Hockey

Now begins the portion of the preview to this “series” where any parents allowing their children to read this should probably be reported to DCFS. While both the Hawks and Oilers boast varying concentrations of firepower among their respective forward corps, to call both of these teams a bit of an adventure on the blue line would probably be a bit complimentary. There are gaping fissures in the space-time continuum to be found on either side of the ledger here, and it will be up to the coaching staffs to find them. Ten guesses as to which one is more likely to do so, with the answer to be given on Thursday for the coaching preview.

Hockey

Due to the decade-plus-long streak of Red Wings exceptionalism, it was just a given that Ken Holland was a genius who prolonged the mid-90s dominance constructed by Jimmy Devellano by unearthing gems like Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. And yeah, that’s quite a foursome to back up the free-spending ways of the Bowman Years.

As time went along, it appeared more and more that Holland simply kept Forrest Gump’ing his way into great players, and as the cap took more and more hold of the league, he simply couldn’t adjust. There were some hideous contracts handed out (Frans Nielsen and Trevor Daley, hello!), while the pipeline went dry for years (remember when Tomas Jurco was going to change the sport forever?). That core that ran the league in the mid-to-late 2000s got old and had not support. And then it all collapsed, and the Wings are still trying to get out from under it. Some began to wonder what Holland’s actual legacy was. Was he just born on third in Detroit?

We’ll find out now, because for some reason Holland decided to take on one of the few bigger messes than Detroit in the NHL, and that’s the Edmonton Oilers.

Perhaps like a couple coaches have, the allure and glow of Connor McDavid is just too strong to ignore. Perhaps the name-recognition of Holland in the sport delays any inklings McDavid might have of demanding out (they have to be there, right?). Or maybe it’s just the truckload of cash dropped at his door. Whatever the reason, Holland is certainly up to the knee in it now.

One thing Holland might be hoping is that simply not being Peter Chiarelli buys him a season or two to assemble a couple more draft picks. The Oilers only hope is to get production out of players on minimal deals to offset the shovelful of horseshit they’re getting from some of their higher-paid players.

Salvation might not be as far away as everyone likes to joke. The Oilers only have McDavid, RNH, Draisaitl, Neal, Chiasson, Klefbom, Russell, Koskinen signed for next year, though they only have $23M in space to fill some 13-14 spaces. The only player they are likely to want to keep is Darnell Nurse, but his play has hardly warranted paying him like the angry Seth Jones we thought he might become a year or two ago. Perhaps Phillip Broberg and Evan Bouchard can join the blue line for cheap help in the next couple seasons. Then again, Broberg was Holland’s first pick and was widely panned. Tigers can’t change their stripes, after all.

Which continued the tradition of what Holland had done in Detroit. Over his last nine drafts in Motor City, after they had stopped picking in the high-20s due to on-ice success, Holland provided only Anathasiou. Mantha, Larkin, and (if we squint) Tyler Bertuzzi. There’s some hope for Svechnikov and Hronek, but needless to say no jury is anywhere close to being back from lunch on them. Without reinforcements from within, all the while swearing that they were just overcooking in Grand Rapids, the Red Wings main roster aged and expensed its way out of competence.

One way to goose the process would be to find a trade, but the Oilers don’t have much to make a splash with. Draisaitl and McDavid are immovable and you’d never get fair value for them anyway. The window to move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins along might very well have passed. He has one more year on his deal after this one before hitting unrestricted free agency, and he’ll only be 27, so the time would be at this deadline. Waiting until the offseason will only lower his value. But then the Oilers would have to find another center or winger to make up for Draisaitl moving back to his natural pivot spot. It’s going to have to be more than Kailer Yamomoto, that’s for sure.

While it would be un-hockey-like, there must be a ticking clock hanging over McDavid as well. If any player could pull an NBA-style “Get Me The Fuck Outta Here” power move, it’s Run CMD. He’s seen the playoffs once in five seasons and patience must be thin. If Holland hasn’t presented something of a plan to his captain, he’s going to have to soon.

Holland needs at least one more year of high picks though, and maybe collecting a few more by selling off whatever’s not tied down. Except there isn’t anything. What would be worth anything at the deadline? Kassian? Maybe Benning? Those are worth low-round picks at best. RNH to someone desperate might be his only hope.

Does Holland have the patience for a slow burn that he didn’t show in Detroit until it was too late? Does he have the luxury considering what McDavid’s mood might be? We’ll see what he’s made of now.

