Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the St.Louis Blues, it was no secret the Edmonton Oilers were struggling, but nothing punctuates a team’s issues like a massive blowout loss.
Against a dangerous Blues squad, Edmonton fell 8-3 to drop to 7-12-2 — the third-worst record in the NHL. It was an effort that could only be described as ugly — not entirely representative of what this team has to offer, but not nearly as much of an outlier as they might like.
When a team that was supposed to be a Western Conference contender finds itself buried in the conference cellar it’s tempting to think of it as an anomaly that will soon normalize. However, the Oilers’ problems look like they’ll require more than a minor course correction. When a team ranks 27th in the league in scoring and 26th in goals against, there isn’t a single fix to be made — there are many. Here’s what the confluence of improvements the Oilers need to get back on track:
The defence corps needs to provide something offensively
There’s a reason the most common proposed fix for Edmonton is some kind of upgrade on the blueline. In recent years, the team has continued to add forward talent at the top of the draft, but developing defenders has been an issue. That’s led to defensive problems (more on that later), but the current group has also been particularly anemic when it comes to providing offensive support.
Last season, Oscar Klefbom showed an ability to do just that on the way to a 12-goal, 38-point season while Andrej Sekera chipped in another 35 points. From there on out, there wasn’t a lot of offensive flair, but the group as a whole didn’t drag down the Oilers offence.
This season has been another story. Sekera is hurt, Klefbom is struggling and notorious stay-at-home defender Kris Russell leads this blueline with seven points. The power-play contribution has been particularly dire with five total points and major minutes being logged by Russell and Matt Benning, who combined for four goals last season.
When we’re talking about secondary scoring, normally that’s meant to mean bottom-six forwards, but it also applies to defencemen. If the Oilers can’t get some scoring from their back end their offence will continue to lag. Sekera’s return in the new year should help, but only an addition from outside the organization would provide a real improvement.
The defence corps needs to provide something defensively
Defensive play is devilishly hard to quantify, but it’s not hard to see. In last night’s game alone three of the goals allowed came on egregious defensive errors that can be pinned on an individual defenceman.
On the first goal of the game, Klefbom gets bumped off the puck with ease in the corner which leads to a deadly Vladimir Tarasenko one-timer.
The play looks relatively innocuous as it happens, but if your top defenceman loses the puck that easily you’re going to be digging the puck out of your net far more often than you’d like.
In the second period, Adam Larsson got his pocket picked on a goal that gave the Blues a 4-0 lead and essentially put the game away.
Turnovers can kill no matter where they take place on the ice, but that close to net the mortality rate increases substantially. None of Larsson’s teammates recovered well to bail him out here, but without his error the Blues don’t deliver the game-winning dagger.
Even when the contest had long ceased to be competitive the defensive lapses continued. On the night’s final tally, Russell was the guilty party on a Paul Stasny marker.
Russell overreaches in an attempt to knock his man off stride and ends up losing him and watching helplessly as he taps the puck in.
Last night’s performance was an exaggerated example of the Oilers’ defensive woes, but these are exactly the kind of plays that have happened all too often.
Some of the team’s young forwards need to take the next step
One of the issues most cited as the root of the Oilers’ disappointing season is a lack of secondary scoring. Connor McDavid is close to an 100-point pace, so it’s hard to lay blame at his lap. His fellow forwards are a different matter.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks on the way to a career season, and Leon Draisatl has been close to a point-per-game when healthy. Beyond that there hasn’t been much production. Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic have been slightly off their 2016-17 paces and after that it’s been a black hole.
The reason for that is that the Oilers have filled out many of their forward spots with talented-but-unproven youngsters. Kailer Yamamoto flashed intriguing ability, but ultimately didn’t stick. Drake Caggiula hasn’t done much. Anton Slepyshev was quiet before getting injured. Jesse Puljujarvi has yet to make an impact. Ryan Strome isn’t taking a step forward at 24. Theoretically, these guys could have been an exciting under-25 wave to support McDavid. Some of them likely still will, but none of them have yet. Until they do this offence will be uncomfortably top-heavy.
Cam Talbot needs to return to form
Blaming the goalie is a popular tactic whenever things go sideways with a team and it’s almost never the whole explanation. In this case it is definitely part of the explanation, though.
Cam Talbot was very strong last year while logging the biggest workload in the league. This year he’s getting used the same way, but isn’t nearly as effective as his save percentage has dropped to an even .900.
On Monday, he posted a very rare .333 save percentage as he let in two goals on three shots, including a Dmitrij Jaskin wrister from the half boards that he’d certainly want back.
He wasn’t much better in his last start either, conceding six goals on 21 shots to the Dallas Stars and he’s posted an .858 save percentage in his last five — with only a win over the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to his credit.
Goalies are notoriously fickle beasts, and trying to predict when they might go hot or cold is a fool’s errand. What we do know is that Talbot is ice-cold right now and that’s particularly hard for a team that leans on him so hard and only has the scuffling and unproven Laurent Broissot as an alternative.
Everything we know about Talbot suggests he’ll bounce back, but the “when” is more important than the “if” to a team that’s already dug itself a significant hole.
As it stands, the Oiler are way off a playoff pace and they’ll need to turn on the jets any day now if they’re going to squeak in, let alone become the Cup contender they were expected to be. A ton would have to go right for that to happen, and not much has gone right yet.
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