Everyone gets gifts at Christmas. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
In this Christmas season, it seems all-too-appropriate for the Edmonton Oilers' most recent game to have been an unfortunate, universally regretted family reunion.
Jarret Stoll, Ryan Smyth, and Matt Greene were getting a visit from their old family and friends, of whom very few actually remained from their day but still, family is family. They came into the Staples Center, probably pointed out the wallpaper, "oh, what a lovely statue of Wayne Gretzky you guys have in front of the building, almost as lovely as ours." And sure, for the first twenty minutes both clans were playing it conservative. Laughing at each others' jokes, tip-toeing around, never risking anything hazardous or for that matter entertaining. Then uncle Theo got a little tipsy, and you know that when uncle Theo has been drinking he's going to fight someone, and he put that nice Clifford boy in the hospital with a broken everything. It would be enough to put you right off your turkey dinner.
Then, gradually, the pretenses of civility were abandoned. It was like everybody had a little tipple in the first intermission, because they came out running over each other. Taylor Hall was all like "you treat me like I'm a little kid" and beat Jonathan Quick, and Jean-Francois Jacques did his best John Cazale impression, shouting that he's older brother and everyone thinks he's dumb but he's not completely useless; look, he scored a goal! And the Oilers special teams reeled about their own zone as if they'd downed every case of champagne in the city of Los Angeles, falling into each other and getting in the wrong place at the wrong time and generally looking like the nitwits we all know they are but are reluctant to own up to in mixed company. By the time the shootout had ended (typical Oilers: ending the evening by taking shots), the Kings were just relieved to see us leave. Not that they were the most gracious hosts either: both of Edmonton's goals were of the "defenses stumbling around looking inept" type, and what went so badly for us could easily have gone so badly for them. Like most dysfunctional families, this family is screwed up all the way through.
Oh, we love 'em. But don't try to pretend the Oilers' game was a clinic in steadiness, coherence, and competence, because I'll assume you've had even more to drink than I have.
This game was sloppy. Calling it bad would be a bridge too far, but it was absolutely sloppy. The Oilers put on a fair show against the Kings, who are no slouches in the hockey playing department. I don't want to condemn the team for playing a miserable game: indeed, they restricted Los Angeles's chances fairly well, kept themselves in the game for sixty-five minutes against superior opposition, and wound up losing in a shootout. Edmonton escapes with both a point and a lot of credit. That was an okay performance, boys, top to bottom.
That said, there was nothing precise about this game. Nothing technical, nothing uplifting, not a single moment that would crack "Howie Meeker's Hockey Basics". It was a sloppy game between two teams that, bluntly, looked as if they were pretty excited to get some time off for Christmas. The Oilers get to fly back home, enjoy two days off, then fly to Vancouver for a Boxing Day tilt against the Canucks. That's the sort of length vacation with one's family that causes even the most hardened professional athlete to lose a bit of focus.
I don't mean to condemn the Oilers, but they were not playing their hardest, tightest game. It's just true. For once, the defense held its own. None of the blueliners were really dreadful, although a couple of them weren't great. Devan Dubnyk, back in goal, put on a vintage Devan Dubnyk performance and didn't allow any weaklings like Jonathan Quick did in the other crease. A coach couldn't have been happy with it, particularly a coach entertaining the public hallucination that we're somehow going to make the playoffs. Nor was it terrific to watch, with the first period being one long nap and the third hardly more exciting. Linus Omark's much-anticipated second crack at the shootout turned out to be a dud, and only Jordan Eberle (of course) got us on the board at all. Really, you can't expect too much more from a night game on December 23.