Hockey

And now this disaster. I was thinking earlier this morning that there really isn’t a parallel to the Oilers wasting one of the best players of all-time for years, but of course there is. It’s the Anaheim Angels. Mike Trout appeared in the playoffs once, and his team has been weighed down by incredibly bad contracts and journeymen and kids who were never up to it. And the same goes for Connor McDavid. Other than Leon Draisaitl, they’ve been surrounded be either old trash or kids that just haven’t popped the way it was thought (looking at you directly, Darnell Nurse). And this season doesn’t look to be any different. We can only hope this is the one where McDavid snaps and demands a trade midseason or in the summer, to give us some proper drama.

Let’s get through it together:

2018-2019

35-38-9  79 points (6th in Pacific)

2.79 GF/G (20th)  3.30 GA/G (25th)  -42 GD

47.9 CF% (25th)  46.6 xGF% (26th)

21.2 PP% (9th)  74.8 PK% (30th)

Goalies: Sweet Jesus God. As we said with the Flames preview yesterday, the two Alberta teams pulled an indirect goalie switch, with Mike Smith, his .900 SV%, and his cantankerous nature landing behind an even worse defense than the one he had in Calgary that had him throwing whatever he could fit under the bus. Won’t his go well? Smith had a promising playoff performance while under constant carpet-bombing from the Avalanche, but that won’t be a worry here. Though the carpet-bombing might be. Smith is also 37, and I guess the hope here is that being reunited with coach Dave Tippett will help them rekindle the sporadic and greatly overblown success they had in Arizona. Good luck.

Backing him up is Mikko Koskinen, who earned a three-year extension from Peter Chiarelli, which must have been the last straw as Chiarelli was fired the very next day. Which might lead one to ask how you’re letting a GM you want to shitcan sign anyone to an extension, but keep in mind EdMo is where logic freezes and then is pissed on for sport. Koskinen’s .906 last year really inspired the masses, and as he’s 31 now there’s little reason to think it’s going to get much better. Sure, Tippett can batten down the hatches and try and create trench after trench in front of him. But with this outfit, what would that matter. Fun fun fun!

Defense: The “definition of insanity” quote isn’t actually real. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results just makes you the Oilers. So once again, these clowns are going to roll out Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell, Adam Larsson, Matthew Benning, and even Brandon Manning, and then be truly perplexed why McDavid is bringing a machete to the dressing room that he keeps sharpening and whispering something about the time of purification being at hand.

Nurse just has never blossomed into the atom-smashing, puck-moving loudmouth he promised as a junior, and is basically just kinda there. Klefbom, while allowing for a bunch of Tom Jones jokes, is just an ok possession-driver. Larsson is great at putting all his equipment on. The rest you know. They must hope Evan Bouchard can stick this time, though he seems to be a bit of a plodder and will need to quicken up to be effective at this level. Ethan Bear is going to keep Bouchard in the AHL for now, along with something called Joel Persson, because you always want to trust 25-year-olds making their NHL debut to really impact your roster. The hope must be for Bouchard to bludgeon the AHL for half of a season and then be up.

Forwards: Zack Kassian is going to be on McDavid’s line. I don’t know what more I have to say.

Once again, the Oilers will keep having the debate of whether Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins should play center or be moved to McJesus’s wing to give him any talent to play with, and once again there really won’t be a right answer. They’ve reassembled the bad parts of the 2015 Wings with Riley Sheehan and Tomas Jurco here, and remember that Wings team sucked. James Neal escaped his hell in Calgary to stand still and fire here with whatever passes McDavid or Draisaitl can get him. Which should actually work for 20-25 goals or so.

Sam Gagner has come home again, even though you were pretty sure he was dead. Tippett will find a way to keep Kailer Yamamoto off this roster, even though it could use all the dash it can find.

Prediction: This is where I’m supposed to say that Tippett will tighten things up and at least lower their goals against to keep them competitive for a while. But Ken Hitchcock couldn’t do it, and that’s all he does. And Todd McLellan is no idiot and he couldn’t either. Even if you trusted the goalies, which you shouldn’t, the defense has no top pairing player anywhere. Maybe if Tippet is finally the one to unlock Nurse, things could improve. But how many coaches is it going to take?

Tippett surely isn’t known for getting max scoring out of a team, and this team was short on scoring even with McClavicle, RNH, and Leon The Ladies Man. They still think Kassian can do anything. Neal might pop for a few goals, but not enough. They’re simply miles behind Calgary, Vegas, and San Jose, and you can’t see them running with any wildcard contender either. It’s another lost season up in EdMo, barring some miracle.

Save yourself, Connor. No one else here will.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 20-24-9   Oilers 23-24-5

PUCK DROP: 8pm

TV: WGN

EdMo Dee: Oilers Nation

The Hawks conclude this post-break, three-game road trip in the NHL’s “Beyond The Wall,” the hellscape that is Edmonton, Alberta (I assume). And when I say hellscape, I really mean the team that you’ll find there. Though a city that cold can’t have that much going on, no matter how much oil money flows or freezes in the streets. I’m sure the Hawks will thank the schedule makers for a five-day trip that spans three timezones and a collective temperature of “go fuck yourself.”

