Since the Phoenix pre-game, I've noted how well the Oilers have to play to finish in the playoffs. Prior to that game the team needed to play .610 hockey to get in. Now they've got to go 42-21-5 from here out to make the playoffs. That's a 107 point full-season pace. It's not happening.
So is that then? Pack it in, play out the string, trade Hemsky, Dubnyk and Schultz and bring back Steve Tambellini for the lottery show? Do they tank for the best pick they can get, sign another old, locally-born defenseman, tout another 18-year-old in pre-season and hope it all works out again?
Instead of the old tried and true, the Oilers should avoid doing anything stupid, get their players healthy, and give themsevles a chance to win. Ground-breaking, I know, but hear (read) me out:
The Goalie Situation
First thing is first. The media and fans need to stop with the melodrama over the goaltenders on the roster. The organization needs to stop fussing with Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk is a proven NHL talent. He is not Dominik Hasek, but he's not Jeff Deslauriers, either. He's solid and he's going to deliver a ~.920 save percentage over the course of the year. Install him as the starter and give him 55 starts from here out. If he falters, correct the situation in the off-season. If he delivers ~.920, re-sign him to a (not long-term!) deal and keep him around. Stop worrying about Jason Labarbera. Labarbera is a steady back-up. Give him 13 starts from here out and let him spell Dubnyk. He'll be fine.
The Poisoned Well
When guys like me, Ryan, or Tyler argued that burning Taylor Hall's ELC on the horrific 2010-11 team was a bad idea, one of the key arguments against sending him back to the OHL for the season was that the team would be "poisoning the well", i.e. negatively (and permanently) altering the team's relationship with the player. The counter to that, of course, was that keeping Hall around in a losing environment was just as bad for the player, but it was met with hand waves. Four years later (and it's eight for Sam Gagner) every single young player that the team has acquired has spent their professional career in the worst possible environment for an NHL player. They're also-rans and never-weres every year and the thought of the Oilers winning anything causes uproarious laughter in any other market.
The losing has to stop, and it starts with the owner and the executives. The reactionary stupidity has to go - no more signing hired knuckles because someone's "show got run", or the team "lacked grit". They can't sign players because they're related to the coach, and they can't hire coaches because they played for the Oilers. The cronyism inherent to the Oilers organization, and it starts with the owner, make no mistake, is at the very core of the losing atmosphere. All of Oilers' hires since the lockout have been because of cronyism, and none of them have gone through the steps of identifying the best candidate by narrowing the available pool - each decision was made because someone had previously slapped backs with that person. Steve Tambellini, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Craig MacTavish, Dallas Eakins, Mark Messier, Billy Moores - they're all part of one, long, spoiled family weed.
Give the Players a Chance to Succeed
The Oilers are renown for putting players into situations that they cannot handle. Whether they're throwing young players to the wolves well before they're ready, or forcing players to play out of position, or forcing players to take on levels of competition they cannot handle, the Oilers are locked in a perpetual cycle of failure with at least some part of their roster. It has to stop. Thus far in 2013-14, the team has asked Nail Yakupov to play off wing against top six competition, asked Will Acton to play in the NHL, asked Will Acton to carry two players who struggle in the AHL, and have asked far too much of their defense. If they want to succeed, the coaching staff and management team needs to make some adjustments:
- Get Nail Yakupov back to the right wing. Let him play his position for awhile, rather than trying to learn a new one on the fly. If he has to take on more defensive starts with Boyd Gordon, so be it, he might be better for it in the long run, Craig MacTavish asked for more of Ales Hemsky and he's turned into all-zones killer.
- Stop playing Justin Schultz in a top four role. He couldn't handle the defensive responsibility last year and he can't right now. Most people don't learn how to swim by drowning. Let Anton Belov and Andrew Ference take on the second pairing role and give Schultz an easier time of it.
- Find Jeff Petry a real top-pairing partner. That partner might be the January version of Anton Belov, or that partner might be available via a trade, but Ladislav Smid isn't it. Smid can't move the puck up the ice right now. At all. 90% of the pucks that come to him are immediately thrown to Petry, regardless of the circumstances. Move him down, because if Smid is your top pairing stopper, you're in trouble.
- Get Nick Schultz out of town or find him a seat in the press box. Schultz is mired in a ton of issues at this point, but it's become clear that he's not top-6 caliber anymore. Put Denis Grebeshkov on the third pairing with Justin Schultz and let them do their thing. Grebeshkov is the only Oilers' defenseman with a positive ZS adjusted Corsi. Granted, he's facing easier competition, but that's all I'm asking for. Grebeshkov and Schultz on rose petal-lined minutes. Even if Grebeshkov doesn't work out, putting him in a situation to succeed might generate trade value, which Nick Schultz no longer has.
- Remove Will Acton from the penalty kill. It's a small sample size, but even over the course of a season all we have is small sample sizes, and Acton stinks on the penalty kill. The Oilers' PK is one of the worst in the league and Acton isn't helping. Give the penalty kill a chance. If Acton has no value on the penalty kill, why, aside from his dad behind the bench, is he on the roster at all? Replace him with competence.
Enough with the "Grit"
Bringing in fighters because they can fight has no bearing on the team's actual success or deterrence in preventing injuries, and it's been proven again and again. Hit the all stop button on the goon experiment and bring in a fourth line that can play hockey. Which combination is going to help the Oilers win hockey games - Luke Gazdic/Steve MacIntyre - Will Acton - Mike Brown/Ben Eager or Mason Raymond - Patrick Thoresen - Linus Omark? Which line can help when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall are hurt?
Fire Louie Debrusk
This doesn't have anything to do with making the season worthwhile, but I'm tired of listening to Axis Sally beg for staged fights and avoid any actual hockey analysis.
They're not going to make the playoffs, but they're not a total loss. It seems like the franchise goes out of it's way not to win, but by doing the things necessary to succeed, the Oilers could demonstrate that they can compete in the Western Conference and prove that they shouldn't be relegated to the Eastern Conference. General team health will help, but all teams suffer through injuries. Good franchises don't implode annually and spend the spring searching for the sacrificial scapegoat. Put the players in a position to win, and they might do so.