We’re now eight games into this season and things look bad. Players aren’t scoring, goaltenders only started making saves, the powerplay isn’t clicking, the Penalty Kill looks bad and the defensive group has holes. Are there any quick fixes available? Surely we shouldn’t be 2-5-1 right now with only one regulation win.
The scoring is the largest issue right now. We traded Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome in order to get enough cap space to re-sign Kris Russell. I’m sure you’re well aware of how I feel about those moves but at the moment they’re staring every fan in the face and laughing. Ryan Strome isn’t an Eberle replacement. I’ve stated before that he doesn’t have to be but that’s a tough sell when the Oilers are scoring less than two goals per game.
Some of this should stabilize on its own, the Oilers are shooting at a laughable 4.9% while the league average is 9%. If we’d been shooting even league average we’d have 27 goals on the year instead of 15, that in itself would be a few extra wins and we wouldn’t even be talking about this right now. The problem though, this is costing us points in the standings and standing pat just feels wrong. I’d wager that this issue solves itself soon but because that’s not good enough of an answer, let's look for better solutions.
The Powerplay is scoring on only 15% of its opportunities and that second powerplay unit is a large reason why. Ryan Strome, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jussi Jokinen and Patrick Maroon being quarterbacked by Kris Russell is not going to score many goals. The irony is that this group has scored more than the other unit but they have not looked very good in the process. Getting Andrej Sekera back will help this issue immensely but in the meantime, something really needs to be done about this. I’d like to see Kailer Yamamoto deployed on this unit in place of Strome and have Adam Larsson in place of Russell until Sekera gets back. Adam Larsson has worked on his shot all summer, it’s not great but it’s a lot better than Russell’s. Fixing the 2nd powerplay unit is one of the simplest goals to have but without making roster changes, it might be the hardest to accomplish.
The Penalty Kill looked really bad for the first few games but that was almost entirely a goaltending issue. Teams are always going to get a lot of shots on a powerplay but you only really remember it being a problem when the goalie is letting a goal in every three shots while shorthanded. Talbot has been top notch the past three games both 5v5 and shorthanded so I’m going to declare this problem fixed. There that was easy, why can’t they all be like that? Well, I could sort of do that with the scoring but there’s no credibility to saying that without results backing it.
The defense looks so much worse on paper than it really is. Still though, it looks really bad on paper. Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom are an awesome first pair, if we could play them 60 minutes per night everything would be roses. Unfortunately, that’s not an option so we have to deploy some really bad pairings. At the moment we’re running Darnell Nurse with Kris Russell and a combination of Matt Benning, Eric Gryba, and Yohann Auvito. The major drop-off is between the first and second pairing but the usage shows that Todd McLellan thinks the drop-off is between the 2nd and 3rd. With respect to Darnell Nurse, who has played far better than what I was expecting from him, that group is not pleasing to the eye. It might help to know that only one of these players is consistently dragging the team down by not controlling possession but that assurance goes away when you see some of the dumb things happening.
Kris Russell lying on his stomach while shots come at us is a familiar sight for Oiler fans by now. Has he though, been the worst offender of avoidable mistakes? Yes, yes he has and he’s made a career out of it. He’s been reinforced with a bad contract so I don’t think we’ll get a change here. As a result, I’ll pick on the other guys who need to be better.
Matt Benning had a very impressive rookie season last year. He was even given the opportunity to start in the top-4 and get powerplay time. He played his way out of those spots in a hurry. He doesn’t move his feet while defending, gets beat and leads to scoring chances for the other team. I don’t know why he does that, he skates backwards, turns around and just stops moving his feet. Yesterday against the Penguins he did this against Evgeni Malkin and decided the best course of action would be to take a hooking penalty when it would have been so easy to just keep skating and push him away from the net. Against the Canucks it was the same thing on one of the Bo Horvat goals, turns, stops skating, gets beat and gets scored on. Sure we could have used better goal-tending in that game, but why would you let the opposition have such an easy path to the net? Matt Benning has to get a lot better. He’s not making mistakes all game, but the ones he is making are monsters.
Is a trade a good idea? Maybe try and get a winger or a defenseman? Honestly, it’s tough to say. The most valuable trade chips that don’t take anything away from the on-ice roster are Jesse Puljujarvi and our 1st round pick. If you want to get an impact player, you have to be willing to part with one of these. We managed to snag Kailer Yamamoto at 22nd overall, that’s a huge win and should show just how valuable 1st rounders can be. That was also a weaker draft than what we have coming this year and given our start, there’s a real chance that we’ll be picking higher than 22nd. I wouldn’t advise giving up the 1st unless the player coming back is in the Oliver Ekman-Larsson category.
As for Poolparty, well, yeah I’d do that. That’s mostly because I don’t think he’s very good and wouldn’t be surprised if he still has a good amount of trade value around the league. He had a crazy good draft year playing pro hockey in Europe, no one can discredit that and it was absolutely the right pick at 4th overall, but he hasn’t looked good playing in North America at any point in his career. If you think scoring won’t fix itself or want to load up and fix the defense, this is the player you should consider trading. If you don’t want to do that because he might end up being really good, then don’t expect much in terms of a trade. Puljujarvi for James Neal though? Why not?
This also brings me to Yamamoto. What are the Oilers going to do here? You could send him back to junior after 9 games to keep his ELC starting next year. Personally, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it because that’s three years from now, and a unique three years at that. I understand wanting to keep the contracts cheap later on but we’re also trying to win, sending down one of your best players isn’t going to help accomplish that. The other issue here, if we don’t send Kailer back and he plays a whole season, by the time his ELC expires, we’re walking right into another lockout. Bet you forgot about that, didn’t you? We have no idea what kind of cap implications we’ll have here, what the Cap ceiling is going to be, what the player % of Hockey Related Revenue will be or even if we’ll have a season. My guess though, is that RFA issues will be front and center and that Compliance Buyouts will again be part of the new deal. As a result, it may, in fact, be cheaper to burn that ELC up, re-sign him to a reasonable deal early and let other teams deal with RFAs who have increased leverage after the new CBA. This is speculative but this idea that keeping an ELC active is cheaper is only true in the short-term.
So far I don’t think he’s played his way off the team. It’s very hard to justify sending him down while continuing to play Jujhar Khaira — who has been a disaster this year. Regardless though, the decision to keep him or send him down should be done for the right reasons. His play, what’s best for his development, and what his role is here. His contract status shouldn’t be anywhere on the radar.
So there you have it. I still think most of these issues should work themselves out but if you want a quick fix, a trade, fixing PP2 and getting Benning to move his feet are about the best I can give you in tangible and visual solutions. Last year watching the Avalanche it was really easy to point out the specific problems, they were everywhere, the team wasn’t playing and they never really had a chance in any game. That’s not the case with this Oilers team and it might even be more frustrating. Let's revisit this in another 8 games and see what’s changed. Until then, carry on with the panic.