You may have heard about the Oilers, Biggest laughingstock in the league, despite having two more points than the Hawks. If the Hawks were to win tonight most Oilers fans would take being level on points with them as rock-bottom, just to give you a clear vision of what the Hawks are right now. Have the best player in the league as well, these Oilers. Can’t seem to make that count. Recently fired their addled GM two years too late. Now everyone is waiting with giddy excitement to see what drunken, near-sighted clown they hire next. He’ll almost assuredly have played on the Oilers in the 80s, because the one time they tried not to do that they ended up with Peter Chiarelli and his bent vision of reality, which basically involved whatever signing caused him to grab his groin aggressively. So clearly they have to go back to what didn’t work before. God bless this organization.

On the ice, the Oilers have center-depth and literally nothing else. Run CMD, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are by far their three leading scorers, and at various times this season have played with each other. Now they’re all back at their natural center positions, but when you look at what surrounds them it’s enough to make your food turn septic in your digestive track.

Milan Lucic is “skating” with McDavid, except you can’t call what Lucic does skating anymore so much as “thrashing about as the air currents push him ever so slightly.” Alex Chiasson is a second-line winger. Jujhar Khaira and Zack Kassian are somehow on a NHL third-line together instead of loading up on Skittles at a truck-stop somewhere during an AHL bus ride. “Putrid” doesn’t even come close to starting to describe this, and now you know why they are where they are. They’ve broken Jesse Puljujarvi, if he was anything to begin with, and he’s skating with Kyle Brodziak and Brad Malone in a chilling vision of what the future as a tomato can will look like.

It’s not any better on the back end. This is a team that traded FOR Brandon Manning, remember. And he plays. Adam Larsson is parading around the top pairing with a Kings castoff. Darnell Nurse will occasionally flash the modern-Pronger bit we thought he was destined for, and then remembers he’s spent almost all of his career with Kris Russell and retreats into sadness done in blue and orange again. Andrej Sekera wanders the arena looking for whatever fell off of him this week. It’s bleak.

And when the Oilers have threatened to be good in the past, it was because Cam And Magic Talbot could bail them out. He hasn’t this year, and this is where they are. They’re trusting Mikko Koskinen, a 30-year-old whose flights got crossed up and ended up signing here from the KHL rather than try and figure out how to rebook. In Chiarelli’s final act of lunacy, he re-signed Koskinen for three years to kind of just stand there, which is what he does. But his .908 is better than Talbot’s .893.

The Oilers tried to salvage this by hiring Ken Hitchcock midseason, because his track record of success is so blaring over the past 12 years. They’ve gone 14-14-4 with Hitch, a massive improvement over the 9-10-1 they managed with Todd McLellan. You know it’s bad when Hitch is longing for Jay Bouwmeester and Alex OrangeJello again. He gave up his Civil War reading for this?

This is maybe the biggest mess in the league, and whatever stooge they install as GM is going to find it nearly impossible to extricate. There’s barely any money coming off the books in the summer, really only Talbot’s $4M+ hit. And this team has no wingers. Lucic is in Seabrook territory at this point, and Kris Russell isn’t far behind. That is if the Oilers were inclined to move Russell, but they still seem oddly infatuated with him, mostly to sneer at most of the hockey world pointing out he sucks.

And really, that’s all the Oilers have been for nearly three decades now. Most of the hockey world has been pointing out they suck since 1991, and they still point and gloat about five Cups won before most of you could form a sentence. They’re convinced that run that started 35 years ago still makes them ahead of the game and won’t hear otherwise. This organization has accomplished exactly dick since their glory days, save one goofed Final appearance the first year of the lockout when nothing made sense and is something Chris Pronger clearly erased from his memory (the Blues traded him for Eric Brewer, by the way. Take a moment to think about that).

Anyway, tonight’s challenge is simple enough. Hitch will throw McDavid out against Keith and Seabrook as often as he can, unless he still thinks it’s 2013, and he might. Failing that, Forsling and Gustafsson will be similarly tortured. If the Hawks can somehow keep McJesus on a leash, they should have a good chance at this one. The Oilers recently gave up four power play goals in a game, so the Hawks’ PP should barely be able to keep from slobbering when they get their chance.

As for the Hawks, no word yet on who starts but one would hope Delia gets wheeled back out there. Ward’s had two decent starts in a row though and we know Coach Cool Youth Pastor will shit himself if he has to tell any veteran other than Chris Kunitz anything bad, so you never know. Perlini should stay in ahead of Kunitz, but that’s about it.

