The Edmonton Oilers are back at Rexall Place for home games against the Ottawa Senators and the Chicago BlackHawks this week looking to put the pieces together after enduring three tough losses to close out their annual early November road trip with Canadian Finals Rodeo in town.
After starting the season 9-3-2 the Oilers came back down to earth and back into the pack losing to teams that all have won Stanley Cups in the last four seasons (6-3 to Boston, 3-0 in Detroit, and 6-3 to Chicago).
To me there were two major reasons why the Oilers hit the skids on the road: injuries to puck-movers on the back-end, and lack of secondary scoring.
“Depth on “D” Challenged”
With the Oilers top defenceman, Ryan Whitney
, out with a knee injury, the Oil could ill afford to lose another “D” that lets the puck do the work; which is precisely what went down when summer free agent signing Cam Barker
headed home after a tough night in Boston dealing with a foot injury.
Tuesday we received word that Whitney, who has only played four games since last December, would be out at least 10 more days, with Barker out a month.
The Oilers fortunes last season pretty much went in the ‘crapper' after Whitney suffered what turned out to be a season-ending right ankle injury.
After registering 27 points in 35 games with a stellar +13 rating last season it isn’t difficult communicating Whitney’s value to the masses.
Barker, the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft is another matter.
Certainly the fans I speak to on “Oilers Now” are polarized when it comes to the impact that the former Medicine Hat Tiger has had on the Oilers.
Barker’s detractors suggest he lacks passion, looks slow and hasn’t contributed the offence fans were expecting.
Nonetheless, Barker is +3 through 12 games and if you talk to his teammates they will tell you that the squad missed his experience and composure in the losses to Detroit and Chicago.
Unless Oilers management can find a solution via trade it is my belief that the challenges on the back end may continue until Whitney is able to return.Scoring Woes
Whereas there may be no short term solution to Oilers lack of depth on defence right now. I do feel changing the Oilers line combos may be able to offset the Oilers lack of scoring punch.
After being carried by the Oilers top two trios featuring strong offensive starts by the Ryans -- Nugent-Hopkins and Smyth -- the Oilers lack of scoring depth in lines three and four came to fruition at the tail end of the trip.
Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in hockey, contrary to what ex-NHL role players will tell you in their current roles as broadcasters -- or for that matter, coaches as well.
Most coaching staffs do a very good job in teaching team defence, with emphasis on puck support, attention to detail and structure and process.
Few coaches actually breed offensive confidence in their players.
This will be the challenge for Oilers Head Coach Tom Renney and his staff, specifically with Sam Gagner
and Magnus Paajarvi
, who are currently not on either of the Oilers top two lines.
Both Gagner and Paajarvi are talented players who would garner significant interest around the NHL. Both would be the first to admit that they have struggled out of the gate.
Gagner’s high ankle sprain suffered in pre-season got him behind the eight-ball from the get-go.
Since returning from injury, Gagner has played mostly right wing, a position he enjoyed success with in his rookie season but not where he has played the majority of the last three seasons.
The return of Smyth, who has taken every advantage of the minutes he has been given, has knocked Paajarvi out of one of the top two left wing spots on the team.
After proving a lot last season, especially in the second half where he scored 11 goals, Paajarvi is clearly devoid of confidence right now.
Though in my opinion a player’s success is at least 75% on the player, I don’t think it can be debated that Paajarvi has hardly been put in a position to succeed.
Playing the majority of his time on third-line left wing with Eric Belanger
, the two clearly have not found the offensive groove.
Belanger has done a great job in the face-off circle and killing penalties, but has been snake-bitten offensively, and Paajarvi to a certain degree has been collateral damage in the process.
Personally as I have stated numerous times during the Oilers broadcasts over the last couple of weeks, once we knew Ales Hemsky
was close to returning, that I was hoping to see Paajarvi, Gagner and Hemsky play together giving the Oilers a little more punch up front.
That has yet to happen and you have to wonder if what seemed unfathomable last March -- Paajarvi being sent to the minors -- is inevitable.
It should be noted that when Tom Renney was coaching the New York Ranger he sent down Ryan Callahan to the minors...twice!
No question it didn’t hurt Callahan, but I am not sure this is the right decision for Magnus at this time.
Personally I don’t believe for a second that 35 year-old Ryan Smyth
can keep playing 20 minutes a game (He is currently averaging 20:14 per game). Last season with L.A. he played over 20 minutes in nine of the Kings first 27 games. The Kings limited him under 20 minutes for the final 26 regular season games.Taylor Hall
averaged 18:12 last season, he is down a minute to 17:11 to start this season. Paajarvi has gone from playing 15:23 per game last year to 12:41 this season.
Hall and Paajarvi are the future of this Oilers on left wing and I was of the belief that when the Oilers re-acquired Smyth, that we would be looking at 18 minutes a game for Hall, with Paajarvi and Smyth good for 15-17 minutes a game.
I would suggest it has been tough to judge Paajarvi on a “body of work” that sees him play under 13 minutes a game and without the benefit of playing with the Oilers more creative offensive players.
Giving him a solid 15 minutes a game with Gagner and Hemsky might give us a truer indication of where he is really at.
Time will tell, I guess. Bob Stauffer is the Colour Analyst for the Oilers Radio Network and hosts Oilers Now on 630 CHED, Noon to 2:00 PM MST, Monday thru Friday