Thursday, December 29, 2011

Edmonton Oilers Postgame 36: War of Attrition

Rudimentary sieve
As we move ever nearer to the mid-point of the season, all of the early season shine has now been completely knocked off the ass of the 2011-2012 version of the Edmonton Oilers. The team continues to lose games, and the recent 2-8 skid has more or less annihilated any chance the Oilers have at playing playoff impacting hockey into even February. We probably shouldn't be surprised but when you live in the nexus of the hockey universe (sorry Toronto), we tend to get easily worked up for good or for bad. The fans around here are desperate to catch a few glimpses of the future championship caliber team the Oilers management has been subtly promising after bombing to the NHL basement for a couple of seasons.

The game tonight was basically an illustration of the kind of razors edge a team with Edmonton's liabilities has to walk in order to win. Potter's brain-dead mistake on the second goal's two-on-two was the turning point of the game for me. Inexplicably he played it as a straight, uncontested two-on-one, and when he let the Wild nobody walk into the low slot and snipe, it would have been the same result if he hadn't been there at all. The other Oilers backchecker clearly was in range to disrupt all but a perfect pass, and Potter should have recognized it and closed on Palmer immediately. That mistake was then compounded when Khabibulin let in a soft-ass goal from an obtuse angle a dozen seconds later, and I've said it many times: we need our goaltenders to play mistake-free to win hockey games. Period. Khabibulin has an expiry date, and I can't help but wonder every time he lets a cheese wheel in, that maybe we've overshot his best before.

Offensively, I think we probably played an OK game, especially in the third period when the Oilers started handling the tired-on-back-to-back-nights Minnesota Wild, and probably the biggest positive was it was the first time in a few weeks that the veteran line -- which I've identified as being absoulutely key for the Oilers success -- actually had a positive impact on the game. Hockey is a zero-sum game in that you can only put your tough-minutes defenders on the ice for so long, and the more strong offensive minutes you can get from one line simply means weaker defensive assignments for another. On the Oilers we have a couple of decent candidates for soft-minute killers, namely some mixture of Gagner, Hall, Eberle, and RNH. With Belanger playing the role of 5-on-5 boat-anchor (6 ES points in about 385 minutes of ice), and Renney's love affair for icing a fourth line that gets buried by everybody, we can't just have the three wunderkids providing all the offence. They get the toughest assignments and kudos to the kids for still managing a decent output on a nightly basis. Calling Dr. Hemsky.

The only other note I have from the game is that the zebras were typically lousy. Instead of having the guts to make the correct calls and send off the singular infracting player, the refs just fence-sat and carted off everyone in cute couples. I have no idea what RNH said, but if he was complaining about the obvious missed call on the Smytty trip, time to take off the panties ref. How thin must your skin be when a 165-soaking-wet gets under your skin that easily? They capped off their indecisive night with perhaps the worst call: the Falk interference with 1:23 to go. I realize that I'm a biased Oilers fan, and truly I wasn't mad about the call, but I know if the situations were reversed, I would have been livid. If that's an interference call, pack up your bags and go home, because hitting has been removed from hockey.

Post-mortem after the hop.

Nikolai Khabibulin - Sure, some of the goals were of the tougher variety, but Khabibulin cannot give up the goal to PMS (or PMB if you are a Wild fan, got-damn that guy feasts on us). I'm willing to wager a large sum that Dubnyk will be given a run of games as long as he can win here, and it's more an indictment of Khabi's recent play than praise of Dubnyk's. Speaking of Dubnyk's night, he looked cool and calm as a Tibetan monastery out there.

Taylor Hall - For some reason he tends to whiff on about three passes every game. I'm nitpicking his basically solid one goal, one apple effort (that was a shiny apple to Smid), but he just always seems to do it. It's virtually guaranteed to cost the Oilers about 30 seconds of PP time every game, and I really wish the Oilers PP arrangement was more focused on hall being an offwing one-timer instead of the down-low jammer. You have to love the kids spunk though, as he's crashing around the ice with a good threshold for punishment and a clear determination for success. He played 19:46 tonight and his 5 shots led the team. And he's only 20 with more growing to do </saliva>

Corey Potter - Was playing third-pairing tonight, and has shown a bit of shakiness to his recent game, mostly in terms of rush reading and breakout passing. At the seasons start he was a revelation, and now creeping thoughts of maybe there's a reason he's getting his first real chance at the NHL level at age 27. Of course that's a very cynical viewpoint and I am certainly willing to let him work on his game and hopefully get back to the impressive level that even had crusty coach Renney grinning. He had about 16 EV minutes (similar to Peckham), but spent about 3.5 on the PP and was not particularly effective in getting his heavy shot on goal. It's more wait and see with Potter I guess.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Predictably, RNH has slowed down a bit from his almost-leading-the-NHL pace to a more modest output in the last half dozen (0 goals, 3 assists and -4 in his last 7GP), and moreover had not been quite as electric 5-on-5 as we've seen he can be. I still think he's playing the RNH game, with lots of good pivots and the pucks going to good areas, so I'm not fearful he's going to fall off some rookie cliff from physical fatigue. Will he finish with more than a PPG? Probably not, but barring a disaster, he could be one of the biggest slam-dunk Calder winners of the last decade.

Ladislav Smid - He's a career 2.6% shooter who is going at a 15% clip this year. This tells you two things very clearly: Smid doesn't fire the puck very often, and he's probably scoring a bit more than should be expected now or in the future. His shot really isn't great, but some people forget that Smid is actually only 25 and actually was touted as a guy with two-way ability in pre-draft scouting (and had a decent AHL season to boot). I like virtually everything about Smid's game these days and I'm quite convinced that Gilbert's return to form has a lot to do with the backbone Smid provides to that defensive tandem.

Sam Gagner - Sigh. What a frustrating talent Sam Gagner is. He can look like a world beater some nights, and other nights he's just a lost little boy on the ice. Tonight was more Samwise Gamgee than Samuel L. Jackson, and his under 14 minutes and -2 reflect that well. In the past I have mentioned I think Gagner is what I refer to as a  force multiplier: he makes more powerful what is already powerful. If I am the GM of this team, I think I've come to the realization that he's not very valuable to my team outside of the top-6, and I think shipping him to a team with a 2C spot glaringly open for a solid Dman might tickle everybody's fancy - including Gagner.

Conclusion

Perhaps this team is getting satisfied with the 'good effort, and it will get better next year mentality', and if that's the case, the onus is on Renney to remove such thoughts from impressionable minds. Case and point the post game quotes:

"I like the fact it was emotional. There was animosity and people were pissed off." -Renney on tonight's game.

"We did respond, we didn't give up and we can hang our hats on that." -Hall
 Not good enough Oilers. Not good enough. One more thing: Hordichuk is not helping any teams win hockey games. The hockey goon is going the way of the Dinosaur, and the sooner the Oilers put purely effective hockey players in the 4th liner role, the sooner we make an improvement that is available to most every team for free.

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