Opinion

Deeper Issues

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Ages ago I used to write up a monthly collection of my thoughts on the Oilers and sports in general and I’d email it out to a few friends as a humourous way of writing about the topics that interested me. It was a motley collection of scattered thoughts, curious observations, and humour.

I called it The Deeper Issue. Make of that title what you will.

I was thinking it might be time to bring it here to the Rig. Essentially this is a somewhat edited collection of my thoughts on some issues that may or may not be getting much attention. It won’t be as scattershot as my original series, but trust me when I say that will be to the benefit of us all.

So let’s begin…

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Prior to a recent surge, the power play hadn’t been living up to expectations based on the skill available and this had many people directing criticism at Jay Woodcroft and others frustrated at the players involved such as Milan Lucic.

Perhaps the biggest issue has been the handedness of those on the powerplay as the Oilers are deploying a surplus of left-handed shooters which allows teams to narrow their defensive focus and thus take away passing and shooting lanes.

So, here’s where I sit on the powerplay issue…

*Since I first wrote this last week there have been some changes made and they have been moving the puck more quickly and passing it into the crease less often. There has been a noticeable improvement in power play performance since. I will take approximately 68% of the credit for that. 

Woodcroft deserves some criticism for the lack of success on the powerplay, granted. There are some systems and zone entry questions that continue to pop up. For instance, can anyone explain to me the purpose of putting Lucic in front of the net directly facing McDavid on the half wall? His stick is to the outside of the net and the play appears to be to receive a pass in the crease. Not a shot for a deflection, a pass. What is Lucic supposed to do from that spot? He doesn’t have enough space to move it to the backhand and try to take another shot from that point. Nor can he necessarily protect the puck with one or two defenders in the immediate vicinity and with the puck exposed on the blade of his stick like that. If he is meant to play the bumper role from within the crease for the purpose of receiving McDavid’s pass and then getting the puck off his stick and onto that of either Draisaitl or Eberle positioned in the higher slot, I could understand but this seems like a very circuitous route to take with the puck when a simple pass across to the slot would accomplish the same and could be effected by having the passer, in this case McDavid, take more shots from that half wall forcing defenders to play him differently and opening up the passing lanes.

This is a small curiosity, but one that I think is indicative of some of the questionable decisions we’ve seen made with regards to power play deployment and schemes since the beginning of the season.

That being said…

Woodcroft can only work with what he has and his schemes need to be properly executed by the players. And therein we have another layer of issues which is that the players are not moving the puck quickly enough within what I believe to be Woodcroft’s system. Last season and early this year we saw examples of what they had been trying to do on the man-advantage, which is to move the puck quickly to change the angles and take a multitude of shots from a variety of positions. When this power play was in a funk, they were doing neither. They are passing the puck, but it is a pass with a pause which ultimately defeats any advantage of making the pass in the first place because it allows the defenders and goalie to re-position themselves and is thus a wasted effort.

Now, on to the main point of my concern…

So if the schemes aren’t ideal and the players aren’t executing properly the next place we come to is that they need to add the right kind of players.

We discussed handedness above and this is a valid point. Having a right-handed defenseman who could run a powerplay from the top of the offensive zone would be a great benefit for this team.

But…

I have reservations on how this need is interpreted. Because people are going to say “right-handed defenseman with a bomb from the point” with emphasis on that last part. I have no reservations about pursuing a right-handed, puck-moving defender for this team. I was absolutely beside myself when MacTavish traded Jeff Petry despite the team’s obvious need for such a player and discussed the attraction of trading for Tyson Barrie with Lowetide back in June.

What I do have concerns about is over-emphasizing that “bomb from the point” characteristic. You see, that line of thinking is what gets you Ales Kotalik. It’s what gets you Kurtis Foster. It leads you to signing Dennis Wideman to a 5 year, $5.25 million/year contract or trading multiple assets for a few weeks of Keith Yandle. What is more important than a player who can blast the puck at 100mph from the blueline is a player who can retain the zone on the powerplay, prevent shorthanded breakouts, move the puck quickly and efficiently, and most especially get his shot through the first blocker. Find someone with those skills in addition to a good point shot, but do not pursue a player who has the heavy shot to the exclusion of one or more of the others.

