So you're Craig MacTavish, the first-year general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, and a day after surveying the train wreck of an 8-1 loss to provincial rivals Calgary Flames, you're thinking, what next?
What more could possibly go wrong in a season when the Oilers bravely predicted that the future was now; that seven consecutive years out of the playoffs was enough; and that some of their young players were ready to move into the primes of their careers, guided by a bright new mind behind the bench, Dallas Eakins?
It didn't happen, not on any of those fronts, and in fact, it's gone in the opposite direction. Any signs of upward mobility seen in the last year of the Tom Renney era or the only year of the Ralph Krueger era have dissipated amidst another year in which they will finish last in the conference, after finally edging closer to playoff contention a year ago.
What the Oilers hoped would happen to their young team did actually happen - but to the Colorado Avalanche, a team with similar assets on paper that has been a far superior team where it counts, on the ice.
Like the Oilers, the Avalanche took a deliberate step backward a few years ago in order to replenish the prospect pipeline. Both teams have lineups sprinkled with blue-chip high-end draft choices - Edmonton with three No. 1 overall choices, Colorado with three in the top three over the past five seasons.
The difference is that the Avalanche, under coach Patrick Roy, has turned a lot of the potential belonging to Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon into genuine, bona fide NHL production.
Colorado doesn't have a star-studded defence corps either - it's Erik Johnson, Jan Hedja and a lot of players you haven't heard of - but it plays a decent system and goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been excellent.
But mostly, Colorado has been consistent from week-to-week, never too high, never too low, and as a result, will make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
At different times, the Oilers will tease you with their potential and just when you think they're figuring it out, they fall flat on their faces - as they did Saturday in a nationally televised game against a Flames team that makes up for its lack of talent with plenty of hard work.
The contrast was jarring - to see how hard Calgary tried and how little pushback there was on the Edmonton side when the wheels started to come off.
Even the Oilers' Taylor Hall acknowledged the problem after the game: The "compete" level was there at times but most of the time, it wasn't.
Edmonton had been on a decent 10-4-3 run leading into Thursday's loss to the NHL's worst team, the Buffalo Sabres, in part because they've stabilized their goaltending by adding Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth from the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively. Colorado, Calgary, the Columbus Blue Jackets - the value of a coach that's in sync with his team has been demonstrated repeatedly around the NHL this season.
Then there is Edmonton, with Eakins, who lost his cool in the second period Saturday after a frustrated Hall slammed a water bottle to the ground on the bench, only to have it explode and give Eakins an unexpected shower.
The two exchanged pleasantries on the bench and Hall sat for the rest of the period and into the third before Eakins put him back in the fray. Afterward, both Hall and Eakins downplayed the incident, lest it take on a life of its own, Hall saying that he had "a great relationship" with the coach and that they were "all good."
Eakins claimed it was no big deal either; and that he'd had far more momentous confrontations with other players this year, not unusual on losing teams. Everybody learning to get along is one thing. The larger alarm bells should be ringing because the Oilers' young players do not appear to be getting any better, and a couple of them - forward Nail Yakupov and defenceman Justin Schultz - may be going backward.
David Perron's addition from the St. Louis Blues gave them an additional scoring option, but they are, over all, still one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. And defensively, despite recent improvements, they currently rank 28th. All of which makes MacTavish's off-season soul-searching all the more challenging.
Does he dare make another coaching change, given that Eakins is the fourth different coach in the past five years? Does he tweak the coaching staff, but come back with Eakins, on the grounds that he's signed to a long-term contract and MacTavish was so convinced that he had the right guy that he fired Krueger unexpectedly long after last season had ended?
Firing Krueger looks like a bad mistake now, an unnecessary step made to fast-track the rebuild that has backfired in a meaningful and ugly way.
THE ROBERTO LUONGO WATCH: Caught up with Florida Panthers’ goaltender Roberto Luongo following Saturday’s 4-0 loss to Los Angeles – a game that wasn’t really close. Florida was never in it and L.A. which doesn’t score much usually managed four. But the Panthers were missing, among others, top prospects Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbrandson, so they were forced to play a bunch of kids, and it showed. I wondered: Is it hard for Luongo to think big-picture thoughts, given that a lot of the guys who will make a difference down the road for the Panthers are injured?
“Yeah, definitely,” answered Luongo. “You have to have patience. We’re a very young team right now. A lot of our best players are injured. That’s one of the reasons why I came here – for the big picture, especially with new ownership committed to winning and bringing in some guys to complement our young guys. That’s what it’s all about for me. We have some potential here. It’s just a matter of getting the right pieces to add to what we have.”
Luongo has settled in without much of a hitch, given that he always maintained a summer home in Florida, even after all those years in Vancouver. “Vehicles, home, everything was there already,” said Luongo. “That was the best part about it.”
Luongo will likely get asked to play goal for Canada at the world championships, given that the Panthers will miss the playoffs, but didn’t sound as if that was something that interested him.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’m going to take a few weeks off and get back to training after a month or so. As an athlete nowadays, it’s not how it used to be. You always have to be on top of yourself and making sure you’re committed to working out and being fit at all times.”
