There are two types of goalie controversies you can have in the National Hockey League – Toronto’s kind, where the Maple Leafs have two netminders who’ve shown they can play this year, and Edmonton’s, where the Oilers haven’t had any.
Or they hadn’t until Richard Bachman rode to the rescue from Oklahoma City Sunday night, making 47 saves in what finished as a 2-1 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
It wasn’t the Oilers’ finest moment, but they had a chance to steal the game anyway, thanks to Bachman’s performance, which included an eye-popping 28 third-period saves.
His performance established an Oilers record for most saves in a team debut – surpassing the mark set by Ron Low back in March, 1980 – and likely means Bachman will be back between the pipes when the Oilers host the visiting Maple Leafs Tuesday night, the start of the Leafs’ first Western Canadian road swing in two years.
The Leafs, of course, are riding high at 8-4, largely because they’ve gotten good work from both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer at different times in October. Defensively suspect teams generally need that sort of high-end goaltending to exceed expectations. In the Oilers’ glory days, they were a freewheeling, offensively gifted bunch that relied on Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog to bail them out whenever they went to the attack, which was constantly.
It was that way again Sunday night – the bailing out part anyway – with Bachman, who joined the team last summer as a free agent from the Dallas Stars organization. As the Oilers shuffled their goaltending deck, Bachman was pencilled in as their No. 3 man, behind Devan Dubnyk and Jason Labarbera, who was brought in from Phoenix to replace Nikolai Khabibulin.
You wonder: If they ever invented an NHL time machine and the Oilers could turn the clock back to June, would they have tried harder to land Bernier, when the Los Angeles Kings dangled him as trade bait after the playoffs ended?
The fact that the Oilers made a sincere pitch to land Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks at the entry draft tells you they weren’t completely sold on the state of their own goaltending. The Canucks turned them down, in part because they wanted Schneider a long way from the Left Coast, so he wasn’t coming in constantly, as a divisional rival, to make them regret the deal six or seven times per season.
Maybe it would have been the same with Bernier too. The Oilers were joining L.A. in the Pacific Division under the new realignment plan. Trading Bernier outside the conference meant that the Kings could worry less about his long-term upside. Ever since the San Jose Sharks generously donated the services of Miikka Kiprusoff to the Calgary Flames more than a decade ago for a second-round pick, NHL general managers have gotten awfully gun shy about bolstering an opponent’s goaltending when they could be jockeying with them for playoff positioning.
But if you like a player well enough, that’s when you overpay to fill an identifiable organizational need.
It didn’t happen for Edmonton, so now they turn to Bachman, hoping that his 32 games of NHL experience are enough to solve their season-long problems between the pipes. Oilers coach Dallas Eakins noted after Sunday’s loss that the 26-year-old from Salt Lake City made it look “real routine, like it was business as usual. He was composed, he didn’t get rattled and that helped our whole team.”
There’s an implicit message in there – the idea that a team’s overall confidence is directly related to their confidence in their goaltending. Or as Harry Neale once put it: Goaltending is 50 per cent of your game, unless you don’t have it, in which case it’s 100 per cent of your game. All teams want composure from their goalies, not just the ones waiting for their shot at regular NHL duty.
The Leafs will face an Oilers team that was no longer content to be in the ranks of the up-and-coming team, built around a trio of No. 1 overall draft choices – Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. They believe they were good enough to break through. Unhappily, Hall is out a month with a knee injury; Nugent-Hopkins is 11 games into his return from off-season shoulder surgery and sporting a minus-8 rating; and Yakupov contributed his first goal of the season against the Kings after leading the team last year with 17.
It all adds up to a 3-8-2 record, good for last place in the Western Conference, not exactly the start the Oilers imagined. It didn’t help matters when Sam Gagner, who would have been the No. 1 centre in the early going because of Nugent-Hopkins’s absence, took a stick in the face from the Canucks’ Zack Kassian in the preseason and broke his jaw. But Mark Arcobello is filling in decently in a top-six role, with 10 assists in 13 games played, and Gagner is inching toward a return.
Considering their talent, the Oilers don’t score nearly as many goals as you’d think, but the real problem is keeping the puck out of their own net – a function of both net-minding and their overall lack of commitment to team defence. They are dead last in the league in that category, surrendering 3.77 goals per game, which might have been fine in the Wayne Gretzky era, but isn’t anymore. It needs to get better. Maybe Bachman’s presence will kick their defence into overdrive.
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