Now, before you say “Rex, you can’t possibly be saying this team couldn’t use a right-handed blueliner with a Sheldon Souray shot from the point, can you?”, no, that’s not exactly what I’m saying. It isn’t that I wouldn’t welcome that player, it is that I have serious reservations about the ability of this management group to properly identify their needs within a targeted player.

Here’s an example.

Many many years ago some friends of mine were moving out into their first apartment. Two single guys, first place on their own, good jobs, and now they needed to buy groceries. So a few of us went to Costco so that these two could pick up the necessary items for their kitchen.

While two of us went off and looked around the two apartment dwellers grabbed a flatbed cart and boldly headed off in their grand grocery adventure.

Half an hour later they found us, their flatbed cart boasting of their victorious hunt through the stocked aisles of this bulk food mecca with every item they could imagine a person might need to provision themselves as a grown adult.

They had bought a flat of coke, a box of chocolate bars and a package of 30 Ichiban noodles.

So I don’t doubt that the Oilers know they need a right-handed defenseman who can play 1st or 2nd pairing minutes, I’m just not ready to send them off with a shopping cart without supervision.

The Dougie Hamilton drama continues…

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The Flames have been entertaining offers on Hamilton, management says they aren’t shopping him, media say they keep hearing his name coming up in conversations, Burke goes on the radio and rips into everyone but his milkman over the rumours, then Bruce Arthur writes an article that takes a drive by shot at Hamilton’s character because he’s on his second team and isn’t as outgoing as the rest of the Flames’ gang.

Let’s do this in order.

I think the Flames are letting teams know that there are some players they’d consider moving to achieve a more balanced roster. I also think that Hamilton is among the top of the list garnering interest that the Flames might listen on. Gaudreau is off-limits, Brodie probably is too. Monahan is having a down year and looks stalled so his cap hit is going to push some teams away. Bennett and Tkachuk are off-limits for the time-being also. Given that, Hamilton rises to the top of the list.

Would the Flames trade him? I suspect if the return were in the Mitch Marner range, yes they would. But this is because who the hell wouldn’t? Marner is a world-class C/W talent and but for Hamilton being a right-handed puck mover, there is little else to suggest that this would be equal value.

Media members defend the Hamilton rumours because they say they keep hearing his name come up from other teams around the league. Now, if the Flames really wanted to shut down the Hamilton talk they’d just tell those teams “we’re not moving him, stop asking”. This isn’t new. Just as everyone and his dog knew that MacTavish was shopping Horcoff, Hemsky and Petry, there was almost no talk in his first season as GM about Chiarelli trading Hall. So regardless of what the Flames are saying, they are listening to offers. They may not be setting up the proverbial lemonade stand on the street corner, but they aren’t telling teams to stop calling either.

Now, about what Burke said. The interview was classic Brian Burke. Aggressive, verbose, belligerent and framed in absolutes.

This is Burke.

Several years ago he let pending free-agent Mike Cammalleri go untraded at the deadline because he wasn’t satisfied by the offers from other GMs. Burke is that guy who would rather smash that decorative plate he has in his garage sale than take less than his asking price. He has his value set in his mind and he will not move off it. If anything he has gotten better at it over the years. So when he says that a team would have to offer 20 1st round picks for Hamilton, he is using hyperbole but only just.

Burke sat on Cammalleri at the deadline and the next year he got a 2nd and a 3rd for Curtis Glencross. The following year he got a 2nd, Jyrki Jokkipakka and a prospect for Kris Russell. He improved his negotiation position at the likely cost of a 2nd or 3rd round pick, perhaps less, he would have gotten for Cammalleri. It was bold, it was shrewd, and it has paid off thus far.

