My god, seventy-seven more games of this. Do you realize how long the Edmonton Oilers season is going to be? We haven't yet seen ten percent of the awful, abominable, soul-crushing losses that we are fated to endure for the rest of 2010-11. The cup of our misery may feel like it runneth over, but in actual fact it has barely begun to be filled. If Rick Rypien burst into Rexall Place and punched a fan to death, it would be a mercy killing.
In no sense, right now, is this team enjoyable. There are precious few parts of it to which I feel even a lingering affection. Ales Hemsky, of course. Big ol' Dustin Penner. Shawn Horcoff, if only for the memory or glory days long past, and the kids, if only because of the hope that they'll achieve something once they're finally freed from this prison. Even in those cases, I find myself starting to root for them to leave. "Come on, Ales. We're going to be miserable no matter what happens as long as Tambellini's running the circus, and you deserve better than this. Go sign with Chicago and win a Cup. You deserve it." Maybe that's why I support Sheldon Souray so whole-heartedly: I'm not disappointed he criticized the organization and demanded a trade, I'm impressed it took him so long to do so.
What else is there to possibly enjoy? Tom Renney, shambling behind the bench, an inert automaton with a dead skunk on his head? The assortment of dreadful players sucking up money like it was vodka and giving us nothing in return but the athletic equivalent of an obese man defecating on our faces? Oh, sure, once Minnesota had that 3-1 lead under their belt a few of the Oilers started trying again. There were moments of hustle, a nice greasy goal from a nice gutsy captain, a couple moments of something approaching skill against a mediocre team that was backing right off the Oilers. People who can do fancy things with numbers, like subtract, will tell you the game was pretty even. When I went over to mc79hockey.com to steal Dennis's scoring chance numbers that I will refer to throughout this post, I saw the Oilers only finished down a single chance. That game sounds close!
It wasn't. The Oilers had as much chance of winning that game as I have of winning Most Prolific Poster of the Year. The Oilers will let Derek centre the second line before they'll win a hockey game playing like that. It was Edmonton's ISO standard crappy hockey game. Seventy-seven more to go.
Signs of the Oilers' modern-day decrepitude were everywhere. The team got dreadful performances from the likes of Jim Vandermeer, Ryan Jones, Colin Fraser, and a pretty poor one from Nikolai Khabibulin: all veterans brought in by the Steve Tambellini regime. Kyle Brodziak, who Steve Tambellini got rid of for more-or-less nothing, lit us up for a brace on our ice. Of course, we also got lousy play from Theo Peckham, Zack Stortini, and Ladislav Smid, while Steve Tambellini acquisitions Ryan Whitney and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson might have been our two best players. I guess what I'm saying is that nothing about this team can be divided into neat compartments of "this part sucks more" and "that part sucks more": it all sucks pretty equally.
Highlights would have to be pointed at by hand. It was Andrew Cogliano's finest game of the season, which is to say it was average. Playing with Taylor Hall is apparently good for him: a puck wizard/budding rink general and a speed demon often make a strong combination, as the young Hall does the work and the more seasoned Cogliano goes fast (it's really more effective than it sounds). Shawn Horcoff's goal was plenty ugly, the sort of dirty second-effort goal that you like to see a guy like Horcoff score. Hey, isn't it nice to have a captain who you can cheer for without feeling like a louse again? Ales Hemsky's goal was plenty pretty, a natural sniper's finish like you'd expect from Hemsky, although my surprise at Kurtis Foster actually connecting a cross-ice pass to set the goal up may have caused me to lock up. One of my coworkers had to unplug me and plug me back in after that. Foster actually had an okay game, and I can't even find some sarcastic, backhanded compliment for him. That was genuinely pretty good.
Hey, you remember back when Matt Greene was a rookie, and how he'd take penalties for skating too near an opposing player? But eventually he settled down and the refs got to know him and now he's one of the finest defensive defensemen in the Western Conference, while we've already sold the guy we traded him for at a knock-down price for somebody else's problem? Theo Peckham is the opposite of that guy. He can give Cal Clutterbuck the ol' forearm shiver at the blue line and no problem! When Peckham knocked Clutterbuck over I half-expected Theo to bust out the ol' elbow drop and try to put Clutterbuck to sleep once and for all. Also, while Greene was clearly raw but had the makings of a Jason Smith type in there, Peckham is just raw. Maybe he has the makings of a Jim Vandermeer type, but we've got the actual Jim Vandermeer and I'm not enjoying that experience too much either. It's just as well Peckham is underpenalized, since our penalty kill strategy appears to be "duck and cover".
