. Perhaps we go all the way back to Bogosian-Trouba as a pairing. Or the team will acquire a left handed, top-4 defender. (And you thought I didn't like jokes!)
- Hall - Nugent Hopkins - Eberle
- Perron - Gagner - Jones
- Smyth - Gordon - Hendricks
- Gazdic - Arcobello - Joensuu
Yakupov suffered a head injury in the Oilers' last contest, and Hemsky is dealing with ankle problems from a blocked shot. Pundits talk on and on about how the Oilers have 'too many' skilled forwards. Yakupov and Hemsky are both on the chopping block for different reasons, and this is what the team looks like without them. Really soak that up.
Taylor Hall is the most outrageous snub from the Canadian Olympic team. He's an elite left winger in every way we can measure that except wins. His 45 points in 43 games on a bad club where he had to play centre for a while and with all sorts of different linemates is outrageously good. RNH and Eberle are scoring well also, and the three of them play the toughest competition for the team.
The real struggle for the Oilers this season is just how inexplicable it all is. Those three top-end players are all major minuses, and at -15, account for roughly a third of the team's league-worst -49 goal differential.
Gagner was finally in the right place as a #2 centre behind the budding All-Star RNH. Perhaps it was a pre-season broken jaw, but Gagner has not lived up to expectations, and it's been his defensive play that's at the root of it. Never the most mindful defensive player, Gagner was always tenacious and willing. This season, he seems to float more, not engage. They've used him on the wing, up and down the lineup. There's no apparent answer.
Gordon has had a fine season, but the Oilers immediately learned they needed Horcoff AND another defensive player. The swap has left them just as thin, and just as reliant on players like Ryan Jones, Ryan Smyth (who is having a very nice season, by the way), and now the effortful Matt Hendricks.
Luke Gazdic earned his place on this squad with his first goal on a weak backhander from a broken faceoff in the Jets' end. He's their Peluso, only he didn't forget Oprah's name during an intermission segment. Jesse Joensuu was a good bet for the Oilers - a scorer in the Finnish league with some NHL experience, massive size, and strong hockey skills. I'm not sure where things went wrong for the young man, but he's been a pressbox decoration for much of the season. I'd still like to see him tried in a Jets' jersey.
Most frustrating for Oilers fans is that Mark Arcobello and David Perron are the likely stars (after the top trio, of course). Arcobello was playing the ECHL just 4 seasons ago, and as an undersized two-way centre, worked his way up to playing with Eberle during the lockout and then earned a spot on the NHL team during the Gagner injury. In relative corsi, he's a positive contributor for the team, and has 18 points in 38 games despite assignments like the one he has today between two ogres.
David Perron is everything this team could have dreamed for. He scores, he plays physically, he's mean and gritty, and he's a positive contributor to possession numbers. He shows the team what a St Louis trained hockey player looks like, and as a skill player in the West, shows the ineffectiveness of one-dimensional players in today's game. In the Western conference, it's very hard to win when you have offence in one player and defence in another one.
- Ference - J. Schultz
- N. Schultz - Belov
- Marincin - Petry
We talked about this area of the team quite a bit when I compared the 2014 Jets to the 2009 Oilers. Tambellini mishandled Souray and failed to live up to the Human Resources part of the job, leading to a bad public spat and a petty attempt to shame the player by loaning him to the AHL. That same GM in that same season traded Visnovsky because his awful coach didn't like the player. The team started down a path of drowning Tom Gilbert and losing Grebeshkov to Russia and sending both Staois and eventually Smid to a rival. The entire defence group of 2009, perhaps the best the team had had in the wake of the Pronger deal, was dismantled because poor coaching led to poor evaluation, poor goaltending led to poor numbers, and a general manager without perspective led to poor returns on investment.
This GM promised changes, and we've seen a lot of them. The struggle to evaluate the mess continues, however.
From an outsider's perspective, Nick Schultz is the weak link. When the team could play him down on the third pairing (and didn't play Ryan Whitney) last season, the defence group was passable. He's not a lot like Mark Stuart in style or content, but Nick Schultz has that same effect of dragging the whole team to the wrong end for the wrong reasons. He's on the team because of outmoded ideas of variety in the defence group, of needing that 'shut down' player as though players have to specialize in stick skills or body work. Simple-play defenders have value in a well-organized team, but something happened to Schultz before he left Minnesota. He went from a top-4 contributor to a bottom pairing problem before being traded to the only GM who didn't do his own research. He's a UFA this season, and we may see some improvement in this group through subtraction come deadline day.
Meanwhile, Martin Marincin has made a huge splash in his NHL debut. I rated him as the Most NHL Ready of the Oilers' players at the Young Stars Tournament, and in limited and sheltered minutes, he's proving me right so far. He's played 12 games, is +1 and the team leader in corsi numbers. Just astonishing, even given the context of his role.
Jets fans have lots to boo in this game. Bryzgalov said we didn't have enough parks to purchase his services on the free agent market. (What about evergreens with white lights and lasers you can see from space, you ass!?) Young Yak inspired a riot in the last match by winging Pavelec and later scoring a goal the Jets wish hadn't happened. Somehow he got the bad rap in that, even though Ladd and Bogosian speared him, Byfuglien two-handed him on the shoulder, and 5 guys tried to beat him up at a faceoff in a lost game. Anyway, the Jets won't get their... revenge? second helping? I'm not sure what they wanted, but fans were looking forward to it. So they can boo that too!
But for all that, there's hockey on a Saturday afternoon between two sloppy teams. It can only be entertaining.