But he is expected back at some point in February and Shero would ideally like to get him down to the minors for an injury rehab stint before NHL play starts up again after the Olympics. From the resumption of play Feb. 27 until the Mar. 5 deadline, there isn’t a lot of time to make decisions, but there’ll be enough time to weigh the costs of adding depth to the value of standing pat. By then, the Penguins will also have Paul Martin back, which will leave them with a surplus of defencemen.
Shero showed last year that the two prospects teams coveted – Olli Maatta, currently logging a lot of ice time as a 19-year-old, and Derrick Pouliot, who played well for Canada in the world junior championships – weren’t going anywhere. Moving a secondary prospect or two – this year’s version of Ben Hankinson – might get them to change their minds. But with four of the top offensive players in the NHL on their roster again, and Taylor Pyatt, added off waivers from the New York Rangers to provide a physical presence on the bottom six, the Penguins may not make anywhere near the kind of splash they did at last year’s deadline. It will be an interesting situation to monitor.
OIL CHANGE: The Oilers pulled off one of their most satisfying wins of the season Friday night against those same Penguins, coming back twice in the game to pull out an OT victory, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scoring the winning goal on a four-on-three power play after Taylor Hall had made a good play at the point, diving to keep the puck in the zone. The Oilers can tease you that way, sometimes elevating their games against the NHL’s skilled teams when they get room to play.
Realistically, there are two ways to be bad in the NHL – you can be exciting bad or tedious bad. A lot of nights, because of their erratic attention to the defensive side of the game, the Oilers are exciting bad. The Montreal Canadiens’ Lars Eller had it right earlier in the season, even if coach Dallas Eakins took offence, when he compared them to a junior team. The Oilers are error-prone in the same way so many junior hockey teams make mistakes, and they weren’t exactly flawless defensively against the Penguins either. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk kept them in it with some great saves and then they found a way to pull it out.
In some respects their style of play suggest the Oilers would fare better in the Eastern Conference, where the play is more freewheeling. In the West, and especially in the Pacific Division, the fact that Nugent Hopkins, Hall, Jordan Eberle and the rest are constantly running into the size and/or experience of the Ryan Getzlafs, Joe Thorntons, Anze Kopitars and Sedins has made it challenging for them to be good at both ends. The Oilers could theoretically hide those players at home through line matching, but it’s harder to do if they don’t have anyone beyond Boyd Gordon to do the heavy lifting defensively.
Ideally, what they need is a latter-day Joel Otto, someone who – in the heyday of the Battle of Alberta – could physically go toe-to-toe with Mark Messier and make him work for every inch of ice. Those were epic battles and one reason why the Flames picked up Joe Colborne earlier this year from the Toronto Maple Leafs was the hope that they could turn him a Joel Otto type – involved physically, smart defensively and someone with the capacity to add a little bit of offence here and there.
The problem in the NHL these days is that centres with size and skill are so hard to come by and any team that has them, immediately slots them into a top-six role. So it’s a useful experiment by a Calgary team that is having a hard go of it lately, sinking fast to the bottom of the conference. In every season for every team, there is always ebb and flow. Even good teams will go stale for a while and even bad teams occasionally surge unexpectedly.