If I talk long enough about how boring and erratic the game was, eventually you won't notice that I don't have anything substantive to say about the play. That said, this was not a substantive game. The Oilers did okay, they got a point, and I'll be fine if I never see a game like that again. Now let's move on.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars (Oh, Heavens, Where Do I Start? Edition):
18th Star: F Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson. This is the first edition of the Reverse Three Stars this season where I really let the forwards have it. The defensemen were okay. Theo Peckham and Tom Gilbert acquitted themselves well, Ryan Whitney was playing as effortlessly as ever, Ladislav Smid and Kurtis Foster were unusually inoffensive, and even Jason Strudwick was a pale shadow of his usual horrible self. The blue line didn't let us down. The forwards kinda did.
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson was a magnificent example. He wasn't awful, because the Oilers didn't play an awful game. He was merely bad. He took a glorious feed from Dustin Penner in the first period and shot it right into Jonathan Quick's chest. He thundered up and down the ice and was largely ineffective. One thing I noticed about Paajarvi today was that, while he seems inclined to forecheck (he certainly has the speed and the energy for it), he hangs back a lot. Not long before Hall's goal, for example, Paajarvi seemed ready to blast into the Kings zone on the forecheck but caught himself and hung back between the Los Angeles blue line and the red line. While standing there, he achieved precisely zilch. It was wasted time for Paajarvi, but he still loitered back there.
We preach that young forwards have to play a defensively responsible game. You can't win anymore trying to run the other guys off the ice. But there's such a thing as taking that principle too far, and Paajarvi might be getting there: in the name of defensive responsibility, he's letting sensible opportunities for aggression slide, and he's abandoning his natural instincts which got him as far as he's come in this game. Contrast this to Linus Omark, who had another good-but-unspectacular game playing his natural style. He muscled, he fought, he took chances, and he looked far more comfortable than Paajarvi-Svensson did even though Paajarvi-Svensson is, by any measurement I can come up with, better.
19th Star: F Ryan Jones. They call him "Tubthumper". I actually don't know why, but it does feel appropriate. I can't count how many times in the last two months I've heard Sportsnet call him a "breakaway specialist", and "Tubthumper" is at least better than that.
Whatever tub thumping is, I bet Jones did a metric shit-tonne of it in this game. His usual ability to fall around the ice was on display (has any decent NHL player, which Jones undeniably is, ever been a less reliable skater?) but most of his positive traits were not. Ryan Jones, at his best, is a take-no-prisoners son-of-a-gun. Like quite a poor man's Mike Grier, he charges around the ice and causes havoc. He's got enough skill and intelligence to come out ahead against evenly-matched opposition, but even when he's playing badly he's contributing as a destabilizing influence on the other team. He's a chaos forward, and I have a soft spot for chaos forwards.
What we got out of Ryan Jones in this game was the wrong sort of chaos. His performance on the penalty kill, while brief, was inglorious, and at even strength he barely treaded water against a mediocre Los Angeles attack that was not exactly inspired. He did very little himself, and while he didn't give up many chances Jones saw so few challenges that we could have replaced him with a skating platypus.
20th Star: F Colin Fraser. Getting kind of sick of this guy, the Kyle Brodziak replacement that never was. I don't miss Shawn Horcoff, of course, because as we can see the team is playing tight defense and winning without him, but if I did miss Shawn Horcoff then Colin Fraser would be a big reason why. Brought in to win draws and anchor the third line, Fraser has been instead an entirely different kind of anchor. He only took six faceoffs, sitting out in favour of Sam Gagner, Dustin Penner (who's a left wing), and Andrew Cogliano (who isn't anything as far as I can tell; boy, was he close to cracking the Reverse Three Stars). If he made a single decent check or a clever play off the puck to keep Los Angeles off the attack, I didn't see it. And he certainly didn't chip in offensively.
All in all, a fairly typical Colin Fraser game this season. He hasn't been really terrible, or at least not Jason Strudwick terrible, which has so far kept him safe from the wrath of the Reverse Three Stars. But on a night where the Oilers were pretty much average, Fraser played the same crappy game he's had all year. This isn't just a twentieth star for today; this is a twentieth star for 2010.