The most recent report I’d seen was that the Coyotes offered Duclair and some picks for Hamilton at the draft. Now that is rather low given Hamilton is signed long-term, young and has an admirable skill-set. However, I think we can guess that the Flames’ see the potential compensation package for him as greater by orders of magnitude. If I had to guess, they are probably seeing something like Hamilton and a player like Bouma for Marner and Connor Carrick or Jake Gardiner as fair value – which it wouldn’t be for the Leafs. But those are the kinds of homerun deals that Burke tries to make.

He has no need to move Hamilton. He’s come out very publicly in the player’s defense so this should satisfy the player and his agent, Hamilton is healthy and playing well, and so he can simply wait to see if another team’s desire to acquire the player eats away at their self-control.

Now, inevitably someone is going to suggest that if Dougie Hamilton is available it is incumbent upon Peter Chiarelli to call about a trade. Well, think about that for a moment. Burke is driving a hard bargain on Hamilton to the extent that he’d want a franchise player gift-wrapped in draft picks and a coupon for two steak dinners at Corso32 thrown in. And that is for the rest of the league. What do you think he’d ask for from a divisional (and hated) rival? If you had trouble stomaching Hall-for-Larsson you don’t even want to know what the deal would have to be for Hamilton. So while I’m sure Chiarelli would call Treliving and Burke, I do not expect a trade between these two teams. That isn’t to say that a third team might not acquire Hamilton to flip him to Edmonton, but their acquisition cost would again be so high that recouping value from Edmonton would make such a deal almost impossible. Nope, I think the Hamilton ship has sailed and fans here need to move on or wait until either he hits free-agency,…or there is a change of management in the Flames.

About Leon Draisaitl…

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I’ve been watching Draisaitl’s progress since his draft year very closely. What I’m noticing is that he has more offensive talent than we see on most nights because he seems almost reticent to display it. Perhaps because it carries with it a greater risk of defensive consequences, but it seems that confidence in his own capabilities is at the root of it.

Over the course of this season we’ve watched how the Oilers are essentially two teams: the one with Connor McDavid on the ice and the one without. McDavid is a game-changer, in nearly the literal sense of the word. But the real strength of this team has to come from those that stand behind him, necessarily the other centers.

My only concern about Nugent-Hopkins right now is that he will be traded. His offensive game is struggling at the moment, but it will come and his defensive game is so crucial to this team that, deprived of it there would be no other players capable of taking that load. That said, there have been growing stretches of inconsistencies in his season the past two years where they ought to be fewer and farther between.

But Draisaitl is where things get tricky.

We are in the course of draft year +3 for Draisaitl now, so we must temper expectations, but I still see in him some reticence to regularly impose himself upon the game in the way that I have seen in other circumstances.

It is important to note that various coaches outside the Oilers’ organization have come away extremely impressed with his skill set and capabilities, and more than one has commented that they believe even he does not know how good he can be.

This led to me recall how Evgeni Malkin seemed to be always deferring to Crosby early in his career and that it wasn’t until Crosby had an extended absence due to injury that we really began to see what Malkin was capable of on a nightly basis – prior to that we would get glimpses within a game, but he lacked the consistency to carry it from game to game. It seemed to take the circumstance of Crosby’s absence to allow Malkin the excuse to grow into a role that had been available to him all along and he has since proven that he is more than capable of fulfilling – namely, a true 1st line scoring threat to play behind one of the greatest players in the world.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Draisaitl has Malkin’s talent, perhaps not even his temperament, but there are some similarities in that he was drafted a year before McDavid, plays the same position, and appears to have a 1st or 2nd line center ceiling and we surround our discussions of him with expectations that another step in his development should be forthcoming.

What I am suggesting is that something needs to happen within Draisaitl to convince him that he can be a difference-maker on this team on a consistent basis, that there is room for him to be an impact core player on this roster, and that he can find his own way to lead this group not in competition with, but in cooperation with McDavid.

