Edmonton - Vancouver Post-Game: So Close, and Yet So Far Away

I'd like to coin a saying. Score effects is the explanation for whenever the Edmonton Oilers play well.

It's true that the Oilers were playing their best once they fell behind 3-0. The Canucks clearly took their foot off the proverbial gas pedal and the Oilers seized the advantage, fighting back and tying affairs up. Once the game was tied, Raffi Torres scored the (brutal) winner, the Oilers didn't pick up any particularly good chances, and that was that. Classic score effects: the Oilers get all their chances when they're behind and the other team isn't trying, but as soon as the result is in question the Canucks assert themselves. They're now 3-5-2, which would be a pretty good batting average but is a pretty poor record.

I can't buy that narrative completely tonight. To tell the truth, apart from a few dishonourable exceptions I thought the Oilers played a pretty good game. At even strength, they played the formidable Canucks close to even in my books. The Oilers were let down, brutally, by the same team weaknesses that we've been railing against all year. But their strengths remained their strengths, and given that the Canucks are being penciled into the Western Conference final by a few folks I'm hardly throwing shot glasses through my television.

If the Oilers were coached as well as the Canucks, they might have come out with a win. If they'd gotten one more lucky break, they'd at least have gotten a point. As it was they lost the game, but they lost it with some distinction and skated away with a lot of credit. Given that this is a really bad hockey team, I'm going to take those bright sides when they come.

The coaching really is going to kill me dead, though.

The shoddy coaching killed us in both big ways and small ones. The big one was the penalty kill: on their first two short-handed chances the Oilers allowed two goals on two shots, and even afterwards they looked awful, even if they weren't being scored on. Derek's gone into frankly frightening detail of the Oilers' penalty-killing foibles and will again, so I won't dare repeat him. Suffice to say that the team has more than lived up to the sterling reputation it's winning itself for shorthanded play. I particularly noticed troubled play from Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick: Smid was pretty shoddy athletically and lost too many puck battles, while Strudwick went nuts trying to skate into guys and seemed always to be in the wrong position. That was true at both even strength and shorthanded, mind you.

Derek is convinced the Oilers' shorthanded struggles are down to coaching. I think they're hurting for good PK forwards: the defensemen have to run around more because the forwards are letting the puck get deep too easily and allowing the other team's point men to do whatever they like, and that destroys the entire aggressive penalty kill strategy. But, given the horrible results to date, it's hard to believe Ralph Krueger could be helping matters.

Nikolai Khabibulin struggled again, which is hard to blame on the coaches except that Devan Dubnyk hasn't had a bad game in seemingly a hundred years and he should probably get a couple starts here and there. We're rebuilding, right? Relentlessly? Seems a young goaltender might be a nice part of that, but if Tom Renney thinks Dubnyk would be better served sitting on the bench watching a drunk old man get beat five-hole by every third-line schmuck in the Northwest Division I guess that's fine too.

Finally, I'm not sure what Renney was doing with his lines. Derek was nice enough to send me some of the line information because I'm too damned lazy to look up myself: Gagner, Hemsky, and Paajarvi-Svensson went -7, -6, and -5 on even-strength chances (as scored by Dennis King), respectively. This was pretty poor, but it was because that line was mostly out against the Manny Malhotra and Ryan Kesler lines. They also got caught out for Raffi Torres' first even-strength goal with Malhotra. It's hard to have your "first line" avoid either the opponent's second or third line, but given that Renney had last change and his first line was clearly getting worked he should have at least tried. Instead, he kept doing the same thing expecting different results, and he did not get them.

The rest of the forwards did pretty well: Penner, Cogliano, and Brule finished slightly to the good on chances. Jones, Fraser, and Stortini slightly in the red. And the EHH line of Eberle, Horcoff, and Hall finished well in the black: a neat trick when you're mostly up against the Sedins. Given how well two of his lines were doing and the fact that his fourth line was close to treading water, it's frankly dispiriting that Renney couldn't find a way to hide the only line that was struggling.

Our real struggles weren't at 5v5, but in odd-man situations. I've never in my life seen a team better suited for the four-forwards one-defense power play. Gagner, Penner, Hemsky, Eberle, and Whitney; Horcoff, Hall, Brule, Paajarvi-Svensson, and Gilbert. Those don't work? Plenty of scoring punch. In Eberle you have a forward who's effective enough defensively to cover 5v4, and in Paajarvi-Svensson you have a forward fast enough to make up for a lot of mistakes. It gives you more mobility and gets you out of the destructive pass-pass-CANNONADING DRIVE trap that's cost Edmonton chances. Both units have plenty of skill. But Renney's determination to stick with coaching orthodoxy circa 1985 hurts the Oilers' chances in the name of being conventional. I don't want Kurtis Foster, who can shoot but neither skate nor pass, within fifty miles of an NHL power play: guys like that make highlight reels but they don't make good plays.

