The Edmonton Oilers’ descent into hockey irrelevance continues. Despite the desperation one would expect from a side heading toward surrender, they gift-wrapped a 5-2 victory and presented it to San Jose on Saturday night. Barely a pulse was registered with the exception of a few shifts in which Milan Lucic and Adam Larsson launched themselves at anyone in teal.
The Sharks scored four times on rushes that were mostly unimpeded. Cam Talbot needed as many arms as an octopus to deflect the number of pucks directed at him in the Oilers’ net. Between them, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the team’s captain and first lieutenant, recorded one shot combined.
Amid all of this, in Edmonton an all-too-familiar funk has started to set in. A fan tossed an Oilers jersey on the ice on Tuesday during another lopsided defeat. They have lost 11 of their past 13 games at home, and are ahead of only two teams now in the NHL’s Western Conference. With games looming in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Brooklyn, they could be in last place by the end of the week.
“We can’t do the things we are doing to ourselves and expect to be a playoff team,” Ken Hitchcock, the Edmonton coach, said on Saturday night. "We think we are headed in the right direction and then shoot ourselves in the foot.
“I don’t have the answers.”
There are only two other coaches with more victories in NHL history than Hitchcock. That makes his inability to right a flagging ship, and his frustration over it, all the more disconcerting. He took over in November when Todd McLellan was fired. The general manager, Peter Chiarelli, has also been shown the door.
Now fans are howling that Bob Nicholson needs to be replaced as the Oilers chief executive. It is as though his hiring of Chiarelli, McLellan and Hitchcock – each with a successful track record – was a capital offence. There is an unfounded suspicion that highly regarded hockey minds are being manipulated by puppet masters from the Oilers old guard. Blame is being laid at the feet of everyone but the players.
It is a conundrum because the team is getting career years from its top talent: McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse. They form a strong nucleus, but their efforts are often undermined by a feeble supporting cast. They have one winger – Tobias Rieder – who has yet to score in 41 games. In Mikko Koskinen, they have a goalie who was handed a three-year contract extension in Chiarelli’s last move. The 6-foot-7 Finn has been benched recently because of his erratic play. There are three other forwards who have four, three and three goals – and each has played more than 50 games.
The dressing room seemed sapped of energy after the latest loss. Neither McDavid nor Draisaitl was made available, and that is a rare occurrence. Lucic, Oscar Klefbom and Kyle Brodziak were left to speak for their teammates. Interestingly, none of those three have been lacking in effort. Klefbom just returned from a serious injury and is already eating up minutes on defence.
Lucic has received the brunt of criticism because his contract is large and he has endured the worst slump of his career. But teammates love him because no matter how badly he has struggled, he never lacks for heart. He was a wrecking ball on Saturday night, sending San Jose players sprawling with nine thunderous hits.
Brodziak is 34 and was signed in the off-season to provide depth at centre. He is one of the Oilers best players at faceoffs and is a capable penalty-killer. The next game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday will be the 900th of his NHL career.
He can easily recognize what is going wrong, but fixing it is much harder. The Oilers fell into a 2-0 hole on Saturday and played as though they were uninspired mostly after that.
“Our first period was not good enough, in the second period we had a bit of a push back,but then we gave up one in the third and it kind of sunk us," Brodziak said.
Hitchcock was so distressed that he spoke for less than a minute after a 7-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last week. He was more chatty and decidedly angry after the loss to San Jose. He has shown remarkable patience thus far, but frustration is growing.
The Oilers have played three games on the road since the all-star break, winning once and earning a point in the others. They have lost both games at home by a combined 12-4.
“We don’t come close to playing like this on the road," Hitchcock said. “At the end, players have to reach the point where they are sick of it. To me, personally it is irritating."
He says the Oilers look good in practice. A breakthrough appears near. And then another breakdown occurs.
“It is not a matter of resiliency,” Hitchcock said. “I think it is priorities, and [players] understanding what is important. It is a symptom of something much bigger.”
Time is about to run out. Edmonton has 27 games to salvage its season. Nothing so far indicates that will happen.