As we said at the weekend, the schedule is pretty shitty now, so if the Hawks are insistent on chasing playoff spots that don’t really matter, this is where they’ll make their run. With the Canucks and Wings at home next, they could actually put together a substantial winning streak. Then again, this is just about the same outfit that got worked by the Wings at home last year. The Hawks have lost to the Oilers twice already this season, but hey, they’re both under .500 so maybe they’re not good enough to beat anyone three times.

We’re in this together.

 

Game #54 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Matt Henderson is one of the writers at Oilersnation.com. You can follow him on Twitter @archaeologuy. 

So the Oilers finally got around to firing Peter Chiarelli. Is there genuine hope now? Or is the fear he may have broken this thing beyond repair? What can a new GM conceivably do immediately?
Hope is hard to kill and the Oilers still have McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, and Klefbom. It’s not many pieces, but the high end talent is there. I don’t think the team is broken beyond repair, however, it’s going to take a lot of work to remove the anchors that Chia added. Russell and Lucic make up $10M on the Cap and they’re 3rd pairing/line quality at best. The new GM needs to start finding reasonable talent on the wings and a right shot defender to keep Bouchard pushed down the order.
Did Cam Talbot simply die of exhaustion?
I wish I could reasonably explain goalies. They’re weird. I don’t think it’s exhaustion. At least not from playing. His twins were born and his game disappeared. My guess is the changes to his life have more to do with the erosion of his play than because he played too many games. It’s jut a guess though. Goalies are Voodoo.
We always ask about him, because we were fascinated by what he could be, but what has Darnell Nurse looked like under Ken Hitchcock? Is he just never going to be the world-altering beast we thought?
I don’t think he’ll be a world altering beast, but he’s played reasonably well under Hitchcock. Because Klefbom has been hurt it’s forced him into the PP and he’s been picking up points at a solid rate. He has better tools than a lot of players. He’s a plus skater and has a mean streak. I think he’ll be a great 2nd pairing defender. I don’t think that’s a knock on him. If he wants to take the next step he needs to keep working on his outlet passing. He usually skates it out but if the passing improves he could unlock that next level.
What’s the deal with Jesse Puljujarvi? The Oilers seem intent on keeping him in the AHL but Oilers fans tend to think he’s getting screwed a bit. 
I’m a big Jesse Puljujarvi fan. He’s a bit like Nurse in that he has unreal physical tools. The Oilers unquestionably screwed up with his development. He never should have seen regular NHL time until this season but the Oilers started the clock on his ELC and his UFA status when he was 18. He ought to have been in the AHL playing 18-22 minutes a night in a top line role learning how to be an offensive difference maker in North America. He has some bad habits that need to be fixed like shooting from way too far out on the rush, but he also has solid defensive awareness. I can’t tell you what his ceiling is anymore, but I think he can still turn into a solid top-six winger.
How does this all play out? Do the Oilers make a deal at the deadline and make the playoffs? Or just more a mess?
Anything can happen, but I fail to see how this team makes the playoffs. If they are trading at the deadline it should be as sellers. If they can move salary from next year out while keeping that small core intact then that’s a huge plus. This team is closer to Jack Hughes than they are being a legit playoff team. If that changes then something miraculous happened.

 

Game #54 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs 
Game Time: 5:00PM
TV/Radio: WGN Ch. 9, NHL Network, Sportsnet 1, WGN-AM 720
53rd Parallel: Copper & Blue, Oilers Nation

It’s a slightly earlier start tonight on West Madison to accomodate the western Canadian audiences as the Hawks welcome Connor McDavid and his merry band of pranksters into the UC for their only visit of the year, with both teams capping off a three-in-four weekend stretch yet again, with all of the Oil’s games coming on the road.

Everything Else

That’s all we can say. We had to go through several layers of security to get to him, and then found ourselves in a strange location we would not be able to identify. But he seemed to know what he was talking about, so we went with it. Follow him on Twitter @thescottlewis.

With all the noise about the Oilers, and the constant, fair criticisms of their wingers, how does the fact they may have horribly whiffed on Jesse Puljujarvi get missed?
 
If we flashback to the night of the 2016 Draft, the Oilers landing Puljujarvi at No. 4 was viewed as something of a steal at the time. People were busy laughing at the Blue Jackets taking Dubois with the third pick, which has turned out to be a fine selection for them. In a perfect world for the Oilers, they would be trotting out Matthew Tkachuk or Mikhail Sergachev on a nightly basis right now… but it’s the Oilers, so here we are. I’m not ready to close the door on Puljujarvi quite yet, so I’ll chalk it up to another case of management shitting the bed on development. He might still be something. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably not!
 
Is playing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on a wing really a solution? Because it leaves them short at center. Or is this a “cover your head, your feet are cold, cover your feet your head is cold” kind of situation?
 
