So this was the riff going through my head Saturday, watching another Edmonton Oilers season go down the drain at the hands of the visiting Detroit Red Wings: "Playoffs? You kidding me?! Playoffs?! "
Yes, the famous Jim Mora rant about playoffs – and why his Indianapolis Colts weren’t going to make them - can apply to hockey too, and especially when it comes to an Oilers team that openly and boldly talked about making the playoffs in September on the grounds that the bleeding had to stop some time.
It had now been seven years since Edmonton actually qualified for NHL postseason play and were adamant that terms such as “youth” and “potential” had to be exorcised from their collective vocabularies because they provided a crutch that they didn’t need any more. That was the message from new coach Dallas Eakins, who clearly wasn’t afraid to raise expectations. The Oilers had a decent nucleus in place, felt that adding Andrew Ference in the off-season would add veteran stability, and were ready to fly.
Except they weren’t. Playoffs? In Edmonton? This year? Don’t think so, not the way the Oilers played the first month of the season. The NHL awards three stars every month to celebrate excellence. They rely on us to consider the other end of the spectrum, the underachievers, where the Oilers arguably lead the pack after hitting rock bottom – maybe – during Saturday’s 5-0 shellacking by the Wings.
It is hard to imagine that it could get any worse than this. Right?
The Oilers were at home. They were rested and facing a Red Wings team playing for a second time in two nights. They were motivated, in theory anyway, after calling a players-only meeting to discuss their previous pratfall, 4-0 at the hands of the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week. And still they got clobbered, making it back-to-back shutout losses at home. The team now has a 3-10-2 record overall; and a trip to Florida, Tampa, Philadelphia and Chicago coming up this week.
At the very least, it gets them as far away as possible from the maddening crowd, a frustrated fan base in what used to be called the City of Champions that booed them off the ice Saturday night.
It is a grim thing how the Oilers’ season had gone off the rails, and hard to see any solutions on the horizon, even with Taylor Hall returning to the lineup from injury, possibly towards the end of the week.
The Oilers’ defence is leaky, their offence has ground to a halt and the goaltending remains largely mediocre. The confidence level appears to be zero; they are trying to be altogether too cute when they have the puck; and they don’t seem to have a clue how to play without it. Not a recipe for a quick turnaround.
As of Monday morning, the Oilers were 10 points behind the fifth-place Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division. Under the new NHL realignment plan, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs along with two wild cards.
So that’s 10 points they have to make up in a division that includes only one other real weak link – their Alberta counterparts, the Calgary Flames. It is the start of the second month of the NHL season and the task is practically hopeless already.
Many general managers, including the Red Wings’ Ken Holland, believe that teams move in tandem in the standings once you get about six weeks into the season and only on the rarest occasion can a club dig itself out of such a precarious early-season deficit. So the arithmetic is heavily skewed against the Oilers and then there is the matter of getting their act together on the ice.
Eakins spoke for eight minutes and 44 seconds post-game Saturday and if you listened carefully, he was asking about the team’s internal leadership, noting that when things started to go off the rails, “we had no one to stand up and push back.” “We’ve got a group that is hurting. They’re dying. They’ve lost their confidence. The best way to get your confidence back is to have some success and it starts with one guy to push back, and you hope it feeds the rest of the group.”
Eakins went on to say that everybody on the team is capable of being that leader, because if you made it to the NHL, you had to be a go-to player somewhere along the way.
“When things are going badly like this, you’ve got to remember that you’ve been the guy and it’s time to stand up. It can start with one guy, but it has to be everybody … it has got to be the whole group. None of us are as strong as all of us. We have to be strong together. I’ve got to find a way to give this group some confidence. They’re dying. They’re hurting. I believe they’re trying, but we’re playing scared right now and you can’t play scared in this league. You’re going to get killed.”
It’s such a contrast with what’s happening in Colorado. The Avalanche and Oilers are linked because, until this season, they played together in the NHL’s Northwest Division and roughly followed similar paths. Colorado missed the playoffs in five of the past seven years and, like Edmonton, reaped the benefit of some high draft choices.
It was only last April when backup goaltender J.S. Giguere aired out his young teammates, claiming that some of them were far more concerned with planning their post-season Las Vegas vacations than playing out another poor year in which they finished dead last in the west. Giguere’s words seemed to resonate, if not in the dressing room, then in the ownership suite, where a couple of major changes were made – Joe Sakic was hired as executive VP of hockey operations and Patrick Roy as head coach and VP of hockey operations.
It was an unorthodox managerial structure because Greg Sherman retained his title as general manager, but the culture changed almost at once. Colorado won its sixth in a row Saturday night, defeating the Montreal Canadiens, a sweet victory for Roy, if only because of his previous history with the Habs.
The Avalanche is only the fifth team in NHL history to start a season 12-1 and the other four all easily made the playoffs. So if Colorado qualifies and the two top teams in the Central, the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues, do their part, then there is virtually no chance for any of Edmonton, Calgary or for that matter, the Winnipeg Jets, to make the playoffs again this year.
