Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Oilers Need To Be Honest

Peter Chiarelli went into the NHL Entry Draft with some glaring needs at defence and goaltending. While no one was suggesting that they not select Connor McDavid with the first-overall pick, they needed to, as Chiarelli reminded reporters again and again, build from the back out. They drafted fairly well, made trades to fill holes, and added to their roster where they needed help, but there's a real problem in Edmonton that no one has mentioned: this team is awful in their own zone.

I can't speak to how Todd McLellan will change the system in Edmonton. It will change, though, by necessity as the Oilers are downright horrible in their defensive zone play. Because of this, goaltending will always look culpable in being a part of the problem when the goaltenders are a smaller factor than what they are credited with on a nightly basis. Yes, goalies are human so there will be a bad goal here and there, but it speaks volumes when Devan Dubnyk goes from Edmonton and a 2.57 career-best GAA to a Vezina trophy runner-up and a 1.87 GAA in Minnesota. It's not like he suddenly stumbled across the handbook to becoming a dominant goaltender.

Edmonton was 30th in goals-against per game last season at 3.37. Minnesota was sixth at 2.42 goals-against per game - a full goal per game better in terms of keeping the puck out of their own net. Dubnyk's best season with the Oilers in 2012-13 saw the Oilers sitting at 19th with a 2.73 goals-against per game. Dubnyk's always been a decent goaltender - not great, but not anywhere near as terrible as people thought he was with Edmonton. The difference? He was playing behind a defence-first team in Minnesota this year, and all they asked him to do was make saves. Suddenly he's a Vezina trophy nominee.

Ben Scrivens, who is a very capable goaltender as well, had never played more than 39 games in any professional season, but he was pressed into 57 games last season with Edmonton. Since moving to Edmonton, Scrivens has seen his goals-against average jump over half-a-goal per game from his days in Toronto, and over a goal per game from his time in Los Angeles. It's not like Scrivens arrived in Edmonton and forgot how to stop pucks. Yet he's not good enough to be a starter, so Edmonton went out and got another goalie.

Two seasons ago, the Oilers employed six goalies over the course of the season. Only one - Viktor Fasth - has a GAA below 3.00 and he only played seven games. The majority of the games were played by three netminders - Dubnyk, Scrivens, and Ilya Bryzgalov - and the three of them combined for a 3.13 GAA in their 73 games.

Last season, the Oilers used five goalies over the course of the season. Two - Laurence Brossoit and Richard Bachman - had GAAs below 3.00 and they played a combined seven games. We'll excuse Tyler Bunz's one period where he gave up three goals (9.00 GAA) since he didn't make it through a full game as well. The majority of the games were played by Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth and they posted a combined 3.29 GAA in the 83 games they played.

See a trend here? Starting goalies go to Edmonton to die, and Cam Talbot is on his way.

I appreciate the roster of talent they are building: Justin Schultz, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Griffin Reinhart are a GM's dream in terms of young, potentially greant defencemen. The problem is that they are still years away from being seasoned veterans at the NHL level. Schultz is there already, but Klefbom, Nurse, and Reinhart are still projects. Enjoy Bakersfield, gentlemen.

That means the NHL-level defence unit consisting of Schultz, Andrew Ference, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Keith Aulie, and the newly-acquired Eric Gryba are, in a word, questionable. None of those players would be elevated to a first-line defenceman on the majority of NHL teams, and none of them are known for their defensive prowess. There are glimpses and moments of elevated play, but this unit's moments of greatness are few and far between. And who is relied upon heavily to bail them out? You guessed right if you said the goaltender, but the breakdowns in the defensive zone lead to cheating and covering by other teammates, and the goalies are left hung out to dry.

Upgrading the goaltending won't solve the defensive problems in Edmonton. It might prevent a few more goals in the long run, but the issue still remains: this Edmonton defence is the Achilles' heel of this team. Chiarelli focused on the back-end of his team, and rightfully so. However, he went all-in for Cam Talbot when he should have been offering more to Ottawa for a better defenceman instead of settling for Eric Gryba. He may have been able to pry a defenceman away from Chicago as well, Pittsburgh is dying for wingers and have some good defencemen as well, and Philadelphia was dealing away contracts out of necessity. There were and are defencemen to be had, but the Oilers dropped three picks for Talbot and now have to cobble together a blue line that would be better suited in the AHL than the NHL.

Free agency may still salvage the Oilers this season if they can bring in a solid two-way defenceman. Otherwise, Chiarelli had better hope that McLellan's system makes up for the shortfall in defensive ability the Oilers currently have. Otherwise, Cam Talbot is just another goaltender heading to Edmonton to face a lot of rubber with little help.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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