Personally, I’d love to see him back at center full-time. BUT… he’s producing and his possession totals are looking pretty good so far. It’s definitely a patch job by the coaching staff, so it would be ideal to address the personnel shortage up front sooner than later if this team is to be taken seriously. We’re taking them seriously, right?
 
People seem to be coming for Leon Draisaitl, because he’s not playing with McDavid anymore. Yet he had the same season last year as the one before where he exclusively played with Run CMD, and is a point per game this year. We missing something?
 
To me, the criticism of Draisaitl is a product of his $8.5-million cap hit. He’s proving capable of carrying his own line, even if the possession metrics are pretty ugly so far this season. Canadian blowhards get worked up very easily when a player gets paid, but it’s hard to argue with the production so far. McDavid-Draisaitl ain’t going to be Crosby-Malkin or even Tavares-Matthews, but it’s as good a 1-2 punch you need when No. 1 is Run CMD.
Was it premature to toss that kind of money at Draisaitl right away? Yes. Was it even in the top-5 of GM Peter Chiarelli’s worst decisions since taking over? Nope. Let the kids play and hope you can alleviate the coming cap crunch by sending Milan Lucic to live on a farm in rural Alberta.
 
Our yearly Darnell Nurse update, please. 
 
I soured on Nurse early in his career and didn’t see a whole lot last season to convince me he was ever going to become the player that Hockey Men continued to project him to be. He’s played over 27 minutes in a couple games so far this season, and in my opinion played his best game of the season in the Oilers’ 4-1 win over the Capitals Thursday night. So there’s that.
He’ll turn 24 this season, so it’s becoming less and less likely we’re going to see a huge step forward. At $3.2 million through next season, his ability to command a big raise will be tied to the club’s success. Bottom line, the Oilers need some pieces to improve, and given the fact that a lot of GMs still evaluate players like the old scouts sitting around the table in Moneyball, Nurse might be the Oilers best trade chip.
 
Ryan Strome will probably never live down being traded for Jordan Eberle. But moving to a third line center role at least sees him crushing it possession-wise so far this year. Maybe this is where he belongs?
 
Strome deserves a break on the Eberle chat, simply because that was a Chiarelli crime. It’s doubly frustrating having listened to GMPC cry about the club’s lack of wingers last season after he traded one of the best players in the league with Taylor Hall and a good second-line guy like Eberle. That said, Strome has looked decent in a third-line role while producing absolutely nothing to this point. Some semblance of production would be nice.

 

Game #12 Preview Suite

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I usually don’t get into the whaling about wasting the career of a generational talent. Connor McDavid will hardly be the first truly great player to not get to play in too many games that matter. This list could go forever. Off the top of my head: Dan Marino, Don Mattingly, Joey Votto, and Mike Trout will probably soon be on this list. Fuck, baseball fans don’t complain as loudly about Trout being on a go-nowhere team in a go-nowhere place, and Trout is like two of McDavids. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED.

Anyway, the Oilers continue to fuck up having the best player of his generation on their team through surrounding him with basically nothing, and that seems like it’s going to continue for another season. Let’s see just how desolate it is.

2017-2018: 36-40-6 76 points  234 GF 263 GA  50.6 CF% 50.8 xGF%  7.4 SH% .917 SV%

Goalies: So when the Oilers faked being a relevant team two years ago, it was basically because Cam And Magic Talbot was really good. .919 overall and a .927 at evens. And he did that while basically starting every game. But you can’t do that to a goalie these days. The game is too fast and takes too much effort. Sure, Grant Fuhr or Martin Brodeur could do it back in the day when your defense was allowed to tackle, rope, and suspend any forward coming through the neutral zone from the rafters without a penalty. You had to make 25 low-pressure saves a night. Not so much anymore.

Talbot paid for that workload last year. He still made 67 starts but dipped to a .908 SV% overall and a .916 at evens. Talbot also saw his medium-danger and high-danger chance SV% drop, perhaps because he was just a tick slower than what he’d been in the past.

And Talbot is 31 now, so it’s not really clear how he’s going to bounce back from 140 combined starts the past two years. 31 isn’t past it as a goalie, but with that workload it just might be.

Backing him up is KHL refugee Mikko Koskinen, who spent the past four seasons backstopping what was clearly the best team in Russia in St. Petersburg. The numbers there are ok to good, but he’s going from a superior team in that league to being behind Kris Russell and Adam Larsson. At least the climate of Edmonton will be familiar to him. Seriously, why would you leave Russia for somewhere just as cold? That’s bad advice right there.

Defense: And this is obviously where the problems start. The Oilers were able to get Darnell Nurse into camp on a two-year bridge deal, so they don’t have that headache. On the flip side, as much as we love his potential and have pined for him on the Hawks for about four years now, he still hasn’t proven to be much more than a second-pairing guy yet. The foot-in-the-ass-of-the-world mercenary that he at times flashes hasn’t materialized full-time yet.

