Well, that sucked.
This blowout went as so many blowouts do. It began on a note of farce, with the Oilers' Sportsnet staff trying to fire up the viewer. It should have been easy to get people excited for this game, coming as it did a couple nights after one of the wins of the season. Instead, there was a perfunctory video montage talking about the "comeback kids" and then a few minutes of rambling on about how great Nikolai Khabibulin is because he's tenth in the league in saves. You were probably thinking the same thing I was, which is that being tenth in saves isn't exactly a compliment when you're a rebound-shanking goaltender playing behind a terrible defense with a save percentage just above .900.
Then it continued on a note of... well, additional farce. Twenty-six seconds in and Patrick Dwyer gets one through. Patrick Dwyer? He scored seven goals last year, or two fewer than Ethan Moreau, and yet Khabibulin casually let Brandon Sutter's dinky little sling of the puck skid off his pads into a spot where even Patrick Dwyer wasn't going to miss. Three more goals on seven more shots later, Khabibulin had knocked his already below-average save percentage down a bunch of points, picked up only four more saves for his trouble, and bits of the Oilers were left splattered all over Raleigh. I think Dustin Penner's thumb landed in a luxury box. Then the Hurricanes scored three more on us, a Nelsonian ha-ha.
I want to give you guys a detailed overview of the game, some clever observations, a couple of good gags, you know, the usual. I really, truly do. After a few blowouts, though, they all start to run together. The jokes sound the same, the analysis descends into banalysis. Particularly if you're like me and you're working from a fairly limited playbook to begin with. This is already the second game the Oilers have lost by five or more in thirteen games this season. On top of the five such losses last year, they've piled up awful fast and the supply of rhetoric empties in double time.
I cannot possibly muster anything either intelligent or funny if I take the game as a whole, because taken as a whole that game was nothing but despair and misery. Instead, permit me to delve into a few particular scares in that sixty-minute horror movie. Let's look at the forest for the trees, because the trees might be dark and miserable but the forest is on fire.
Since we allowed seven goals, and since the goaltending has been something of a preoccupation of mine, let's start there. It was lovely to see you again, Devan Dubnyk, and I hope we can meet again soon under better circumstances. Dubnyk has been the victim of Edmonton's bizarre campaign to play a below-league-average 37-year-old goaltender until his back explodes. By my count Dubnyk has played only poor game in his last eight, and Khabibulin has played one good game in the same time. Dubnyk is younger, healthier, cheaper, and better. Yet Khabibulin keeps getting the run out, and without speculating about the Oilers deliberately tanking the season it's hard to imagine why.
Tonight, Dubnyk showed his mettle again. Khabibulin had a .500 save percentage, and Dubnyk mustered a .911. Don't give me "score effects", either, since Dubnyk faced thirty-four shots in his fifty-two minutes and he didn't allow a single regrettable goal. Dubnyk's got a reputation for occasionally imploding in the crease, but he's never had a game as poor as Khabibulin just did. If the Oilers aren't trying to pick first overall this year, there's no excuse for playing Khabibulin ahead of Dubnyk. Even if they are, we'd be better off in the long run with a confident and experience Dubnyk than an old and ineffective Khabibulin. Derek harps on the penalty kill, but for me the handling of our goaltenders has been the most egregious coaching mistake of the 2010-11 season.
Another questionable coaching decision came up when Renney, infuriated by his team's shoddy play, stapled Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall to the bench. Hall played seven shifts in the first period, four in the second, and two in the third. Eberle kept going for most of the second period, taking six shifts, but only got off the bench once in the final frame. Actually, I do understand where Renney is coming from. The rookies are the ones who have the most to learn from demolition jobs like this, and as the official Golden Boys of the Relentless Rebuild, benching them sends a message benching Steve MacIntyre never could. Neither of them were particularly playing their kidneys out, either, although of course in a 7-1 loss that goes for a lot of people. Sometimes as a coach, being effective doesn't always mean being fair.
All the same, Eberle and Hall weren't the most visible scapegoats. Sam Gagner went -4, got owned in the faceoff circle by Brandon Sutter, and grabbed two rather tame shots on goal, but he took his full complement of shifts. Tom Gilbert was -3, took a dumb penalty, played like hell, and finished second on the team in ice time. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, while not terrible, was worse than either of the other two rookies. None of them are fringe players or old men, and none have been as effective through the season as Eberle and Hall. I understand having to make an example of a visible core player sometimes, but if other visible core players are doing even worse and get away scot-free that sends a message you don't want.
One more goal from the ex-Oilers club, this time Erik Cole. As Derek pointed out in the game-day thread, we managed to turn Joni Pitkanen into Cole, who we turned into Patrick O'Sullivan, who we then turned into Jim Vandermeer. Three of those guys are Carolina Hurricanes (two of them core players when healthy), and the other one is in the conversation for the five worst defensemen in the National Hockey League today. People speak of the curse of ex-Oilers, always coming back to haunt this team. Doubtless they are doing so again after Cole's tally, but personally I just see it as one more indication that this team is haplessly unable to identify talent. As if we needed another.
The Oilers also gave one up to Sergei Samsonov, who is also an ex-Oiler but a different sort of fish than Cole: he wanted a massive contract after the Stanley Cup final run and history has proven Kevin Lowe was correct in not giving it to him. At 32 years old, Samsonov is a long way past his prime and last season was a dreadful one for such an established point-getter. His 2008-09 was no holy hell either. Even though he's making $2.5 million, though, the Hurricanes have stuck with him and shown confidence that history repeats itself. So far this year, Samsonov's been on pretty good form for Carolina and has been an effective part of their minor resurgence in the standings. Professional goalscorers very seldom just forget how to score goals, so if you have one for a middling contract that isn't killing you and you're a bad team anyway, you might want to hold on to him. Hey, there's another lesson for the Oilers!
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars:
18th Star: D Tom Gilbert. More and more, I'm getting concerned about Gilbert. He's making way too many appearances on these sorts of lists for man of his age, experience, salary, and reputation. I don't think Gilbert's a bad defenseman, not really. But what he isn't is a reliable first-pairing guy. He's very average athletically and hasn't got the raw skill or the intelligence to make up for it. He does fine against mediocre players, but the larger the load he's asked to bear the more he struggles.
Let's face facts. Tom Gilbert is twenty-seven years old and is in his fourth full NHL season. He is what he is. That long-term contract we all lauded at the time was based on his setting a ceiling he never reached. That's happened to more than one player in NHL history, but if we keep relying on Gilbert to be our best or second-best defenseman we're going to keep exposing his weaknesses.
19th Star: C Sam Gagner. I told you what I thought of Gagner's game earlier in the article, so I will be brief when I describe him now. He was thrown in out of his depth after Shawn Horcoff's injury: given Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky and told to hang on. After all his experience, one would hope that Gagner wouldn't be so exposed in that situation, but he can't take a faceoff and for whatever reason he still isn't creating his own offense. Most glaringly, he was by far the worst part of his line: Hall was poor but unremarkably so, while Hemsky was one of the few Oilers who was always active and did us some good. That was his 236th NHL game, and Gagner should beyond that. He's had a pretty good season so far, but in the same old limited role we're all used to from Sam Gagner. That can't last.
20th Star: G Nikolai Khabibulin. Well, duh.