Now, I can already hear people carping. The scoring chances were even! Maybe they were. I'd give the Wild a slight edge, but only a slight one. Of course, given how much longer the Oilers spent on the power play than the Wild, you'd expect the chances to tilt a bit in Edmonton's direction. Even a power play as tremendously, fantastically awful as Edmonton's will tend to get more chances than it gives up. More to the point, as soon as the Wild were up 3-1 on that ugly Vandermeer own goal (Khabibulin was out of position, by the way, or he would have had it) they sat back so far the Oilers should have had couches brought out. They weren't really trapping; more sitting back and allowing themselves to be attacked with smug expressions on their faces. Oh, look, Jordan Eberle is trying to dipsy-doodle. That's adorable. As soon as Horcoff had his ugly goal in the third, the play started to run Minnesota's way again. They took the majority of the chances and limited Edmonton's opportunities, picking up an empty-net goal and skating away having never really been challenged.
This is what I mean when I say the Oilers never had a chance to win the game. When the result was actually in doubt, Minnesota dominated. When they had a couple goals to play with, they took their foot off the gas and the Oilers utterly failed to punish them for it. The numbers were close, but the game never was.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars:
18th Star: F Ryan Jones. Poor Ryan Jones. You play a minute and three seconds and you're eighteenth star. That's hard, even for me, and I live for the taste of an athlete's crushed ego. But when, in 1:03, you manage to go -2, get out-chanced 0-3, are directly culpable for a goal against by completely failing to mark your man flying in towards the hash marks, and generally reek so brutally of uselessness that even Rawhide Renney feels compelled to staple your sorry hide to the bench, that's a reverse three stars-worthy performance.
Jones wasn't the only Oiler to be victimized thusly: his linemates, Colin Fraser and Zack Stortini, got front-row seats to the Brodziak Show and never saw the ice afterwards. Jones takes the eighteenth star because at least Fraser and Stortini - particularly Stortini - were playing hard defense. Stortini was skating behind the line, trying to knock guys off the puck, and generally stirring up trouble. He wasn't doing it well, but he was doing it. Jones was more-or-less gliding, occasionally sticking out an arm or a stick in a misguided attempt at obstruction. Brodziak's second goal was entirely Jones's fault, as Jones had to cover Brodziak but seemingly forgot he was there. Fraser and Stortini are certainly honourable mentions, but Jones takes the step towards the Golden Rooster this time.
19th Star: D Ladislav Smid. As has often been established, I'm not much good with numbers. I don't go for none of you city folks' book learning. But I do understand that, if you're allegedly a defensively-oriented defenseman, it's a bad night if you're on the ice for six scoring chances and a goal against, as opposed to two scoring chances and no goals for. A 1:3 scoring chance ratio does not seem like a path to hockey enlightenment. He didn't come off too well on Brodziak's second goal, either, being caught chasing and managing to get both hands on Guillaume Latendresse without so much as slowing the Wild forward down.
Hey, smart guys, have we figured out why Ladislav Smid is on the power play yet? He did 2:27 5v4 against Minnesota! I like Ladislav Smid, I keep saying he's Barret Jackman, but even I wouldn't call him an offensive specimen. Or even offensively aware. I'm not sure anyone's told him there's more than just the defensive and neutral zones on the ice. He's a decent enough passer, but in a simple way. Short but accurate. Good skill to have in your own zone or killing penalties, but not exactly going to work with the man advantage. He also shoots less than I do and I don't even play in the NHL. Not only would I rather have a forward on the power play than Smid, I'd rather have a goalie.
20th Star: D Tom Gilbert. Speaking of guys I can't figure out what they're doing on the power play. I shouldn't go that far. Gilbert's got a history of generation with the man advantage, he's tended to be a fair if not elite even strength player, etc. etc. What I don't get is, given that he has such a clear history of competent play, how on Earth is he managing to blow his brains out so brutally this year? A couple good games when the Oilers were winning, but two real stinkers in a row and a whole season of power play performance that could be summed up as "have to get rid of this puck within five seconds no matter where it goes or it'll explode".
As one of the few Oilers who've proven he can handle decent NHL opposition, Tom Renney is quite rightly relying on Gilbert to get results. Gilbert is not delivering, just like he didn't last year when injuries forced him into a similar role. It feels like Gilbert's a young player but he turns twenty-eight in January. He should be coming into his prime as a two-way defenseman. Instead he's on a plateau, and perhaps has been for two or three seasons. Gilbert remains a useful player, but the more the Oilers need him the more exposed he's been.