Which leaves the Oilers without a top-pairing d-man. Larsson will never live down “THE TRADE IS ONE-FOR-ONE,” which really has nothing to do with him. He’s a sort of fine middle-pairing guy. So is Matthew Benning. So’s Oscar Klefbom. Kris Russell is a fine second pairing guy on your beer league team. It’s not a complete disaster here but it’s far from good either. There are puck-movers and I suppose if Todd McLellan were inclined he could get-up-and-go through Klefbom, Nurse, and Benning, But his style has always been more conservative than that, and this unit just isn’t going to suppress chances enough to get away with it.

Forwards: Well, in theory this would be the best center-depth in the division. It’s really hard to better McDavid-Draisaitl-RNH down the middle. But the Oilers are so bereft at wing that they usually have to punt one of these guys to the top line wing spots so that Run CMD has anyone to pass to instead of seeing Milan Lucic‘s ogre-gape 50 feet behind him. They’ve added Tobias Rieder and Ty Rattie to the ranks, which is like seasoning your food with compressed air. The best winger on this team might seriously be Drake Caggiula. I don’t know what to tell you. This is a team with the best player in the league and we have to say they’re not going to score enough. How’s that even possible?

Outlook: McLellan generally gets the most out of what he has, though his offensive strategy is a bit boring and plain. It’s a lot of blasts from the point. In a division with the Sharks and Knights and possibly a spikier Flames team, the Oilers need to get out and run, basically. McDavid will get his 100+, Draisaitl will be really good, and RNH will continue to score points no one cares about.

But much like the local outfit, there’s a lot of ifs here. If Talbot can regain the form of two years ago, and if two or more of their young d-men make a huge leap, and if one of their wingers pops off for no reason other than the sense of humor of the gods, the Oilers can scratch out a wildcard spot in a bad division. But they need all of those, and that’s a big ask.

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Detroit Red Wings

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Everything Else

When the Hawks brought Connor Murphy in, he was the presumptive favorite to replace the puck-pocked husk of what was once Niklas Hjalmarsson. And as the season went on, and the Hawks found their heads deeper and deeper in the toilet, the narrative began to range from “the Hawks will need a Top 4 defenseman next year” (true) to “the Hawks really miss Hjalmarsson this year” (categorically false in terms of on-ice performance).

After some early season struggles, a few confounding healthy scratches, and a mostly successful experiment on his off side, Murphy settled in to produce a couple of interesting career highs and team rankings. Let’s kick it.

Connor Murphy

76 GP, 2 Goals, 12 Assists, 14 Points, -3, 34 PIM

53.44 CF% (Evens), 1.2 CF% Rel (Evens), 53.47 SCF% (5v5), 51.57 xGF% (5v5), 2.99 xGF% Rel (5v5)

 50% oZ Start (Evens)

What We Said: Behind Keith and—if you look at him with enough glare from the sun—Seabrook, Murphy is probably the Hawks’s third best D-man. He’s fine if not underwhelming for the price ($3.85 million cap hit), but on the edge of 24, he will need to prove that his numbers really are the result of playing in America’s chafe rather than wasted potential. Given that the Hawks have won three Cups on the backs of their defensemen . . . Murphy will need to develop into a shutdown D-man fast.

What We Got: We’ll start with some numbers (feel free to skip the bullets if all you want is the explanation).

– Murphy posted an even-strength CF% of 53.44, finishing above water for the first time since his rookie year. Of Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games, he finished fourth, behind Franson (59.91), Gustafsson (55.39), and Kempný (53.95). If you bump the minimum threshold up to 40 games, Murphy is your leader in CF% for Hawks D-men.

– His 1.2 CF% Rel was only the second time he’s been in the positives on that ledger (1.0 last year). Of all Hawks defensemen who played at least 20 games, only Franson (9.2), Gustafsson (6.6), and Kempný (1.4) had higher CF% Rels. Again, bumping the threshold up to 40 games, Murphy’s your D-man leader for the Hawks.

– The caveat there is that Franson, Gustafsson, and Kempný started in the offensive zone at respective rates of 65.8%, 57.4%, and 55.4% to Murphy’s 50%.

– Murphy also finished with a High Danger Chances For Percentage (HDCF%) of 48.56. That’s fourth among Hawks D-men with at least 20 games—behind Kempný (52.86), Franson (52.34), and Gustafsson (50.59)—and above the team rate of 47.11. Once again, bumping the threshold to 40 games, Murphy leads all Hawks D-men.

– Murphy finished fourth in Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%; 51.57) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Franson, Kempný, and Gustafsson). When bumped up to 40 games, Murphy was the leader.