THE KINGS TAKE THEIR SHOW ON THE ROAD: As the Los Angeles Kings head east to begin a three-game road trip in Philadelphia Monday – which represents Jeff Carter’s first appearance the trade that sent him out of town – there has been an interesting shift in the way coach Darryl Sutter is deploying his personnel since the Marian Gaborik deal.
Brown, who suffered a chest contusion in Saturday’s win over the Panthers after scoring a goal but isn’t expected to miss too much time, is playing the right side on the third line with Jarrett Stoll, while Sutter had former Flyer Mike Richards centring the fourth line with Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford until the Brown injury forced some mixing and matching.
The unit was effective – Richards had his most effective game in weeks and scored the Kings’ second goal of the game. Lewis chipped two assists, but mostly the Kings won with the combination of opportune scoring and exceptional goaltending that led to deep playoff runs in each of the past two springs. The difference is that Brown was a first-liner on those teams, playing mostly with Anze Kopitar, while Richards, Carter and a variety of wingers made up a credible second line.
The Kings targeted Gaborik – or a scorer of his pedigree – because they were coming off an eight-game swoon that featured the usual problems: Not enough scoring and Quick not being quite as sharp as he can be. Gaborik has been a good fit with Kopitar, although almost anyone seems to be able to play with Kopitar, who is in the midst of another fine two-way season which makes him one of the leaders in the Selke Trophy balloting.
But Brown is an interesting case, someone who says he’s fine with where he’s being deployed and happier with how his game is now, post-Olympics, than he was prior to the Olympics, where he really struggled. I asked Brown if he was okay with how he’d been playing up and down the depth chart and he answered yes.
“You just come and go with it. At the end of the day, our team is not about worrying about where you’re playing or who you’re playing with. That’s kinda the culture we have here at a team – and it’s great to have that. It balances lines out. If I’m on the third line, then I can take advantage of being on the third line and playing against generally five/six defenceman and using my size and my skill to take advantage of that.”
Gaborik, meanwhile, is playing about 18 minutes a night, mostly with Kopitar, and has four points in his first eight games with the Kings, plus a shootout winner.
Gaborik went a similar adjustment last year, joining the Columbus Blue Jackets from the New York Rangers, where he scored eight points in 12 games for his new team, but was unable to help them get to the playoffs. The Kings will make the playoffs – and are locked in as the third seed in the Pacific Division, and will start on the road against either the San Jose Sharks or the Anaheim Ducks.
Gaborik is still staying in a hotel, but looking for a place in Los Angeles. Gaborik came close to signing with the Kings years ago, when he hit free agency.
“It still takes some time to get used to the system, but this team was established as a winning team over the last couple of years and they won a Cup. There’s a lot of structure to that. Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s trusting each other out there. I like it.”
Kopitar said of playing with Gaborik: “I think you kinda have an idea of what his strengths are coming in, but you’ve got to get used to what type of game he wants to play in the offensive zone.
“He’s more of a give-and-go guy than a puck-possession guy. Once you figure that out, it’s pretty easy to play with him. I think we’ve been so far creating pretty good chances and we’re going to have to continue to do that – that’s no secret.”
Gaborik is in the final year of an expiring contract, but flirted with joining the Kings when he was a free agent four years ago, but ultimately chose to join the New York Rangers. At this stage of his career, Gaborik says the chance to play for a contender trumps all.
“Definitely, I want to win bad,” said Gaborik. “I landed at one of the contenders, which I’m very excited about. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out with Columbus, but that’s the way it is sometimes. I got dealt here. I was very excited by that. This is a good team, so … we’ve got to make sure we have a good push to end the regular season and get ready for playoffs.”
THIS AND THAT: Calgary received a third-round pick for Lee Stempniak from Pittsburgh and the fit there appears good, with Stempniak picking up Pascal Dupuis’s minutes on the top line with Sidney Crosby. But other teams may have missed a good bet when they didn’t push harder to get Flames’ Michael Cammalleri at the trading deadline, despite the fact that Calgary dropped the asking price. Cammalleri had eight goals in seven games following Saturday’s 8-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers and has 13 points over that stretch … The Flyers have opened up some distance on the rest of the field in the Metropolitan Division, too far behind Pittsburgh to catch them for top spot but solidifying their hold on a playoff spot after a a 12-2-1 run since Feb. 1 … Chicago’s salary-cap woes forced them to put Patrick Kane immediately on the long-term injury list, meaning he’ll miss 10 games and 24 days, but should be ready to play once the playoffs roll around. There is a thought that after last year’s short summer, along with Kane’s participation in the 2014 Olympics, that the rest may actually help him down the road, especially if the Blackhawks go on a long playoff run … After becoming the first team to officially clinch a playoff spot this year on Friday, the Boston Bruins extended their win streak to 12 games by defeating the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday, their longest since a 13-game run in the 1970-71 season, during the heyday of Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins. Jarome Iginla has three two-goal games in the last five and has nine goals in his last eight. With 557 career goals, Iginla moved past former Bruin star Johnny Bucyk into 25th place on the all-time goal-scoring list. Quite a year for Iginla, after signing with the Bruins as a free agent in the summer.
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