Edmonton's terrible defense raises some interesting implications. For example, late in the game the Oilers tried to pull Nikolai Khabibulin and went with a standard four forwards, two defensemen setup. Why would a team in Edmonton's position do that? You have reasonable forward depth, and in particular, you have forwards who can score a few goals. Your defensemen are mostly inert offensively and all-round terrible. So why wouldn't you run Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, and Ales Hemsky (your most established chemistry combination), Jordan Eberle (the best of your other forwards), Ryan Whitney (the most offensively-aware defenseman and best passer), and whichever one of Taylor Hall, Andrew Cogliano, or Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson was playing the best? It's hard to believe it would be worse defensively than replacing the other forward with Tom Gilbert or Kurtis Foster, and it would certainly give you both a better chance at scoring the equalizer, and more speed in the all-important transition.

Yes, those defensemen. Dennis' numbers say that the only Oilers' defensemen to finish above even on even-strength scoring chances were Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick. Given how terrible they looked to me while they were on the ice, I can only assume that they were so thoroughly carried by their forward units that Dustin Penner thought he was wearing a backpack all night.

I swear that Ladislav Smid used to be a good defenseman, and I swear that Theo Peckham could become one, but neither of them looked it last night. Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney looked alright, even if their results were only "meh." Kurtis Foster and Jason Strudwick looked like ECHL fodder. That was the game in a nutshell. Replace Strudwick with an experienced penalty-killing warrior like, hell, I don't know, Sheldon Souray, and this game probably goes the other way.

I'm pretty sure I've written that exact analysis for every game this season. It hasn't become less true over time. If we're trying to pick early through deliberate mismanagement, we're doing a pretty good job. If we're trying to plug known weaknesses and make the playoffs then...

Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars:

18th Star: G Nikolai Khabibulin. I'm out of ways to describe him. He didn't make a save that would get him on the Highlights of the Night, let out way too many rebounds that could come back to haunt him, had as reprehensible a five-hole as ever, and was generally standard Crappy Nikolai Khabibulin.

Early in the game, John Garrett fluffed Khabibulin by saying that, unlike Devan Dubnyk or Jeff Deslauriers, you can always be sure that you'll get the same quality game from Khabibulin every game. I agree. You can absolutely rely on Khabibulin to play like this.

19th Star: D Jason Strudwick. Dennis tells us that Strudwick went +1 on even strength scoring chances. +1 isn't bad. He was also +1 on the more conventional +/-. This is why I hate math. It's impossible to say "that was a horrible game by the numbers." But that was a horrible game. For such a veteran, for a guy who's played nine thousand NHL games, he still doesn't seem aware of the dimensions of an NHL rink. On the penalty kill, rather than hang back and keep position, he'd charge head-long into the fray. Even when Ladislav Smid was battling for the puck along the boards, as soon as Smid lost out there was Strudwick, going for a body check and putting the whole penalty kill on Khabibulin's left, leaving two Canucks wide open for easy cross-ice passes.

His even strength performance was less bad, but still not good. He didn't make a single decent pass, he took the rap for the winning goal by standing aimlessly between Khabibulin and Raffi Torres rather than actually checking his man, and I don't remember thinking "wow, Strudwick did a really good job rubbing out his man there." Even Smid and Peckham had a few decent moments like that. Strudwick was absolutely irredeemable. All the same, he got results at even strength and I can't ignore that: he was doing something not wrong.

20th Star: Tom Renney? Nah, coaches haven't been eligible for this award yet and I don't want to start, since if I did he'd live in the twentieth star spot for the foreseeable future. Instead, permit to cringe while I assign the dishonour to F Ales Hemsky. The first forward to make the Reverse Three Stars in a few games, Hemsky did it the ugly way. His penalty killing performance was pretty poor, even if he wasn't out for either goal against. Offensively, he was skating aimlessly, largely mishandling the puck, and didn't generate a single half-way decent chance with his famous skill.

Of course Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson isn't ready for the calibre of opponent he faced, but with Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky watching him, he should have had some help. Gagner wasn't great but he was better than Hemsky, who didn't have a single redeeming moment in the game that I can recall. He was definitely outplayed by the rookie he was supposed to be babysitting; he was almost exclusively pinned back in his own zone; and he has hopefully made his last appearance on the Reverse Three Stars this season.

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