– Finally, Murphy finished third in Expected Goals For Percentage Relative (xGF% Rel; 2.99) among Hawks D-men who played at least 20 games (behind Gustafsson and Franson). When bumped to 40 games, he’s the leader again.

All of this is to say that in terms of possession, Murphy was good if not great overall. He was better than the Hawks’s average in terms of giving up high-danger chances, but not great in a vacuum. And when he was on the ice, the Hawks could have expected more goals for than against.

That said, one of Murphy’s glaring weaknesses, especially at the beginning and end of the year, was his struggle to clear the puck in his own zone under pressure.

The above graph, which was tracked by Corey Sznajder, tells us that of these nine Blackhawks, only Brent Seabrook had more failed zone exits per 60 minutes of play. This means that the opposition was more likely to sustain pressure when Murphy had the puck in his own zone, which, of course, tends to lead to more opportunities to score goals. And while these data aren’t comprehensive (only tracked through 38 games), it does give us a good sample size for what’s pretty obvious through the eye test: When Murphy was pressured in his own zone, he sometimes panicked.

While Murphy absolutely must keep his spurs from jingling and jangling in his own zone if he’s going to develop into a true Top 4 shutdown D-man, it’s hard to ignore the carousel of D-men he was jerked around with this year and wonder whether that affected his play.

Murphy played primary time with five different defensemen this year.

All stats 5v5

Given how often he got jerked around, including playing his off side in his 25 games with Seabrook, one thing that stands out is the relative consistency in his possession numbers, aside from Keith. And despite the fact that the Hawks were the seventh worst team in giving up High Danger Chances, Murphy still managed well when away from Oesterle and Keith.

But therein lies the problem: Since the assumption is that Keith takes on the toughest competition (and he usually does), Murphy’s piss-poor numbers with him might suggest that he isn’t a Top 4 guy like Hjalmarsson was.

But this dovetails nicely with the overall point I want to make: The Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade wasn’t the loss for the Hawks some people want to say it is, and having Hjalmarsson over Murphy would have made things worse, not better.

Check out some of Hjalmarsson’s numbers when he played with Keith over his Hawks career:

All Stats 5v5

Like Murphy, Hjalmarsson had a rough go of it in the first 100 or so minutes with Keith, and that was when Keith was starting to go full Oppenheimer on the league. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until Hjalmarsson turned 25 that things really started to click any time he played with Keith, and next year Murphy will be 25.

Clearly, this is simply a coincidence, as raw age will have no effect on how (or whether) Murphy plays with Keith going forward. But this idea that Murphy doesn’t have Top 4 potential because he didn’t play well with a declining Keith over seven games this year is one of the more confusing implications I’ve heard this year.

The last point I’ll make regarding the implication that the Murphy-for-Hjalmarsson trade was a loss for the Hawks and that the Hawks miss Hjalmarsson is this:

Using more of Sznajder’s tracking data, it’s obvious that Murphy brought more to the table for the Hawks than Hjalmarsson did for the Coyotes this year. One of the two things that Hjalmarsson did that was marginally better was in terms of the breakups he caused at the blue line, preventing opponents from entering the zone with possession. (Note: They only tracked Hjalmarsson for 10 games this year against Murphy’s 38, so consider the sample size.)

Going even farther—because I have no sense of moderation whatsoever—even when comparing this year’s Murphy to last year’s Hjalmarsson, the differences aren’t as big as you’d think, mostly:

So even when we recognize and admit that Murphy had trouble with his exits from his own zone, the revisionist history that Hjalmarsson was an indispensable cog whose absence contributed to this year’s downfall doesn’t really hold water. Last year’s Hjalmarsson certainly had a better performance in terms of breakups and the percentage of entries he allowed, but he did it primarily with a not-yet-in-full-decline Duncan Keith covering him (or vice versa). Murphy spent most of his time with the glob of ambergris that is Brent Seabrook.

In short, Murphy had a good year with the Hawks despite his coach’s best efforts to jerk him around, was better than Hjalmarsson would have been, and stayed generally consistent despite spending almost a third of his year on his off side babysitting Seabrook. He’ll never be a game breaker, but he doesn’t have to be.

Where We Go From Here: Connor Murphy ought to open next year next to either Keith or Erik Gustafsson. If the Hawks are going to look at Keith as a Top Pairing Guy next year (they probably shouldn’t), they have to give him someone to cover his ass when his brain says he can make a play but his feet disagree, as we saw more often this year. I’d argue that Murphy, more than Oesterle, is that guy, despite how poorly they played together last year.

