Oilers can’t afford another basement season

Edmonton Oilers Ryan Smyth (94), Philip Larsen (36) and goalie Ben Scrivens (30) celebrate a win. Jason Franson/CP
March 10, 2014, 8:48 AM

EDMONTON – Hands up if you were surprised by Ales Hemsky’s three-point performance against the Winnipeg Jets over the weekend.

You shouldn’t be.

Hemsky remains a marvelous talent. That much was never in question throughout his 12 years in Edmonton.

No, it was time to move on because the circumstances led them here. Just how long is one expected to ride it out, anyway? Hemsky was a good soldier, but at the age of 30 and with his best years behind him, another year out of the playoffs had taken its toll.

The decision was mutual. Hemsky and the Oilers were “ready” for a trade and there was no talk of an extension leading up to the deadline. In the end, the return was underwhelming – ineffectual, at best and understandably so, in yielding immediate profit.

“The market will bear what the market will bear,” Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said, expressing disappointment in his failure to land the highly coveted second-round pick.

Still, the departed (Hemsky, Nick Schultz and Ilya Bryzgalov) fetched a fair price in what turned out to be a buyer’s market. In sum, MacTavish acquired a third- (2015), fourth- (2014) and a pair of fifth-round picks (2014) for the veteran trio.

(It’s important to note, however, that while these moves helped replenish the Oilers’ stock of draft picks, they still only have one pick in the Top 100 this year.)

Futures, yes, but valuable currency nonetheless. Exhibit A: In a move similar to the acquisition of Ben Scrivens earlier this season, the low, low cost of a magic bean was all it took to pry Viktor Fasth from the Anaheim Ducks less than 24 hours earlier.

That, of course, came on the heels of Scrivens signing a new two-year, $4.6-million extension to remain in Oil Country. After starting the season with the predictably inadequate tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, the Oilers now have one of the strongest goaltending duos in the entire National Hockey League.

Scrivens’ .938 save percentage in 10 games with the Oilers is a testament to that.

That’s a credit to MacTavish and his pro scouting staff, who’ve taken the barbs of a disgruntled fan base year after year – and rightfully so, considering all the ill-fated acquisitions of recent memory. Nikolai Khabibulin, Eric Belanger, Cam Barker and Jerred Smithson immediately come to mind; “non-factors,” at best, as it were.

It seems the times are a-changin’ under the new GM.

The decision to replace Ralph Krueger with Dallas Eakins behind the bench remains a curious one, but is it merely a case of short-term pain for long-term gain?

His myriad faults are well documented, but perhaps that’s a query best saved for another day. What is certain, at this point in time, anyway, is that the decisions on the player personnel side of things are much improved over the vast clutter of years prior.

In trading for the likes of David Perron, the team’s leading goal scorer, Scrivens, Fasth and others, MacTavish has done extremely well – savvy pieces of business targeting cap-strapped and positionally-rich teams forced to part with their depth of quality spares.

He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that, too. But unfortunately for MacTavish, the problems in Edmonton run deeper than that.

Coaching included. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

On Sunday night at Rexall Place, the Los Angeles Kings handed the Oilers (22-35-8) an ugly 4-2 loss. If not for Scrivens and his 46 saves (.920 save percentage), it would have been a blowout. The discreet soliloquy heard in various iterations in and around the Oilers dressing room after the game: “The effort was there.” Indeed, the bar is that low.

“He’s definitely what I think this team needed here in Edmonton,” Scrivens’ former teammate, Jonathan Quick, said. “He consistently gives you a solid game and gives you a chance to win every night. Look at tonight – we put 50 shots on him.”

Scrivens has faced an average of 39.5 shots per game in his last seven starts and continues to lead the league in save percentage.

“We had struggles in our net early (this season),” Eakins said. “Those young men (Dubnyk and LaBarbera) were doing their damnedest to get out of it, but there were a lot of nights that we played well enough to win and it didn’t happen. When that happens, it takes away from the confidence of your team. It puts a question mark on what you’re trying to teach as a new staff. There was no reward when we played well.

“What’s happened here as of late, we’re getting the timely saves – and we’re getting them on even those nights when we haven’t played that well. It’s been huge for us.”

Huge doesn’t even begin to describe it. In more accurate terms, the incredible goaltending – while spectacular – is only masking the deficiencies of a 29th-place team barely scraping by.

The next, most difficult and critical step of them all: improving the blue line.

What we – oh-so-painfully – know today is that the present core of Jeff Petry, Martin Marincin, Andrew Ference, Justin Schultz, Mark Fraser and Philip Larsen isn’t close to being good enough. Petry and Marincin would likely make a suitable second pairing, meaning the Oilers have glaring holes in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions.

Potential, there’s plenty. The development of Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom sure is promising, but there are no guarantees. Aaron Ekblad might help, should the Oilers choose to go that route at June’s NHL Entry Draft, but all three are young, inexperienced, and a few years away from reaching their full potential.

Questions, questions, and none of them get any easier. MacTavish will have to be perfect the rest of the way.

The challenges of the upcoming off-season will be immense – and the Oilers organization can ill-afford another season like this.

The rebuild depends on it.

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