The Edmonton Oilers begin a six-game, Eastern swing in Toronto on Saturday night still struggling to find their way in the early days of the season.
At 1-3-0, the young Oilers are already feeling the heat. Fans want to finally get into the playoff picture after years of rebuilding. And they don’t like what they’re seeing.
So what’s wrong?
I spoke with a team executive on an Eastern Conference team and this was his assessment:
Aside from Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, who hasn’t played yet because of injury, he thought the team’s young forwards aren’t fully committed to becoming complete players. They’re not paying the price to play a 200-foot game. He said that’s especially noticeable on a team where the blue line, aside from Justin Schultz -- whom he refers to as a "stud" -- has "neither depth nor dimension."
He thought the Oilers were in "denial" about Devan Dubnyk, who he doesn’t believe has the goods to be a No. 1 netminder.
I disagree with the last assessment. I know Dubnyk is off to a rough start, but I thought last season he proved a lot, putting up a .920 save percentage -- which was better than Kari Lehtonen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, Mike Smith, Pekka Rinne, Evgeni Nabokov, Niklas Backstrom and Cam Ward -- on a team that couldn’t play defense, facing quality chance after quality chance.
I do wonder, however, what impact Edmonton’s pursuit of Cory Schneider the weekend of the NHL draft in June had on Dubnyk. Did it shake his confidence knowing the Oilers tried to trade for another starter?
Fact is, I don’t blame GM Craig MacTavish for trying to get Schneider, because that signified that he was simply trying to create a 1-1A scenario with two young netminders, which would have strengthened his net. It wasn’t about replacing Dubnyk but rather doubling the team’s talent in net. Sort of like what Toronto did in adding Jonathan Bernier on top of James Reimer or Tampa adding Ben Bishop last season to Anders Lindback. I have no issue with that.
My sense going forward is that MacTavish will take stock of his goaltending about 10 to 15 games into this season before deciding if he has to look elsewhere for help. I thought Dubnyk was better against Montreal on Thursday night, allowing three goals, after two brutal starts.
The real area that needs addressing is on defense. I suspect you’ll see MacTavish add a body or two between now and the March trade deadline. Or attempt to.
He has ample assets up front to trade, as the team is loaded with forward talent.
Finally, let’s not discount there’s a new coach behind the bench. That takes adjustment for the players.
I am reminded of a comment Troy Brouwer of the Washington Capitals made to me in mid-March last season regarding the team’s second-half turnaround after struggling early under rookie coach Adam Oates.
"This team has played a certain way and had an idea about their identity for quite a few years now, and when it gets changed a little, it was tough to embrace that," Brouwer said. "So I think we had a bit of trust issues at the beginning of the year, whether or not the new system would be a good fit for the team, and within the team to make sure guys were doing their part. As the season went on, we embraced it a little bit more and a little bit more, and then finally we had full trust in Adam's system and the guys carrying it out."
A coach is a salesman. The players have to buy what he’s selling. It might take a bit before the players in Edmonton fully embrace that what Dallas Eakins is selling will make them a winning team. I believe he was a terrific hire and can deliver. It’s just going to take time.
I still believe the Oilers will make the playoffs this season.
MacTavish has the gumption to make a bold move or two. And if has to, he will.