Whether you think Gustafsson is a second pairing guy is a conversation for another day (for the record, I can see it if I squint, and I’m willing to try it). But what’s undeniable is that in 135 minutes together at 5v5, Murphy and Gustafsson had a 57+ CF% while starting in the offensive zone at a 49.45% rate. With Murphy and Gustafsson entering their primes at 25 and 26, and each having paper that runs at least through 2020, pairing them might be worth an extended look, but it probably requires outside help to pair with Keith.

If the Hawks manage to sign a guy like John Carlson, or swing a trade for an OEL, Darnell Nurse, Justin Faulk, or maybe Oscar Klefbom, you’ll feel more comfortable about having the new guy and Keith as the top pairing, with Murphy covering Gustafsson. Or, you can pair the new guy with Murphy on the top pairing. This would let Keith slot in the second pairing with some iteration of Gustafsson on his off side, Forsling on his off side, Jokiharju (which is probably too much to ask), or Oesterle, because you know that’s going to happen again, despite our wailing.

Regardless, the Hawks have to saddle Murphy with more responsibility next year, whether they like it or not. The Hawks have a Top-4-potential guy in Murphy, and when he wasn’t getting the runaround, he showed flashes of it last year. Whether they use him that way is anyone’s guess.

All stats from hockey-reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, or corsica.hockey, unless otherwise noted.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Oilers 18-21-3    Hawks 19-15-6

PUCK DROP: 2pm

TV: WGN

ED-WOOD-TON: OilersNation.com

I don’t know who sanctioned a 2pm start, but they’re going to pay. Neither of these teams wants to be out during daylight hours right now. Hell, neither probably wants to be in public. Two teams that had designs on being a lot higher in the standings than they are will make it a lunch today on Madison St. Considering how things have gone for each team recently, a loss today is going to feel closer to terminal than it probably should. Though for the Oilers, it very well might be.

We’ll start with the Oilers, who have had maybe the biggest balls-up of a season this side of the Penguins. Since we last saw them last Friday, they’ve lost to the Jets, Kings, and Stars by a combined score of 15-1, while sneaking in a shootout victory over the Ducks in there. They’re below .500, miles out of a playoff spot, and really looking at the guillotine on this season very soon. They may even already be sellers, or should be, if you could find anyone on an expiring contract that anyone would want. The Chiarelli Panic Trade Countdown is getting awfully low.

It’s not hard to identify where things have gone wrong. One, Cam Talbot just plainly hasn’t been very good, and he’s been especially woeful on the penalty kill. That’s fed into their historically bad PK, which the power play isn’t making up for, and you can’t win games if you have to win at even-strength by two or three goals. It’s not all on Talbot for the penalty kill, however. The Oilers have the worst xGA/60 on the kill of anyone in the league and it isn’t even close. It’s over two goals worse per 60 than the team in 30th. That’s the same gap between 30th and 22nd. They just give up way too many good looks on the kill, and Talbot would have to perform miracles (MIRACLES!) to get through. He’s been quite the opposite, and hence you have this kindergarten recess.

On top of that, the Oilers just don’t have the finish to make their still-exemplary metrics count, as strange as that sounds. Yes, with Draisaitl now playing in the middle they might have the best center-depth in the West. Certainly in the Pacific. And yet with no wingers that you’d piss on if they were on fire, other than maybe Puljujarvi, it’s almost rendered useless. Run CMD can spin all the golden yarn he wants but if he’s waiting five seconds for Milan Lucic to catch up, who the fuck cares? This is a team where a suspension of Pat Maroon actually matters. You don’t want to be that team. Peter Kriss doesn’t even want to be that team.

All this has masked the fact that the defense has actually improved, though still isn’t Final-contender worthy which is where the Oilers had their eyes set before the year. Darnell Nurse has ascended to the top pairing, and you could get away with Adam Larsson there too if you had a really solid second pairing. Andrej Sekera and Matt Benning do not that pair make. Kris Russell is still watching the puck all the time on the third with KLEFBOM KLEFBOM YOU’RE MY KLEFBOM.

For the Hawks, Anton Forsberg will put a pause on the Glass Jeff Experience for a day, and the Hawks really need him to resign that to a footnote on this season. Forsberg has had his moments both ways, but he needs to grab the brass ring with Corey Crawford still in the land of wind and ghosts. There was no other word on lineup changes today, but you could see Jan Rutta come back in because he isn’t doing anyone any good in the pressbox. Then again, that’s the story for Michal Kempny and you know how that goes.

The Stars got their ass rubbed in the moonshine yesterday in Dallas, and Cam And Magic Talbot was pulled early in the 2nd. Whether he turns around or Chicago Rat Hockey Ragdoll Al Montoya gets the start, the Hawks are playing a severely wounded and shaken team here. The Oilers are basically looking for an excuse to down tools, and the Hawks have basically run out of time to get their ass in gear. The game against the Rangers would see this outfit off. A start like Friday’s will give them life. So the choice is simple.

 

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