I don’t think Draisaitl is the type of player who, alone, can bring a team to win games every night. Perhaps he is, but I’ve only seen it in flashes and true greatness is determined by consistency. However, I do believe that Draisaitl is a player who’s skills excel when he is in the presence of skilled, though not exclusively elite, players. In that regard, he may be a very fortunate fit to play behind McDavid for the time being.

We need to have a talk about the draft…

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Not in the sense of where are the Oilers going to be picking and whom they ought to select. At least not yet *knock on wood*.

No, we’re going to have to talk about whether this team should keep the pick or trade it away for a roster-ready player.

The organization badly needs rejuvenation in the development ranks. In four or five years’ time this team will live and die by the skill they can dress on ELCs and bridge contracts. Many of the names we see on a nightly basis today will be gone and the roster will be whittled down to three or four key players and Connor McDavid. Cap realities will require a constant stream of internally developed, affordable talent and those take time so the shopping needs to start now.

However, the team also has some serious holes to fill to even get there and the 1st round pick this year likely doesn’t hold the same kind of value that it has in previous years, outside of a possible lottery win.

The Oilers are going to be on the hook for their 2nd round pick this year as penalty for hiring a competent GM who had been fired for internal political reasons (“Things That Only Make Sense In the NHL” for $1000, Alex!). That means if they trade their 1st they are without picks in the first two rounds (barring a trade that returns picks).

This draft class is rather uninspiring, to be honest, so it can be argued that trading a pick for a player is a better gamble on the odds, but by the same token trading the 1st means forfeiting the first 62 selection opportunities entirely and taking your chances that some skill falls to the 3rd round and beyond. For a team that needs to stock up on talent, that isn’t always a wise idea.

In terms of expiring UFAs that Chiarelli can dangle at the trade deadline, the list is unlikely to bring back any significant assets: Hendricks, Russell, Gryba, and Gustavsson. If Chiarelli were to trade all of the above, from that group we might expect 3 picks at most, none higher than the 3rd or 4th round I’d say.

So we keep the pick and take a shot at drafting a player from a thus-far underwhelming draft cohort or we trade the pick and put off serious re-stocking the cupboard for another season – there are still depth picks, but the pedigree and timelines aren’t as good as the higher, more likely prospects.

For what it’s worth, I’m of the opinion that the Oilers need to move the pick on the draft floor and recoup appropriate value in a young player who fits both roster need and age-range, and restock the prospect pool with the remaining picks.

Is this team actually any good?

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The Oilers have come through a very difficult month in November and are headed into their traditional Season of Discontent. December has been a death march going back nearly a decade now. The old CFR road trip would push them to the breaking point and then December would roll around and the wheels would fall off and we’d be looking at the CSS rankings by the 15th and ten days later get pumped about watching future Oilers in the World Juniors.

This season the team entered December having clung on by their fingernails to their position in the standings. They drew on their October start to survive a terrible November and now have to find their way again, but they have a chance.

There are reasons to believe in this team, even though I know that isn’t the popular thing to do right now, and they all have to do with the process and depth.

The team is playing a relatively consistent game night-in-night-out (and before you disagree, go take another look at that 10-0 loss by the Canadiens a while back or the Ducks getting tuned up 8-3 by the Flames the other day, every team has a few forgettable games a year) and they are generally outshooting their opponents more than the reverse. That means they have the right habits in place now and are working on consistency and the finer points like refining the power play.

If you want to be concerned about something be concerned about Talbot playing 70 games this season or be concerned about the lack of a credible backup.

Shooting percentages regress, the defense has depth despite a hole on the 2nd pairing right side and fixing the wings won’t cost the world.

I don’t think the Oilers are “there” yet in the way the Penguins, Sharks or Blackhawks are, but I think the finish line is closer than the starting line now and this team is getting it’s legs under it. But as with anything in life, we shall have to wait and see.

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