The Edmonton Oilers are officially broken, but how did a team with essentially the same roster as last season become so bad?
Just like that, any optimism gained from three consecutive wins has been eradicated with the last two losses. Any good will afforded after the hiring of Kris Knoblauch as Oilers coach, has dissipated.
Two losses in Florida, in which both times the Oilers had early 2-0 leads in the first period, has revealed a sentiment which was barely hiding beneath the surface. Whether fans want to hear it or not, this team is broken.
We’re still adamant the Oilers were too hasty in firing Jay Woodcroft when they did. It was unfair to dismiss a guy based on just 13 games, especially after a tenure where he easily had the best winning percentage among all coaches in Oilers history.
In this respect, the overall performance under Knoblauch reveals that the problem is not the coaches. There is something not right within this team as a whole.
This is essentially the same roster which played for the Oilers last season. Effectively the same set of players which led the NHL in scoring and recorded 50 regular season wins for the first time since 1986-87.
So what exactly is wrong?
The obvious place to go when considering how and why the team is so bad, is the defensive effort. And we mean the defensive effort of the team as a whole, not just the goalies or the blue line.
Clearly the decision to go from a man-to-man scheme to a defensive zone prior to this season has had a negative impact. As much as the reasoning for deploying it in the first place made sense.
However, it’s been a disaster, with the Oilers’ attempts to tweak the defensive scheme after the horrific start to this season only confusing matters further. The players are disorganised and making numerous unnecessary mistakes, with Evan Bouchard being the poster children in this respect.
This has in turn left the goalies in compromising positions on far too many occasions. Not that they have helped themselves either, particularly Jack Campbell prior to his demotion to the AHL, (where he continues to struggle).
As a result of this defensive fiasco, the evidence is damning against the Oilers. Following Monday night’s action, they rank dead last in the NHL with a team .873 save percentage and a 3.88 Goals Against Average (GAA) which is third-worst.
Again though, there has to be more to it than just the defensive scheme. While last season was nothing to write home about, the Oilers did rank 16th in save percentage and 17th in GAA.
Of significant note, the collective defensive performance improved last season after the trade which brought Mattias Ekholm in. Consider that the GAA prior to the trade was 3.34, then 2.67 following his arrival.
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Searching for answers
For his part, Ekholm struggled to put a finger on what the issue is. Speaking to the media following Monday night’s 5-3 loss to the Panthers, he said:
"“I don’t know what it is. If I knew, I would obviously speak up and try to change it, but bottom line is we were fine those three games that we actually won and then we get on the road and we’re scoring four goals on the road in Tampa and scored enough goals here too. We’ve just got to limit the chances and limit the goals ultimately. … No excuses; it’s on us for sure.”"
The 33-year-old did go on to mention the bad luck the Oilers have had this season, but he appreciates even this is only part of the issue: He said:
"“We’ve got to play better defence. It’s like (Philip Broberg) steps on a stick. I try to clear it and it hits (Zach Hyman’s) back. We just need to stay on the right side, try to not make the home run plays and always try to have a third guy back. It’s all these details and everyone knows, but right now we make a mistake defensively, and it ends up in the back of our net. And that’s something we need to change.”"
Ekholm also discussed the current mental fragility of the team defensively. He said:
"“Right now, I feel like we maybe give goals up a little bit too easy and (the opposition) don’t really have to fight and crawl back in a game. They just came back to 2-2 right? That’s on us, that’s something we need to be better at and realise as a group.”"
It made sense that the media would ask the Sweden native how the defensive efficiency — or lack thereof — this season compared to last season after his arrival. He said:
"“We were harder to play against in those (last) 25 games last season and that showed up in the win column too. We won a lot of hockey games. Again that’s a realisation (about) what we have to do as a group. It’s not always about what you get, it’s what you leave out there. And right now, we’re leaving a little bit too much for my liking — for our liking — and for us as a team to get wins and that’s ultimately something we have to fix.”"
Time already running out
More generally, there is talk about Knoblauch still bedding in, implementing his philosophies, getting to know the players and so on. In addition, the recurring narrative that it’s still relatively early in the season.
Really though, this alludes to a seeming lack of urgency about this whole situation. We’re almost at the quarter-way point of the season, and the Oilers are already eight points out of a playoff place and with five teams to leapfrog over.
In fact, you can take it further and say the Oilers are closer to the worst team in the NHL, standing just four points ahead of the Sharks. That would be the same Sharks, who beat them 3-2 a couple of weeks ago and effectively sealed Woodcroft’s fate.
We don’t claim to have the answer to any of this, or we’d have a job. It’s up to those within the Oilers organisation, who are being handsomely rewarded to produce a better product than the one currently on display.
Ultimately though, one thing we do know is that the Oilers are broken. And if they don’t get fixed soon, the season is going to be all but over by the new year.