Colorado has one lingering issue – what happens with goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who was accused of domestic violence this past week by his girlfriend – but otherwise, they have bulled through the first month, Roy’s personality reflected in how the team is performing on the ice.
Roy is an unpopular figure in some circles because he is so supremely confident and still can show flashes of that legendary temper. But, so far anyway, his team has taken most of the good things from him and none of the bad.
Mostly, they’ve developed an identity. Edmonton? After five coaching changes in five years, they’re still searching for theirs.
SABRES SEND KALETA TO ROCHESTER: The Buffalo Sabres have sent Patrick Kaleta down to their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, in the hopes that he can rehabilitate his game in the minors and ultimately return as a changed man, a la Matt Cooke or Steve Downie, or any of the serial offenders who’ve cleaned up their acts in recent years. The Sabres offered Kaleta around the NHL, but there were no takers. Kaleta’s 10-game suspension – for a hit to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Jack Johnson – is over.
It remains to be seen if he’ll ever see the light of day in the NHL again. The fact that he cleared waivers is an indication that 29 other teams have no interest in him, his problems, or the distraction that he would inevitably bring. It is reminiscent of how Sean Avery’s career eventually ground to a halt after even the New York Rangers’ patience with him ran out. Kaleta is at a crossroads, and presumably, he knows that now.
“When we looked at where the league is … and where Patrick’s game is currently, I think there is a significant amount of work that he will have to do to redesign his game in order to give him an opportunity to play,” general manager Darcy Regier told the Buffalo News. “In fairness to him, he has made some changes. I think the changes that are going faster are at the league level. The league is really making a serious attempt to roll back. I think there’s an obvious focus on concussions and I think you’re going to see an additional focus on fighting.”
This part is true. GMs can complain all they want about how a lot of the hits earning suspensions now would have passed muster before – and they’d be correct. It’d be a fun exercise to see discipline chief Brendan Shanahan review about a dozen of Scott Stevens’s hits from the 1990s to see if they would result in discipline now.
The point is, with concussion awareness increasing, the NHL is trying to shift the line and weed out the headhunters - the players who are only employed because of their ability to launch predatory hits at unsuspecting opponents. The number of truly bad apples is extremely low, but the entire league takes on the brunt of negative publicity every time a John Scott launches himself at a Louie Eriksson and gets a seven-game suspension as a result.
Regier, meanwhile, thinks some time outside of the spotlight will do Kaleta some good: “I really believe he can change. He’s 27 and he has the ability to do that and be an effective player in the NHL.”
THIS AND THAT: The Los Angeles Kings will be without Jeff Carter for a couple of weeks, with an undisclosed lower body injury, which gave them a chance to call up two of the premier prospects, Tyler Toffoli and Linden Vey. Toffoli played in Saturday’s loss to the Nashville Predators, but not without enduring a roundabout travel day to L.A. on Friday, the result of the closure of LAX because of a shooting. Under the circumstances, coach Darryl Sutter thought Toffoli played pretty well in his first outing. Toffoli had a cameo with the Kings last year, but Sutter is old-school when it comes to player development, and prefers to see the youngsters in the organization putting in time in the minor leagues … Calgary made a goaltending switch on the weekend, putting back-up Joey MacDonald on waivers after a bad outing in Friday night’s loss to his ex-team, the Red Wings. Instead, the Flames called up Reto Berra from their minor-league affiliate in Abbotsford and gave him the start in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Talk about a baptism under fire. For the immediate future, the Flames will go with Berra and Kari Ramo between the pipes. Calgary has fallen off after a fast start, but it is largely a function of poor goaltending and injuries to two key players, defenceman Mark Giordano and forward Lee Stempniak. Berra came over from the St. Louis Blues in the Jay Bouwmeester trade. Flames’ coach Bob Hartley likes him, and had a chance to see him play close up in the Swiss league two years ago.
AND FINALLY: New York Rangers’ prospect Chris Kreider failed to make the team out of training camp, but he was recalled after injuries sidelined two other top-six forwards, Rick Nash (concussion) and Ryan Callahan (broken thumb). Coach Alain Vigneault put Kreider and Mats Zuccarello on a line with Derek Stepan and it paid dividends Saturday, when Stepan scored a hat trick and his linemates earned assists on all three goals. Those were Stepan’s first goals of the season – and his second career hat trick. The first came in his NHL debut. The Rangers are slowly emerging from their early-season slow start, having won four of the past five to raise their record to 6-7. The fact that the Rangers play in the NHL’s poorest division, the Metropolitan, is keeping them very much alive in the playoff race … Phoenix has had a couple of real clunkers so far this season, but overall, the Coyotes are 10-3-2, which represents their best start since the 2000-01 season. Phoenix has won four in a row and has points in 11 of their past 12 games. Mike Smith, a candidate for Canada’s Olympic team in net, had another strong night, stopping 48 shots against the San Jose Sharks Saturday in a game they eventually won in a shootout.
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